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Detroit Lions vs. Pittsburgh Steelers preview: On Paper

Our Lions-Steelers statistical breakdown and preview is here.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Welcome back, everyone. I trust that you all had a relaxing bye week free of any Jim Bob Cooter related frustrations. Because you may be in for a lot more this week.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming into town with one of the best defenses in the league and a couple of huge threats on the other side of the ball.

Sunday marks the first in back-to-back primetime games for the Detroit Lions, as they head to Green Bay to face off against the Packers next week. But this week, they’ll be at home with a well-rested Ford Field crowd ready to go.

Will this be the week the Lions turn it around and make a real dash towards their first NFC North title? Let’s take a look at the charts.

Lions pass offense (23rd in DVOA) vs. Steelers pass defense (2nd)

The Lions pass offense has been in freefall since the Giants game. Matthew Stafford hasn’t been horrible, but he’s by no means been what the Lions expect of him. He’s failed to surpass the defense’s passer rating allowed average in his past four contests, and has finished with a passer rating above 82 just once in his past four.

Much of the blame falls on Detroit’s putrid offensive line, who has now allowed 19 sacks in the past four games. Overall, the team has given up 23 sacks overall, the most of any team that has played just six games .

As a team, the Lions rank just 27th in yards per attempt (6.3), 26th in completion percentage (60.4) and 17th in passer rating (89.3).

And to make matters worse, despite the bye week, the Lions will likely be missing two key pieces to their offense: left tackle Greg Robinson and wide receiver Golden Tate.

Robinson hasn’t been good this year, but Detroit’s options behind him include a former college defensive end who has never started an NFL game (Brian Mihalik) or a guy who has started just three games in his career, the last being three years ago (Bryce Harris).

Tate could potentially play after he surprisingly returned to practice this week, but he still seems doubtful considering Jace Billingsley was promoted to the active roster this week. The loss of Tate cannot be understated for this offense. Detroit built their identity around him and his ability to break tackles. Someone is going to have to step up in his absence.

Uh oh.

No quarterback has even reached a passer rating of 90 against the Steeler defense. Granted, Pittsburgh hasn’t really faced any premier quarterbacks yet in 2017, but they have still managed to hold just about everyone well below their season average statistics.

Pittsburgh ranks fourth in passer rating allowed (70.9), first in yards per attempt (5.6) and seventh in completion percentage (59.9). They have also notched seven interception (t-eighth) and 24 sacks (t-second). They are a swarming, blanketing defense that no quarterback has escaped as of Week 7.

Player to watch: T.J. Watt. Watt is one of five Steelers who have tallied at least 3.0 sacks. Rushing off the edge against whoever the Lions have lined up at left tackle is going to be a mismatch, and I’d be shocked if Watt doesn’t add to his current sack total of 4.0 this week.

Advantage: Steelers +3. This is an absolutely huge mismatch, and it could be devastating for the Lions. The only way this could be more lopsided is if the Lions didn’t have one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Unless Jim Bob Cooter comes out with a completely different look this week, I don’t see of a way Detroit wins this matchup. It could get ugly.

Lions run offense (29th) vs. Steelers run defense (12th)

Speaking of ugly, the Lions continue to lack a running game. It hasn’t helped that Detroit has had a tendency of falling behind early in games, but their yards per carry average shows that even when they are running the ball, they aren’t being effective. They’ve averaged over 4.0 yards per carry just once this season.

Detroit is averaging just 3.5 YPC all year (t-27th), and, even worse, they’re earning first downs on just 15.4 percent of carries (31st).

It appears they’ll have T.J. Lang back this week, which should help stabilize the right side of the offensive line, but the problems run way deeper than that.

This is a bit surprising to see. For as great as this STeelers defense is, they haven’t been extremely stout against the run. They’ve only held two of seven opponents below their yards per carry average, even though only two opponents have surpassed 100 yards on the ground.

What particularly stands out is how in both of their losses, the Steelers gave up over 200 yards rushing and 5.5 YPC or more.

If there’s a key way to beat the Steelers, it’s through the ground game. Pittsburgh has allowed 4.7 yards per carry (t-26th) and have allowed six rushing touchdowns on the year (t-25th).

Player to watch: Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah is tied for second in the league with four rushes of 20+ yards on the year. The Steelers have allowed the second-most rushes of 20+ yards (7). Abdullah could potentially hit on a few huge plays that could change the entire outcome of the game.

Advantage: Steelers +0.5. This will undoubtedly be the key to the game for Detroit. The Lions will want to keep the ball away from the Steelers on Sunday, and considering their struggles protecting Stafford, the best way to do that is through the ground game. The Steelers are potentially vulnerable here, but the Lions will have to show something they haven’t been able to do all year to win this battle.

Steelers pass offense (6th) vs. Lions pass defense (9th)

Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been torching defenses all year, but he’s quietly having an effective season. Having faced a gauntlet of some of the league’s best defenses, Big Ben has managed to keep his passer rating above the defense’s average more often than not.

The Steelers rank just 22nd in passer rating (82.8), but t-ninth in yards per attempt (7.3) and 20th in completion percentage. But, again, those modest numbers seem to have more to do with strength of opponent than inherent talent.

Antonio Brown leads the league by over 200 yards in receiving and is averaging over 100 yards per game.

Detroit will have a little bit easier of a time on Sunday, as it appears the Steelers will be keeping Martavis Bryant inactive this week as punishment for his recent antics.

The Lions pass defense has been all over the place this year. At times, they’ve looked completely outclassed by the Falcons, Panthers and Saints, but a truckload of interceptions have hidden their struggles statistically.

Overall, the Lions rank ninth in passer rating allowed (83.8), but just 25th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 24th in completion percentage (64.9). Their nine interceptions are third-most in the league, but their 13 sacks rank them 22nd.

This is a pass defense that essentially lives and dies by the interception. This is a ball-hawking secondary, but when they aren’t able to get in front of passes, it usually means trouble.

Player to watch: Antonio Brown vs. Darius Slay. Slay has been shadowing receivers a lot this year, and chances are good he’ll do so again this week opposite Brown. The two have never truly faced off against each other, even though both played the last time the two teams met in 2013. However, that was Slay’s rookie year and he only partook in four defensive snaps.

Advantage: Steelers +1. Detroit will need to keep up the interceptions to keep pace with Pittsburgh on Sunday. Unfortunately, I just don’t believe this is a good enough defense to continue to force those turnovers. Detroit doesn’t have a reliable pass rush threat, and that’s the best way to force Roethlisberger into mistakes.

Steelers run offense (6th) vs. Lions run defense (8th)

Le’Veon Bell may be second in the league in rushing yards, but he and the Steelers run game have not been all that efficient in amassing those yards. They’ve been held to 3.5 yards per carry or less in four of seven games, and have only outrushed their opponent’s YPC average in one game this year.

That isn’t to say the Steelers aren’t a good running team, they are. To run the ball as often as they do (fifth in rushing attempts) it’s hard to maintain a high yards per carry average. That being said, they are certainly not the scary Steelers of the past. They are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry on the year, good for 23rd in the league.

The Lions have been one of the best rushing defenses in the league... except for those two very big outliers. While you could make the excuse that Jarrad Davis and Tavon Wilson missed the Falcons game, it’s harder to justify why the Lions struggled so much to stop the run against the Saints.

The loss of Haloti Ngata may have something to do with it, and the Lions will get back Khyri Thornton from suspension this week to help rebound at defensive tackle. But it seemed like the problems ran a little deeper than Ngata’s absence. Detroit’s linebacker had issues tackling, which have popped up in nearly every game.

All that being said, the Lions still rank t-seventh in YPC allowed (3.7) and have given up just two rushes of over 20 yards (t-fourth fewest)

Player to watch: Jarrad Davis. Bell’s unique running style requires immense patience from the defense if they want to have any chance. The Lions’ rookie linebacker has likely never faced a guy like Bell and could be prone to making a mistake by committing too early. If Davis can show some veteran moxie, Detroit could win this matchup.

Advantage: Draw. While Bell is always dangerous any time he touches the ball, this Steelers running game just isn’t as good as advertised this year. They will continue to try and pound the ball, and may tally up over 100+ yards on the day. But if Detroit can still hold them below 4.0 yards per carry, that may be a win for them.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper always struggles at the beginning of the year, because data is so limited. However, this year’s 2-4 start is pretty unacceptable. Last game, I correctly predicted a shootout between the Lions and Saints, but chose the wrong team.

In the comment section, no one was even close to the finale 52-38 score. The closest was cram9030, who predicted a score of 33-27 Saints. He does get bonus points for saying things like “This [Lions] offense is just bad” and “the offense once again decides to be garbage time kings.”

In fact, I love the term Garbage Time Kings so much, I turned it into a rock band, and your prize is their debut album:

This week’s prediction:

The Steelers come out with a pretty convincing +4.5 advantage. And while that may make you think I see a blowout coming, that’s not really at all the case. I think both teams are going to be trying to hold onto the ball for long, extended drives, keeping the opposing offenses off the field and the score low.

Instead, the +4.5 advantage feeds more into my confidence that the Lions don’t have a lot of ways they can win this game. Unfortunately, the easiest route looks to be running the ball on offense, something the Lions have shown they are not able to do on a consistent basis. Stafford will have to eventually throw the ball, and things could get really ugly when he does.

I think Detroit’s defense will keep them in this game, but unless they get a couple scores on that side of the ball, I don’t see the Lions coming out on top. Lions 13, Steelers 20.

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