Obviously, the Steelers are privy to the level of talent the Lions possess and just what a threat they have become in recent seasons. Perhaps the greatest threat is the stakes for Detroit; consider that the Lions have never led the NFC North past Week 10 post-realignment (2002), and they haven't been first in the division this far into a campaign since 1999.
Obviously, being a mere game ahead of both the Bears and Packers in the standings, Michigan's finest will have no shortage of motivation to win at Heinz Field. So, though it may sound cliché, the fact remains that all phases of the Steelers game will need to execute to have success.
That's certainly easier said than done going up against the likes of rejuvenated Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson, averaging over 100 yards per game, and Matthew Stafford's third-ranked passing offense. Luckily, I'm not Dick LeBeau, nor am I responsible for examining the recipe for success on defense this coming Sunday afternoon. Phew!
However, as the title would suggest, this article focuses on the offense, meaning my sigh of relief may be premature. After all, the unit's performance has been plagued by mistakes, predictability, lack of execution, low-ranking statistics and a lack of scoring.
So, just fix all of that and all will be sublime, right? Competing against a defense that features Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on the line certainly throws a monkey wrench into this glorious plan for improvement.
One benefit the offense could have come Sunday is the potential absence or at least hobbling of Detroit rookie defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, a player whose talent showcased at BYU caused many to wonder whether the Steelers would potentially draft him. "Ziggy" ranks second on the Lions defense with three sacks, trailing only Suh's 4.5 quarterback takedowns. He also has a penchant for dislodging the football from the opposing quarterback's grasp, and Big Ben has been nothing if not turnover prone this season.
The absence (or, in the case of his playing, ankle injury) of Ansah should help Pittsburgh's tackle, likely Marcus Gilbert, who will be on an island at the edge. The tackles' only assistance on either side will mostly be limited to backs and tight end chipping in on the block. The interior offensive line will have to focus its full attention against a fearsome Detroit interior, comprised of the aforementioned Suh and Fairley.
Asking for such a mix-and-match offensive line, a unit ravaged by injuries, to continue their progress from last week against the Bills is certainly overzealous. The line's best player, center Maurkice Pouncey, was injured on the team's first offensive possession of Week 1, replaced by Fernando Velasco, an immediate downgrade. Likewise, Ramon Foster hurt his ankle, and he may need to be replaced by Guy Whimper (a fitting last name in a season of trench turmoil!).
Adding to what surely sounds like a death sentence is an offensive line that ranks abysmally in quality measures. Football Outsiders ranks the unit 25th in run blocking, while Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 35 times so far this season, nearly four times per game! Accounting for an additional four sacks in each of the Steelers' final seven games, one can project 63 total sacks of Big Ben. While some of those are the byproduct of his refusal to surrender on any plays coupled with his desire to make plays down the field, Ben's elusiveness and size have certainly negated many would-be sacks to counteract this.
Advantage: Detroit? Surely. However, the edge may not be as stark as you think!
Indeed, the task against an aggressive Detroit defensive front it isn't impossible, as one must be cautious not to be so awestruck by the opposing talent and overall numbers as to miss the bigger picture. First and foremost, while the Lions have mixed up their pressure packages, often inverting their tackles and ends inside-out in an effort to create pressure, they are not a heavy blitzing team. While the Lions may increase their blitz packages going up against a makeshift offensive front, it would be somewhat unfamiliar territory for them. This could minimize any confusion in assignments naturally caused by inexperience and unfamiliarity upfront.
Besides, while their names and reputations may make them seem like gangbusters in the pass rush, the truth is that the Lions have struggled to get sacks just like the Steelers, with Suh and Ansah leading the charge with five combined sacks. Those are not intimidating numbers to coincide with what is intimidating talent.
Putting aside schemes and tendencies, one must also be careful not to inflate their perception of the Lions' defensive statistics. At first glance, an overview of run defense rankings reveals that Detroit is in the top fourth of the league in terms of rushing yards allowed. However, the unit has allowed 4.5 yards per run, among the worst averages surrendered in the NFL. Despite his notoriety, it is a commonly understood point of contention against Suh's game that he is far better as a pass rusher than run stopper. That said, he continues to show improvement as he continually evolves into a both dominant and balance tackle.
The willingness of offenses to forego the run against Detroit is easy to explain: they would much rather attack the Lions' secondary, the perceived weakness of their squad. Still, the Lions can be run on. The offensive line, beleaguered as it may be, can certainly open running lanes for Le'Veon Bell and company. Nevertheless, the Steelers haven't fared that well in the trenches against the game's "bigs." At times, it will be up to Bell to either hit the hole quickly or manufacture yards by using his combination of power, speed, and agility to bounce outside when opportunity presents itself.
While the Steelers had success running the football against the Bills, it is important to note that Buffalo ranks 30th in the NFL with 1,173 rushing yards allowed. Can the offensive line handle a greater challenge this Sunday? It is important that they embrace the opportunity, as the impact of an anemic rushing attack has had a dual negative effect on the Pittsburgh offense: red zone efficiency.
Anemia in the "gold zone" is glaring weakness. It has been overlooked this season amidst a whirlwind of other concerns, but it must be addressed in order to defeat the Lions. In their victories, Pittsburgh has kicked 11 field goals and scored three touchdowns. That disparity, indicative of an inability to finish drives, must be avoided against Detroit. After all, Matthew Stafford and company are difficult enough to simply contain, and it is unrealistic to believe they won't have an impact on the scoreboard.
Red-zone offense continues haunt the Steelers, and I believe the major cause is the lack of a running game. With so much of the offense's productivity coming from the passing game, receiving targets Antonio Brown, Jericho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Heath Miller, etc. have proven their ability to make plays in the open field and produce yards after the catch. With so much open field between the 20's, life outside the red zone has been far more friendly for the offense, which ranks 15th in yards and 11th in passing yards.
However, they rank 25th in total scoring despite having a better-than-average number of trips into the "Heinz Red Zone." Their 44.8% touchdown rate inside the 20-yard line is paltry. Not having to honor the run, defenses are able to focus on the Steelers' passing game. With the field more congested in the red zone, the elusiveness of Big Ben's targets, particularly the sure-handed and lightning-quick Antonio Brown, is far more negated.
Shifting the focus to the Lions secondary, the clear emphasis has to be the ability of the Steelers to keep their franchise quarterback protected. Absent a running game, Pittsburgh has put much of the responsibility for the offense on Big Ben's shoulders. The combination of offensive (im)balance, poor pass blocking and scoreboard deficits has created a whirlwind of pressure on No. 7 to carry the squad and unfair circumstances have certainly resulted in inconsistency for Roethlisberger.
The good news is that if the Steelers can keep Ben upright, the Lions secondary can be exposed by Pittsburgh's receivers.
The importance of insulating Ben from unnecessary hits is magnified this weekend, considering Suh's oft-scrutinized and often penalized (at least, financially) penchant for questionable plays. Roethlisberger's health, particularly his mobility in a pocket that far too often collapses, is vital on an offense that depends on his ability to ad lib.
IF (capital letters necessary) Roethlisberger can keep two feet on the ground, albeit in the pocket or scrambling about the perimeter of the field, Detroit's secondary statistics do reveal both a strength and weakness.
Most obvious, their pass defense ranks 27th in yards allowed. Beware volume statistics like yardage, as they do not tell the entire story. The actual performance of the defense, particularly considering the high volume of pass attempts they've faced, is certainly better than a ranking of 27th. They've fared slightly higher on average, but the totals are still mediocre at best. The defensive backfield surrenders 7.4 yards per attempt (20th), and they rank 16th in both completion percentage and passing touchdowns allowed. Opposing quarterbacks have earned an 84.2 passer rating against the Lions (15th).
Certainly, plays are available to be made in the passing game. However, Detroit ranks among the best teams in football with 11 interceptions. Unfortunately, with such pressure on his shoulders on a losing team, Roethlisberger has far too often forced passes.
Linebacker DeAndre Levy has shown great two-way play for the Lions, particularly in the passing game where he leads the team with five picks. Likewise, the Lions are 2-0 in games in which safety Glover Quin intercepts the ball.
At cornerback, Rashean Mathis should cause a shiver to go down the spines of the Steelers faithful. Mathis leads his peers in the secondary with 10 passes defensed. While he hasn't forced a turnover in the defensive backfield, "yinzers" will remember Mathis as one of the great "Steeler Killers" during his time in Jacksonville. Hopefully, Sunday won't rekindle the corner's fond memories against the Black and Gold.
The Lions aren't the only obstacle that the offense will have to overcome. Bad habits will also need to be avoided in order to have a successful weekend. Drive-killing penalties, inopportune turnovers, and generally predictable offensive play-calling will all need to be remedied this Sunday and beyond if the team is to make an unexpected and miraculous turnaround. The first two may be the most critical of those three elements, as they are most associated with discipline.