The first-place Detroit Lions head to Pittsburgh to face the last-place Steelers in what figures to be a telling matchup for both teams.
What: Detroit Lions (6-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6)
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
When: Sunday, Nov. 17, 1 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox, check local listings
Pittsburgh has won three of its past five after starting the season 0-4. It's worth noting it also lost every game in the preseason.
The Steelers lead the all-time series with Detroit 15-14-1, but it's been a tale of two runs. The Lions won the pre-Super Bowl era portion of the series 12-5-1. Keep in mind those Steelers teams had just six winning seasons between 1933 and 1971.
Pittsburgh has come up victorious in 10 of the past 12 meetings, which dates back to 1967. Detroit has not won in Pittsburgh since Nov. 13, 1955. That was the day Whoopi Goldberg was born.
Pittsburgh won the last meeting back in 2009. Detroit's last win in the series was on Thanksgiving of 1998 when Charlie Batch outdueled Kordell Stewart in a 19-16 game stuffed with seven field goals.
These are not your father's Steelers. They're not even your older brother's Steelers. They are legitimately 3-6, a year after they lost five of their last seven games.
This is a winnable game for Detroit, even in Pittsburgh. In fact, I would argue this is a game the Lions should expect to win. The experts in Las Vegas agree; the Lions are 2.5-point favorites at Covers.com despite being the road team.
Here are a couple of ways the Lions can secure the first victory since Dwight Eisenhower's first term as President.
Have the Bigger Bell
One of the keys to Pittsburgh's recent winning ways has been a resurgent rushing attack. Rookie Le'Veon Bell has played a big part in that uptick.
Lions fans likely recall Bell from his Sparty days in East Lansing. The second-round pick from Michigan State has put up impressive numbers in their past three games in odd weeks.
It's an odd pattern for Bell. Check out his past six contests:
|New York Jets, win||16||34||3||22|
|New England, loss||16||74||4||65|
He keeps alternating weeks, vacillating between powerfully effective and essentially useless. The Lions need to break the pattern.
Snuffing out the run early is the best way to stymie the Steelers offense. As Will Graves of Associated Press notes:
And for the Steelers, it’s not how you finish so much as how you start. Pittsburgh is averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the first half of the games it has won and just 3.2 yards per carry in the opening half in the games it has not.
The Lions are certainly trending in the right direction to make that happen. As I noted, heading into the Cincinnati game in Week 7, Detroit ranked 29th in rushing yards per game allowed. Four games later, they have improved to eighth.
Furthermore, Detroit has the stingiest run defense in the league over the past three games, per TeamRankings.com (click on the column headers to sort). Even though it still ranks 25th overall, in the past three weeks Detroit once again tops the league in yards per attempt allowed.
If the Lions can crash the line of scrimmage the way they did against Chicago, with Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy quickly filling any holes and making sound tackles, the Steelers are in trouble. Their offensive line is not close to as good as Chicago's, and the Lions just dominated the Bears at the line.
It would be a major victory if Detroit's Joique Bell could at least match Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell in the productivity department.
That is something that absolutely can happen, even with Bell's more limited touches. Scroll down from Detroit in the "Last 3" column on the TeamRankings.com listing for yards per rush allowed. Go ahead, keep searching down. You will find the Steelers at 27th, surrendering 5.1 yards per carry in the past three weeks.
Bell has just 31 rushes over the past five games, but he's made the most of them. Bell is averaging 4.7 yards per carry in that time. His hard-charging style and ability to break tackles should make him a very effective weapon against Pittsburgh's defense.
Exploit Troy Polamalu
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has been one of the best defensive playmakers in the game over the past decade. His propensity for impact plays has earned him seven Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pro honors.
Yet those years have clearly taken a toll. His reputation is writing checks that his body can no longer reliably cash.
One of the things which made Polamalu great, aside from his famous flowing mane, was his uncanny ability to guess right. He gambles a lot, straying from positional assignment more than any football player should ever be allowed.
When he guesses right, you get plays like this leaping sack of Jake Locker in Week 1. Even though injuries and Father Time have slowed him, Polamalu still has the capability to make the amazing happen.
But he doesn't always guess right. These days, when he's wrong he no longer has the athletic prowess, or the supporting cast around him, to recover. Here is a prime example from their loss to Minnesota.
Polamalu (circled in blue) stalks forward and is standing directly over the center at the snap. The goal appears to be to show blitz and pressure Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel to get rid of the ball quickly. By doing so, Polamalu is gambling that he can read the play and get into position before the offense can pick up on his guise.
Cassel sees the mismatch in his trips formation to his right, where there are just two defensive backs. He also sees the gigantic uncovered area where Polamalu would normally be, indicated in the picture with the giant X.
The hirsute safety immediately peels back, as does outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (No. 56). They are dropping backward into coverage against wide receivers running full speed ahead. Advantage, offense.
Polamalu compounds the advantage with poor technique. Instead of opening himself toward the three receivers, he instead drops while facing the tight end on the other side. As you can see, that player is already well-covered by two other Steelers.
Polamalu is running an impromptu triple-team on a tight end instead of covering one of two slot receivers down the field. Woodley can only carry his mark so far down the field, and by the time Polamalu realizes where he should be, it's too late.
Cassel finds a wide open Jerome Simpson down the seam. No Steeler is within five yards in any direction, but the point where he caught the ball is almost exactly where a "normal" safety would rotate to in coverage in that situation.
I found several other instances where Polamalu completely destroys his own team's cover scheme by improvising. If you subscribe to NFL Game Rewind, watch their game versus New England. Three of Tom Brady's four touchdown passes came as a direct result of Polamalu being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It used to be that the Steelers could afford those misses because fellow safety Ryan Clark was always reliable. Clark epitomized the literal definition of his job title.
But Clark too has fallen off, perhaps more dramatically than Polamalu. The symbiotic interplay between those two, once a critical key to Pittsburgh's defensive success, has broken down. So have their bodies; Clark is 34, Polamalu is 32 and both look every second of their ages.
In the above example, notice Clark dropping too deep instead of making a choice on a receiver. He needs to shrink that throwing window, but he's too passive. With fourth-round rookie Shamarko Thomas out with an injury, they have to roll with the old.
Matthew Stafford is a smart enough quarterback to exploit those situations. He also has the strong arm that it takes to fit the ball into those windows Polamalu and his mates are trying to close on the fly.
There is a good chance that Polamalu will make one spectacular play in the course of Sunday's game. The Lions must not get discouraged when that happens, because he and Clark will give one or more back at some point too.
Keep Rewriting History
These Lions have proved capable of doing things which no other Lions team has ever done before.
No Detroit team had ever won in Washington, a string dating back to the early 1930s. These Lions broke that dubious string with a 27-20 win back in Week 3.
No Detroit team has been in first place this late in the season since the NFC North was formed. These Lions seized first place last week by vanquishing the Bears in Chicago.
Lions haven't been in 1st place in the division after Week 10 since 1999. Never been atop the NFC North this late since realignment in 2002.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) November 11, 2013
No wide receiver in NFL history had ever topped 325 receiving yards in a four-quarter game. Calvin Johnson did that in Week 8 against Dallas, going for 329.
No quarterback in Lions history has ever thrown for more yards than Bobby Layne's 15,710 from 1950-58. Matthew Stafford will surpass Layne sometime early in this game. He stands 67 yards shy in just his fifth season.
To break the 58-year-old losing steak in Pittsburgh, these Lions need to draw upon the mental toughness which has allowed them to achieve so much unprecedented success this year.
It was music to my ears when Jim Schwartz downplayed any playoff talk in his Monday press conference. He is right to keep the team focused on one game, and only one game.
When adversity strikes in this game—and it's Pittsburgh, therefore adversity will strike—these Lions must stay positive and focused on the task at hand. They are the better team, but they need to prove it by not succumbing to mistakes or letting one bad play snowball into a bad series of events.
The Detroit Lions have only been 7-3 three times in the past 20 years. All three times, they made the playoffs. These Lions have the chance to make history. Here's hoping the rewriting of the years of disappointment continues.