By Daniel Benjamin
The Steelers are rolling. Pittsburgh will look to close out the first half of the 2017 season on a high note with a win against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 29.
Detroit (3-3) is coming off their bye week on a two-game losing streak. The Lions’ fourth quarter comeback attempt came up a little short in their 27-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 5. Then the New Orleans Saints returned two interceptions for touchdowns as they downed the Lions 52-38 in Week 6.
The Steelers have won four straight meetings against the Lions to give them a 16-14-1 edge in the series. This game marks just the fifth time the combatants have met this century, with the last time being Nov. 17, 2013.
Lions on Offense
Detroit has struggled on the offensive side of the ball this year, which has been the case in the recent past. The Lions are averaging 26.8 points a game, which is the eighth most in the league. However, the offense has generated just 14 of their 19 touchdowns. The Lions rank 26th in total offense at 298.0 yards per game and are 30th in the league in yards per play at 4.6.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford is in the midst of his worst season in the last three years. Stafford has struggled mightily in October, completing 56.8% of his passes (67-of-118) for 250 yards per game to go along with five touchdowns and three interceptions. For the season, Stafford is averaging 237.0 yards a game on 60% completion percentage along with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Lions running attack has been virtually nonexistent all season long. The Lions are 26th in the league with 86.0 rushing yards a game as they have accumulated over 100 yards on the ground only once through their first six games. Ameer Abdullah has gotten 68.1% of the team’s carries, though he is getting just 15 carries a game.
Leading receiver Golden Tate is dealing with a shoulder injury and is not expected to suit up against the Steelers. That leaves Marvin Jones Jr. as the team’s top pass catcher. Jones, who has 20 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns, has been inconsistent this year. Jones is the Lions’ big play receiver, producing 14 yards a reception, as he has five receptions of 20-plus yards and three touchdowns—all team highs.
A major reason for the Lions’ offensive troubles has been the poor play of their offensive line. Their offensive line ranks 32nd in run blocking and 29th in pass protection. The Lions’ offensive line struggles are due to their lack of continuity; only right tackle Rick Wagner and left tackle Greg Robinson have started each of the first six games at their original positions.
Lions on Defense
Detroit is much improved on the defensive side of the ball, even if the stats don’t necessarily indicate that. The Lions have given up 24.8 points a game, the fifth most in the league, as the opposition has crossed the goal line 18 times—though four of those touchdowns have come following turnovers by the offense (i.e. defensive touchdowns). So, technically speaking, the Lions defense has given up a little over 20 points per game, which is about league average.
The Lions rank 19th in total defense, allowing 338.5 yards a game, though their 5.5 yards per play is the 11th-worst in the league. They are 24th against the run, giving up 94.3 yards a game. The Lions are 22nd against the pass as they are allowing over 244 yards through the air.
On the plus side, the Lions have forced 14 turnovers–nine interceptions and five fumbles recoveries. The defense has also recorded 13 sacks and scored three touchdowns, all on interception returns.
Players to watch: Jamal Agnew and Glover Quin
Jamal Agnew, an undrafted rookie, is perhaps the most dangerous punt returner in the game. Agnew has returned two punts for touchdowns and leads the NFL with 23.7 yards per attempt. He has four punt returns that have gone for 20-yards or more and two that have gone for 40-plus yards. Agnew has also returned five kicks for 90 yards.
Safety Glover Quin is one of the Lions’ top defensive playmakers. The 2014 hard-hitting Pro Bowler is second on the team with 32 tackles, 25 of which are of the solo variety. Quin also has two interceptions, four pass defensed and two forced fumbles. He returned an interception 37-yards for a touchdown against Atlanta in Week 3.
Outcome: Steelers 24, Lions 14
Pittsburgh, coming off two impressive victories, is playing its best football of the season. The Steelers have racked up over 850 yards of total offense the past two weeks as Le’Veon Bell has picked up his production on the ground, as well as a pass receiver. Bell has accumulated over 300 yards on the ground and 383 total scrimmage yards in the last two games.
Detroit has several playmakers in its secondary, so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to be on target with his passes against this opportunistic defense. The Lions have given up several big plays to receivers.
The key for the Steelers will be to keep feeding Bell as they have the last few weeks; Pittsburgh is 12-0 when Bell gets 25 carries a game.