The Lions came into Sunday night's game having lost two straight in part because their offense sputtered early in games. In fact, since their 52-38 Week 6 loss to New Orleans in which the Lions trailed 31-10 at halftime, they have been outscored 37-17 in the first quarter and 55-45 in the second quarter this season. That goes a long way in explaining why their offense ranked 23rd through the first seven weeks.
The prospects of turning that around against the Steelers' top-ranked defense looked slim. But a funny thing happened. Detroit led 12-10 at the break and the offense marched up and down the field at will -- right up until the moment they reached Pittsburgh's goal line.
When it was over, Matthew Stafford had thrown for a season-best 423 yards and didn't commit a turnover. Unfortunately, he had as many touchdown passes we did, even though the Lions had two second-half drives that made it to the Steelers' 1-yard line, and another that got to the Steelers' 6-yard line. How bad was it?
On five second-half drives, the Lions punted just once, yet only came away with a field goal.— Jeremy Bergman (@JABergman) October 30, 2017
It gets worse:
And worse still:
The Lions' 482 yards tonight were the third-most in NFL history for a team that failed to score a touchdown.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) October 30, 2017
When the final whistle blew, the Steelers had escaped with a 20-15 win to move to 6-2, and the Lions had dropped their third straight game, mostly because of self-inflicted wounds.
Jim Caldwell has some explaining to do
We'd like to imagine Lions coach Jim Caldwell had a good explanation for why he decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the Steelers' 1-yard line with 4:31 left in the third quarter and his team trailing, 13-12. But we also wouldn't be shocked if he said he blacked out and didn't remember anything that happened after halftime. That would provide some comfort, at least in the sense that the man didn't purposely decide to go for it.
But he did, the Steelers' defense sacked Stafford, and the Lions' evening was about to get a lot worse.
JuJu is the new Martavis
On the next series -- and one play after Ben Roethlisberger inexplicably airmailed a wide open Jesse James, the Steelers' quarterback found a streaking JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 97-yard pitch-and-catch.
Not only was that the longest pass play in Steelers history, Smith-Schuster also broke the record for most touchdowns for a player under the age of 21:
If Caldwell opts for the field goal, not only do the Lions take the lead but Smith-Schuster doesn't put his 10-speed in gear for the touchdown.
Smith-Schuster, the Steelers' 2017 second-round pick, led all receivers on the night; he finished with seven catches for 193 yards and the aforementioned score. He also had the game-clinching reception -- a shovel pass, no less -- that allowed the Steelers to run out the clock on what proved to be the final drive.
More Caldwell mysteriousness
Following the Smith-Schuster score, the Lions marched back down the field, again making it all the way to the Steelers' 1-yard line. This time, however, Caldwell sent out the field-goal team on fourth down, cutting the lead to 20-15. If you're of the opinion that the Lions would miss those three points they passed up on the previous drive, you would be correct.
Because after forcing the Steelers to punt on back-to-back drives, Stafford had the Lions on Pittsburgh's 8-yard line with two minutes left. But instead of a chip-shot field goal to take a 21-20 lead, Detroit trailed by five points and had to go for it. The ball fell incomplete, the Steelers took over on downs, and several plays later, the game was over.
Credit to the Steelers' defense too
"Bend but don't break" was in full effect on Sunday night. The Steelers' defense had been dominant in recent wins over the Chiefs and Bengals, but Stafford, who had struggled to stay upright in previous games, was relatively well protected against Pittsburgh's pass rushers. And he made them pay in the middle of the field -- tossing lasers to receivers, both wide open and well covered.
But for all the attention given Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, it's been that physical, fast defense that has previously kept Pittsburgh in games they may have otherwise lost. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is one of the NFL's most dynamic young defenders, but the same can be said for Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Sean Davis and Artie Burns.
Collectively, this group came into Sunday's matchup ranked second against the pass and 12th against the run. The Steelers allowed 411 net passing yards against Stafford, but only 71 net rushing yards -- and, obviously, kept Detroit out of the end zone. But for the first time in a long time, Pittsburgh's defense isn't a liability. And they're doing it without James Harrison, which is something they haven't been able to say for pretty much the entirety of this century.
Le'Veon Bell had a relatively quiet evening ...
... but that doesn't mean the Steelers shouldn't continue to lean on him. For starters, Roethlisberger isn't the player he once was. He's missing wide-open receivers with some regularity, and Bell is the counterbalance that keeps defenses in check. In the team's previous two games -- a stretch that coincides with the Steelers' two best performances of the year -- Bell averaged 33.5 carries for 156.5 yards. In Detroit, he had 25 carries for 76 yards (with a long of eight yards), and arguably the best touchdown celebration of the season:
Following his second-quarter touchdown run, Bell took part in an impromptu workout session, complete with a few bench presses, courtesy of a bench made out of Smith-Schuster.
The intricacies of well-planned touchdown celebrations are a good problem to have. And for the Steelers, this is the first time since 2011 they're 6-2 at the midway point of the season. Of course, that team finished 12-4 before losing to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the wild-card round. The lesson: Pittsburgh needs to keep winning and get home-field advantage.
The Steelers head into their bye tied for the best record in the AFC, along with the Patriots. They'll face New England in Week 15, but until then, the Steelers needs to keep pace with the Pats to guarantee they'll have a first-round bye. The Lions, meanwhile, just had their bye. Now 3-4, they'll travel to Green Bay to face the 4-3 Packers next Monday night.