Steelers Opponent Preview: The Detroit Lions

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Homer’s pony (photo via Steelers.com)

Another week, another jump in the standings for the Steelers, and more upward movement in the opinion of the Power Rankers and statisticians and so on. In the meantime, the Steelers’ opponent is, well, not exactly reeling, but they have lost twice in the last three games, one of them at home, and seem firmly mired in mediocrity at 3-3.

On the other hand, the Lions’ division is nothing to write home about. Green Bay has lost their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, for what looks like the rest of the season. And make no mistake, Rodgers is the one who makes things happen in Green Bay. Their 4-3 record isn’t likely to improve. The Bears might be termed “surprising,” but only because no one expected much from them. At 3-4 they aren’t entirely out of it yet.  The Vikings are running away with the division so far at 5-2, but the Lions have only played one divisional game—against the Vikings—and won it, back in Week 2.

So I’m guessing that all those articles and podcasts you can find on the web about “The Lions’ Path to Winning the Division” or whatever begin with “Beat the Steelers on Sunday.” And while the Steelers have already played at least one desperate team—last Sunday was probably the Bengals’ best chance to be relevant this season—this is a desperate team they don’t know all that well. A lot has changed since the Lions came to St. Vincent’s for joint practices back in 2015, I believe it was.

But we are also getting a second team just off their bye, so since I made a big deal about it with the Bengals, and since one has to take every opportunity to point out the weaknesses of a rival, I guess I should do it for Detroit as well. I went back to 2003, which is where I began with the Bengals.

We found with the Bengals that they pretty much beat the opponents the records (both at the time of the game and the end of the season) said they should, and lost to the teams one would have expected. Which is rather surprising in a league as generally unpredictable as the NFL. The Lions are quite a different story.

Although their overall win percentage since 2003 is a figure which should make Steeler Nation sit up and count their blessings—36.6 %—their win percentage after their bye week is substantially better—64%. As we look at the records of their opponents, the first thing which jumps out is, the Lions play a lot of bad teams. But at any rate, exactly half of the outcomes (seven out of 14) were as expected—in other words, the Lions had a better record at the time and a better record at the end of the season than the teams they beat, or, more usually, a worse record in each instance than the teams they lost to.

Of the remainder, two were “bad” losses—in 2009 to an 0-7 Rams team and in 2011 to a 5-3 Bears team. But in each instance the Lions were only marginally better. The rest were good wins—sometimes big upsets, such as 2015, when the 1-7 Lions beat the 6-2 Packers, in Green Bay.

And in case you’re wondering, since drafting Matthew Stafford in 2009 both the overall record (43.7%) and the post-bye record (75%) are better. But interestingly both of the “bad” losses are since Stafford took over, and only one of the “good” wins. In most of the other wins the Lions had a similar or better end-of-the-season record than the opponent.

Which is perhaps way more than you wanted to know. The main thing to note is that while the Lions under Matthew Stafford win the majority of their post-bye-week games, these are seldom upsets.

So let’s take a look at where the Lions and the Steelers are this season, relatively speaking, in the metrics. As per usual I will begin with the big picture, from Football Outsiders, and finish with specifics about the matchups between certain players or groups, courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Total Defense:

Jacksonville still leads the league in defense, but our own Pittsburgh Steelers have moved up from No. 4 last week to No. 2. (The DVOA ratings are -22/.0% and -19.2% respectively.) Detroit, at -11.9%, is No. 7, the same as the previous week. These are split out into numbers against the pass and against the run, and PIT is No. 2 against the pass and No. 12 against the run. (If you think that is odd, Jacksonville is No. 1 against the pass and No. 32 against the run. It’s just that their pass protection is so stellar it cancels out their putrid run defense.) Detroit is much more balanced at No. 9 against the pass and No. 8 against the run.

As for the separate defensive line stats, the Steelers stayed the same in run blocking, at No. 6, but moved down one slot (from No. 2 to No. 3) in pass protection. Detroit’s line is middle-of-the-pack, at No. 20 in run blocking and No. 17 in pass protection.

Total Offense:

Both Pittsburgh and Detroit moved up one slot in the Total Offensive Efficiency ratings—PIT from No. 6 to No. 5, DET from No. 24 to No. 23. The offensive lines look similar. The Steelers’ O-line is No. 8 in run blocking and No. 2 in pass protection. The Detroit line is No. 32 in run blocking and No. 29 in pass protection, so the Steelers’ D should at least theoretically be able to improve their stats.

Quarterbacks, Receivers, Running Backs

Before I move on to the Pro Football Focus ratings I’ll throw out the Football Outsider rankings for the primary offensive players, as I always find it interesting to compare them to PFF.

Quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger, No. 7 (a big move up from No. 13 last week,): Matthew Stafford No. 22.

Receivers: Antonio Brown, No. 1. Surprisingly, the highest ranked DET receiver (No. ) is not Golden Tate (No. 27) but ex-Bengal Marvin Jones.

As for tight ends, rather to my astonishment Jesse James (No. 23) is distinctly higher-ranked than Detroit’s Eric Ebron (No. 34.) Who knew?

Running Backs: Ameer Abdullah is the Lions’ highest ranked back, at No. 28. Le’Veon Bell has moved up to No. 3.

On to the match-ups. First, the Detroit o-line versus the Steelers’ D:

The Detroit o-line is really odd-looking. It is by far the most unbalanced line I’ve seen. Even the Cinci line was just (mostly) uniformly bad. But the right tackle (our old friend Ricky Wagner, formerly of the Ravens) is the No. 11 tackle in the league, according to PFF, and right guard T.J. Ward (formerly of Green Bay) is ranked No. 5. The other three are seriously bad. The best is their left guard, who, at a rating of 54.7, is already in the “Poor” category. The other two are rated in the 30s. Interestingly, this means the strength of their o-line aligns with the weakness of the Pittsburgh defense (assuming Stephon Tuitt doesn’t play), because Alualu and Dupree have the lowest ratings on the starting defense. (Alulau is rated 58.5, Dupree 44.4.)

None of the Detroit receivers are anything to write home about except Marvin Jones, according to PFF—in fact, the rest of the defense, with the exception of Stafford, mostly rate in the Below Average to Poor categories. However, Golden Tate doesn’t show up on the match-up, as apparently PFF is assuming he wouldn’t play. He is their seventh-ranked receiver in the league. (AB is No. 1, naturally, and still a long way ahead of No. 2 Julio Jones.) PFF dislikes their running back as much as Football Outsiders does.

The Steelers’ secondary has been steadily improving, according to PFF, and even Sean Davis has moved up to “Below Average” (from well into “Poor.”)

As for Stafford, his 71.8 rating is good for No. 25 in the league. (Ben’s 79.1 is No. 14.) All in all, it looks like a good match-up for the Steelers on this side of the ball.

Let’s look at it the other direction. Lining up across from Maurkice Pouncey is the best defensive player on the Lions other than FS Glover Quin—defensive lineman Anthony Zettel. Their right cornerback Darius Slay is also well-regarded, but other than those the defense doesn’t appear to be overwhelming (and according to Football Outsiders they haven’t played like an overwhelming defense either.) “Ziggy” Ansah is well-regarded, but according to some he’s lost a step in coming back from a knee injury. But the Detroit defense certainly isn’t chopped liver. However, the Steelers handled what, on paper, was a better defense last week.

I was curious to see where PFF ranked the backs and receivers, and here you are:

Le’Veon Bell—No. 5: Ameer Abdullah—No. 38.

Jesse James—No. 57, Vance McDonald—No.  25: Eric Ebron—No. 37, and, curiously, Derek Fells, the No. 2 TE—No. 17.

So who of all these guys is actually going to play? In other words, here’s the:

Injury Report

PIT: David DeCastro was given the day off on Wednesday. I have subsequently discovered that it was to attend the birth of he and his wife’s first child. Congratulations, DDC!

The rest of the news isn’t as positive. Not practicing were Stephon Tuitt, Marcus Gilbert, and Vance McDonald. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was put in the concussion protocol after the game on Sunday, was a full participant. He was also able to practice Thursday, so he should be good to go. However, we’re unlikely to see any of the other three.

DET: Neither the left tackle or the back-up tackle practiced, both with ankle injuries, either Wednesday or Thursday. The left tackle position will most likely be manned by none other than Brian Mihalik, who the Lions picked up after cuts were announced.

According to Tunch Ilkin, Mihalik struggles with short stubby pass rushers, so I’m guessing that we’ll see more of Deebo on Sunday night if Mihalik plays.

Golden Tate was limited on both Wednesday and Thursday. His backup, Kenny Gollady, did not practice either day. I expect Tate to play, but he’s going to still be dealing with the shoulder.

The other name of note to be limited was Ezekial Ansah with a knee injury . Again I would assume he will play unless he has a setback.  A couple of back-ups were also limited. Possibly the Lions’ best offensive and defensive players (LG T. J. Lang and S Glover Quin) both practiced fully (Quin was on the concussion protocol, Lang has a back injury.)

5 comments

  • The Lions are in an already unenviable position of giving their 3rd string LT his first NFL action, but it stinks further for them that it happens to be against a team that literally taught him everything he knows about blocking. Mihalik, for those who don’t know, followed the Villanueva track to LT stardom as a former Eagles DE who Munchak set about converting to LT in 2016. The Steelers know just what kind of blocks he struggles to make, and they will make sure to take advantage of that.

    The Steelers will want to be sure stay disciplined on their run defense because Abdullah and Riddick are shifty cut back runners who can exploit over-aggressive pursuit, but these guys aren’t exactly Jordan Howard or Leondard Fournette. It will be interesting to see how they do against Matt Stafford too, who is the 2nd best QB we’ve faced this year and has a much stronger arm than Cassell to squeeze the ball into zone coverage. We’ve talked a lot about using more man coverage, but we’ve still been a primarily zone team so far this season I think. We might see more man coverage this game, especially considering Detroit’s OL probably won’t give receivers a lot of time to get open on double moves.

    Offensively, we should be able to take advantage of Detroit’s struggles on offense to stick with the run even if the Lions are committed to stopping it. The Lions secondary will give up yards, partly due to having faced much better QB’s than we have, so we can take our shots when we want them, but they also have 9 interceptions in 6 games. They’ll try like the Jags did to lure us into a high volume passing game by offering one on one matchups with receivers because they know that if we go pass heavy it’s just a matter of time until they come down with the ball. We’ll need to be willing to work to establish the run game and throw the ball away rather than risk interceptions; willing to punt and win a war of attrition based on field position and field goals if need be.

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    • Interesting you should say that about the man coverage, because last week, I think it was, PFF did an article about who plays man vs. zone, and the Steelers are dead last in the league, using man only about 10% of the time. I’m not convinced they actually want to play more man – I think they like what zone is doing for them when the front seven are doing their job…

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  • Thank you for the article, and so many others. I discovered your website just a few weeks ago, and think it’s great!

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Looks like the Penguins are having trouble on the road tonight (which I am okay with). Hopefully the Steelers don’t have the same issues.

    Like

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