By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers are off to their best start through Week 8 of the NFL season in seven years.
Pittsburgh improved to 6-2 on the season after fending off the Detroit Lions (3-4), 20-15, at Ford Field on Sunday night. With the victory, the Steelers enter their bye week on a three-game winning streak.
For the fifth straight week, the Steelers accumulated at least 370 yards of total offense. But as has been the case this entire year, they failed to convert their opportunities into touchdowns. Offensively, the Steelers have not reached the end zone more than twice in the last four games, and they have accomplished the feat just once this year overall.
The Steelers did a good job moving the ball down the field as they had several big plays. Where they didn’t help themselves were with turnovers (two) and in the red zone, where they capitalized on only one of their three chances. The Steelers rank 30th in the league in red zone scoring, reaching the end zone 41.38 percent of the time they have gotten inside the opponents’ 20. That number has dropped to less than 28 percent over the last three games.
On the positive side of things, the Steelers were 7-of-14 on third down.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed several open receivers, overthrowing Antonio Brown badly on the interception. He finished with a season-high 317 yards, but most of those yards came after the catch. Roethlisberger completed a season-low 54.8 (17-of-31) percent of his passes, yet his 10.2 yards per attempt was a season high.
Rookie Juju Smith-Schuster was the star of the game, compiling career-highs with seven receptions for 193 yards and one touchdown. He made several big plays to go along with one dropped pass. His biggest play came when he shaked and baked by his defender and raced to the end zone after catching one of Roethlisberger’s best throws of the game. The 97-yard score was the 20-year-old’s fourth touchdown of the season, setting an NFL record for most touchdowns for a player under the age of 21.
On Sunday night, the Steelers defense put the “bend-but-don’t break” theory to test. They permitted a season-high 482 total yards on offense with 411 of those yards generated through the air. Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 27-of-45 passes. The Steelers came into the game allowing a league-low 147 passing yards per game.
There are a couple of reasons that Stafford was so successful against the No. 1 pass defense in the league. First, Stafford was well protected. Second, he made several outstanding throws. Granted, there were some blown coverages and several missed tackles along the way.
But in the end, the defense hunkered down and came up with big plays. While Pittsburgh technically only forced one turnover—a “gift” fumble by Golden Tate that cornerback Artie Burns recovered—they prevented the Lions from converting either of their fourth down and goal to goal attempts. One of the Lions’ failures was due to outstanding defensive pass coverage. The other was a result of the Steelers collapsing the pocket and defensive end Tyson Alualu sacking Stafford as he stepped up in the pocket.
Special Teams: B
Chris Boswell finished the game with eight points. Boswell, who was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts, has now made 11 straight kicks, although he got lucky with his last field goal attempt of the game, knocking the 38-yarder off the right upright and having it drop through the goal posts.
Punter Jordan Berry, who ranks 30th in the league in net punting yards, had one of his best games of the season. Berry pinned the Lions inside the 20 twice on his four attempts. The Steelers’ kick return game was once again non-existent.
The Steelers mixed things up well with the offensive and defensive play calling.
On the first play of the game, the Steelers executed a well-devised play that resulted in a 41-yard pass play to Smith-Schuster after Roethlisberger faked a screen pass to Brown. The Steelers also allowed Roethlisberger to throw several balls down the field despite his penchant to be inaccurate on those throws this year.
Defensively, the Steelers mixed their coverage well and got pressure on Stafford when needed. Yes, there were blown assignments and bad defensive play calls, but when the team needed to, they stepped up.
A big decision that perhaps changed the momentum of the game in favor of the Steelers occurred early in the third quarter. After the Steelers defense forced the Lions three-and-out on their opening possession of the second half, they got pressure on punter Sam Martin. While Pittsburgh did not block the kick, the pressure caused Martin to rush a little and he booted the ball off the side of his foot, resulting in a 19-yard punt. The Steelers turned the good field position into three points as they took a 13-12 lead.
The Steelers currently sit on top of the AFC playoff standings as they hold a tie-breaking advantage over the New England Patriots (6-2) and Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) due to their 4-1 record against conference foes. The Steelers will travel to Indianapolis to face the struggling Colts (2-6), who have lost three straight, on Nov. 11.