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For an explanation on my "On Paper" previews, check out my first preview of the year.
Before we get started, let's take a look at other quarterbacks' performances against the Steelers defense so far.
K. Collins 22/35 244 yards 1TD 1 INT 81.1 Rating
J. Cutler 27/38 236 yards 2TD 0 INT 104.7 Rating
C. Palmer 20/37 183 yards 1TD 0 INT 76.7 Rating
P. Rivers 21/36 254 yards 3TD 0 INT 107.9 Rating
Pittsburgh has gone against a fair share of top-notch quarterbacks in the league, and the stats show that. Their opponents are completing over 61% of their passes (16th). The loss of Troy Polamalu likely has a lot to do with how poor this unit has performed. Not only is coverage struggling, but Pittsburgh is also failing to make game-changing plays on defense, as they have only eight sacks (T-15th) and one interception (T-30th).
Some of these stats, however, may be misleading. Rivers' numbers are likely inflated because Pittsburgh quickly got a 28-0 lead and the defense likely took it easy in the second half (until the game got dangerously close). In fact, Rivers only had 56 passing yards in the first half.
Pittsburgh's defense is notorious for their confusing, 3-4 blitzing schemes. Although they rank in the middle of the league in total number of sacks, they are still getting plenty of pressure from OLBs James Harrison (3 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley. Pittsburgh is still the leading example of how to disguise blitzes and confuse opposing quarterbacks. This is a very difficult matchup for a young, rookie quarterback.
Coincidentally, it seems like Matthew Stafford will not be healthy enough to play this week. Instead, Daunte Culpepper will likely get the nod. While Culpepper will not provide the downfield threat that Stafford does, his experience and his mobility will be invaluable on Sunday. Culpepper has faced this Pittsburgh defense once in the past seven years, and it was not pretty. Culpepper, with the Dolphins at the time (2006), went 18 for 37 for 262 yards and two interceptions. He was also sacked three times. Regardless, he's seen this defense before and can draw on some experience where Stafford would not be able to.
Though not as fierce as they used to be, Pittsburgh's pass defense is still a force to be reckoned with. They'll likely put Culpepper on his back several times throughout the game. Culpepper needs to take what the defense give him and avoid turning the ball over once. Culpepper thrives at short passes at this point in his career, but he'll need to keep the Pittsburgh defense honest by trying a couple passes downfield. If he fails to be a deep threat, Pittsburgh will come at him hard. Culpepper will likely get his yards, but in short increments. Pittsburgh +1
Lions Rush Offense (18th) vs. Steelers Rush Defense (4th)
It finally looked like Kevin Smith and Detroit's running game had turned the corner. The Kevin Smith Bandwagon, however, fell off a cliff last week, as Smith managed only 30 yards on 19 carries. But before we wave the white flag on this matchup, let's take a look on Pittsburgh's rush defense so far:
C. Benson: 16 carries 76 yards, 1 TD
L. Tomlinson: 7 carries 15 yards, 0 TD
Okay, commence the flag waving.
Now, Pittsburgh hasn't faced an amazing running offense yet this year. The Titans probably have the best running attack of any of their opponents (actually ranked 7th), but the Titans clearly aren't the team they were last year. For those freaking out about the Steelers holding LT to 15 yards, the Chargers have the 31st ranked run offense and LT is no longer LT.
Again, these stats may be slightly skewed by the fact that Pittsburgh has gotten into some early leads, forcing their opponents to throw the ball earlier and more often. While they have allowed the 4th least amount of yards, they have also faced the least amount of rushing attempts in the league. Still, they are only allowing 3.6 a carry (9th).
This will be Detroit's first exposure to the 3-4 defense this year, and it is going to result in Smith's second consecutive ugly game. Pittsburgh +3.
Steelers Pass Offense (3rd) vs. Lions Pass Defense (27th)
Ugh. The rankings tell the entire story. The Lions still rank last in opposing quarterback rating, completion percentage and passing touchdowns allowed. Ben Roethlisberger is 3rd in passing yards, 1st in completion percentage and 3rd in yards per attempt. You do the math.
The only silver linings for the Lions are that Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times (T-23) and has thrown four interceptions (T-17th). The Lions have done a pretty good job getting pressure on the ends, but have failed to get pressure from their DTs. I would expect Detroit to dial up a lot of linebacker blitzes to try to force Roethlisberger into a mistake. It won't be easy, however, as Ben is known for his amazing ability to elude tackles. A typical quarterback on the Steelers would probably have been sacked closer to 20 times this season. If the Lions don't take him down, Ben will punish them. Pittsburgh has plenty of options at receivers, including veteran Hines Ward and the athletic Santonio Holmes.
I don't see how there's any hope for this matchup. If the Lions sit back, Ben will pick them apart; if they go after him, they'll leave competent receivers in loose coverage against a poor secondary. I think I'm finally ready to admit that Ben Roethlesburger is a top-tier quarterback, and he's going to show why on Sunday. Steelers +4.
Steelers Rush Offense (15th) vs. Lion Rush Defense (21st)
It looks like Willie Parker will miss another week. Instead, the Lions will have to face second-year RB Rashard Mendenhall, who is coming off a career day against the Chargers. The Lions have done a pretty good job holding opposing running backs to less-than-career days. Last week, they held Matt Forte to 23 yards on 10 carries. Unfortunately, Forte had 12 carries that day, the other two accounting for 98 yards.
The Lions will likely hold the Steelers in check for most of the game, as Pittsburgh only real successful day on the ground came against the 29th ranked Chargers run defense. However, with the Lions banged up on the defensive line, Mendenhall could certainly break a long run or two. I expect Pittsburgh to come out throwing, and only relying on the running game once they've gotten a lead. This matchup isn't likely to hurt either team, but Detroit still has the slight advantage. Lions +1
Just typing in "Special Teams" makes me cringe of the Lions' performance against the Bears. Here's a list of special teams miscues from the Lions last Sunday:
- Nick Harris punts for only 36 yards, punt is returned for 24 yards
- Aaron Brown returns a kickoff for 8 yards.
- Harris punt returned for 25 yards
- Jason Hanson kickoff out of bounds
- Johnny Knox returns kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown
- Another punt return for 20 yards.
There's actually more, but I'd rather not anger myself to the point where I'd have to pick up pieces of my Dell off the floor.
Anyways, Pittsburgh doesn't have a huge special teams threat in Stefan Logan (some actually want him cut). Pittsburgh averages in the lower half of the league in kick and punt returns and Logan has yet to break one. Detroit has looked equally anemic in the return game, now averaging only 22 yards per return (21st). Rookie Derrick Williams gets his first NFL action on Sunday to try to remedy this situation, but he had some trouble returning kicks in the preseason.
Hanson continues to be perfect on field goals, while Pittsburgh's kicker, Jeff Reed, is still looking to shake his poor performance against the Bears in which he missed 38 and 43 yard field goal.
Whatever advantage Detroit has from the kicker matchup is lost on their poor kick coverage. Reed might miss a field goal, but it's unlikely to cost Pittsburgh this game, therefore the special teams matchup is a Push.
After crunching the numbers, Pittsburgh comes out with the highest total yet at +7. Unfortunately, I feel this is pretty accurate. You could make an argument for the Steelers in every facet of the game. What should be interesting, however, is that both teams seem to come out of the gate playing hard but then drop off significantly in the second half. In the past two weeks, both teams have combined for a 68-24 lead at halftime, while losing the second halves 89-33. Something has to give on Sunday.
Don't let the Steelers' 2-2 record fool you, they are a good football team and will compete not only for a playoff spot, but for a spot in the big game in Miami. Steelers 38 Lions 20.