PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Detroit Lions are in sole possession of first place this late in the season for the first time in 14 years and have a parade of mostly losing teams left on their schedule.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those opponents with a sub-.500 record, but their stellar pass defense has certainly caught the attention of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
The Lions are also winless in their last nine trips to Pittsburgh and will try to end that slide Sunday against a Steelers team seeking a third straight home victory.
Detroit (6-3) took control of the NFC North with a 21-19 victory at Chicago last Sunday, moving one game ahead of the Bears and Green Bay. Seeking their first division title in 20 years, the Lions are in first this late in the season for the first time since they led the NFC Central after Week 10 in 1999.
“Being successful in this league is dealing with adversity and bouncing back, but it’s increasingly becoming part of the scope of the NFL to deal with praise and to deal with the accolades and things like that,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “It makes it difficult to stay level headed. It makes it difficult to stay even keeled throughout the course of a season.”
The only team with a current winning record left on Detroit’s schedule is Green Bay, which may not have Aaron Rodgers for that Thanksgiving matchup.
Much of the credit for the Lions’ success goes to Stafford and Johnson. The quarterback is fourth in the NFL in TD passes (19) and yards (2,836) while Johnson is first in receiving yards per game (113.0) and tied for second in touchdown receptions with nine.
The Steelers (3-6) know they will see more of Johnson than they did the last time these teams met in Pittsburgh’s 28-20 victory Oct. 11, 2009. Johnson had only a two-yard reception before leaving with a right knee injury.
“Johnson needs no endorsement from me,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He is the best wide receiver in the game and one of the best football players period regardless of position in the game of professional football.
“He’s got over 900 yards receiving, he’s got nine touchdowns through nine games. You can talk about ways to minimize his impact on the game, people, coverages, all of that’s been done through nine games this year and he’s still at about 100 yards per game and a touchdown per game. Obviously we’re going to take our swing at it.”
The Lions are wary of a Pittsburgh defense that is limiting opponents to 201.3 passing yards per game to tie for the league’s fourth-best mark. The Steelers held Buffalo to an opponent season-low 227 total yards in last Sunday’s 23-10 victory.
“Their defense is playing well,” Stafford said. “They still have playmakers. They have guys that can get after the passes, guys that can pick it off. (Troy) Polamalu is still a big time playmaker. Got to be mentally ready for this game.”
The Steelers won’t have rookie safety Shamarko Thomas, out with a high ankle sprain. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s status was downgraded to doubtful due to a left calf injury, but he’s still holding out hope to play. Defensive end Brett Keisel is also questionable due to a foot injury as both missed practice Friday.
Being short-handed would pose new challenges for Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose entire playing career between 1959-72 was with Detroit.
“They have a lot of different looks,” Stafford said. “Their coordinator is a great coordinator. Been a coordinator in this league for a long time and does a great job.”
Detroit’s last victory in Pittsburgh dates to before LeBeau’s time with the club. The Lions have lost eight straight on the road in this series and also played a 10-10 tie there in 1959 since a 31-28 victory in the Steel City in 1955.
Pittsburgh brushed aside a bit of a distraction during last weekend’s win when Ben Roethlisberger refuted a report that he would ask for a trade in the offseason.
“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “It is one of the most (untrue) stories that I’ve ever heard of. I’ve always said that I want to be a Steeler for life. I love it here. I’m happy here.”
Roethlisberger’s 87.6 passer rating is his lowest in five seasons and he managed 204 yards passing against the Bills for his third-lowest total of the season. He has been sacked 35 times for the NFL’s second-highest total.
The Steelers have shown signs of improvement with a running game that has topped 100 yards in three of their last four games. They still own the league’s sixth-worst rushing attack at 80.6 yards per game as they face a Detroit front that features defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and has held its last three opponents to a combined 157 yards running and 2.5 per attempt.
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