The Detroit Lions haven’t beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1998. They haven’t won in Pittsburgh since... dear god... 1955. The Steelers’ first-teamers took it to the Lions in the preseason this year, and with Pittsburgh entering this week at 5-3 to the Lions’ 0-8, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a chance of breaking history here.
But despite their record, this Steelers team isn’t exactly the one we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. They went through a pretty big transition this offseason, and they’ve eked out some close games over the first half of the season. Detroit also had the advantage of coming off a bye week, while the Steelers are dealing with a shortened work week having played on Monday night.
In other words, the Steelers are in a vulnerable position right now. The question is whether the Lions are capable of taking advantage.
Let’s take a closer look at the Lions’ Week 10 opponent.
- 12-4 record (1st in AFC North)
- 12h in points scored, 3rd in points allowed
- Overall DVOA: 8th (22nd on offense, 1st on defense)
The Steelers got off to quite a start last season, winning their first 11 games of the season. But just about everyone saw through that disguise and knew they were a team that had serious flaws waiting to be exploited: mainly, an offense that just wasn’t working the way it should.
As a result, Pittsburgh lost four of its final five games and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs after the Cleveland Browns jumped out to a quick 28-0 lead in the first quarter. It was a particularly embarrassing way to go out, and with several veterans on the Steelers roster heading into an unknown future, many believed this could be an end to an era—including that of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Key free agent additions: C B.J. Finney, G Joe Haeg, G Trai Turner, S Miles Killebrew
Key losses: C Maurkice Pouncey (retirement), OT Matt Feiler, OT Alejandro Villanueva, G David DeCastro, TE Vance McDonald (retirement), RB James Conner, CB Steven Nelson, CB Mike Hilton, OLB Bud Dupree
2021 NFL draft picks:
Round 1: RB Najee Harris
Round 2: TE Pat Freiermuth
Round 3: C Kendrick Green
Round 4: OT Dan Moore JR.
Round 4: ILB Buddy Johnson
Round 5: DT Isaiah Loudermilk
Round 6: OLB Quincy Roche
Round 7: CB Tre Norwood
Round 7: P Pressley Harvin III
Indeed, this was a tumultuous offseason for the Steelers. They were in a nightmare salary cap situation, causing the team to cut several long-time players, restructure a handful of contracts, and basically only used free agency for bargain bin players. Roethlisberger decided to hang around for at least one more season, taking a significant pay cut to stick around.
The biggest hit the Steelers took was to their offensive line, which lost four of its starters this offseason. Pittsburgh responded by finding a few bargain linemen in free agency and spending two mid-round picks on the position.
However, this was undoubtedly a rough offseason for Pittsburgh, as they tried to take their lumps to improve their future salary cap.
That said, to help their flailing offense, the Steelers added the top running back in the draft class and a good run-blocking tight end in Pat Freiermuth. It’s clear they knew Roethlisberger’s limitations at this age and were trying to get him a run game.
2021 season thus far (5-3)
Week 1: Beat Bills, 23-16
Week 2: Lost to Raiders, 17-26
Week 3: Lost to Bengals, 10-24
Week 4: Lost to Packers, 17-27
Week 5: Beat Broncos, 27-19
Week 6: Beat Seahawks, 23-20 (OT)
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Beat Browns, 15-10
Week 9: Beat Bears, 29-27
- 23rd in points scored (20.1 PPG), 8th in points against (21.1 PPG)
- 19th overall in DVOA (18th on offense, 13th on defense, 17th on special teams)
- Offensive DVOA: 19th in pass offense, 19th in run offense
- Defensive DVOA: 20th in pass defense, 9th in run defense
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Steelers thus far. They faced an admittedly tough opening four games of the season and managed to only pick up one win in those games. However, they did what good teams do and beat the teams they should by winning four straight over four inferior teams. It’s worth noting that they haven’t won a single game by more than a possession, and it took some late-game heroics to beat the likes of Geno Smith and Justin Fields.
Their overall statistics point to a somewhat mediocre team. Offensively, they’re still struggling overall. They’ve yet to score 30 points in a single game, and they’ve been held under 20 in half of their contests. The problem appears to lie with a somewhat dormant passing attack. The Steelers are averaging just 6.6 yards per pass attempt (27th). For comparison’s sake, the Lions’ anemic passing game is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. Like the Lions, Pittsburgh has trouble pushing the ball downfield, as they average a depth of 6.7 yards per throw (31st).
However, in their four-game winning streak, they’ve shifted strategies to getting Najee Harris the ball as much as possible. And while his efficiency numbers are still below average, he’s clearly made a difference:
Najee Harris— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) November 9, 2021
First 4 games:
55 rushes, 185 yards (3.36 YPC); 26 catches, 178 yards
Last 4 games:
95 rushes, 356 yards (3.75 YPC), 14 catches, 111 yards
Defensively, the Steelers have definitely taken a bit of a step back from previous years. They aren’t bad, but they also aren’t the feared unit they used to be. They’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry this year (22nd) and 7.7 yards per pass attempt (21st). That said, they’re all about the disruption plays, earning 41 tackles for loss this year (eighth) and 22 sacks (ninth).
Key injuries: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (IR), DL Tyson Alualu, DE Stephon Tuitt (IR), TE Eric Ebron (ankle), WR Chase Claypool (toe)
The Steelers enter Week 10 somewhat healthy. Having their bye already helps, but even looking at long-term injuries, the Steelers have fared quite well. The biggest hit was losing Smith-Schuster, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury earlier this season.
Lions fans will probably take notice of tight end Eric Ebron, who has missed the past two weeks with a hamstring and ankle injury. However, the former Lions' first-round pick is expected to practice this week and could very well play on Sunday.
Another thing to keep an eye on: top receiver Chase Claypool suffered a toe injury on Monday. The injury was enough for the Steelers to order an MRI on the toe, but the results are still unknown.
Biggest strength: Defensive line
The one thing that hasn’t changed with the Steelers is their fantastic defensive line, especially when it comes to pressuring the quarterback. Here’s just a sampling of statistics proving how good this unit is:
- Sack rate: 7.5% (5th)
- Hurry percentage: 13.4% (5th)
- ESPN’s pass rush win rate: 47% (6th)
- PFF pass rush grade: 80.6 (5th)
The unit is led by superstar T.J. Watt, who already has surpassed the double-digit mark with 11.5 sacks—second only to Myles Garrett. But don’t sleep on defensive tackle Cameron Heyward providing pressure up the middle. It’s worth noting that Heyward is dealing with an ankle injury, but it’s unclear this early in the week if it’ll impact his availability.
Biggest weakness: Offensive line
As previously mentioned, the Steelers' offensive line went through some serious changes this offseason and it has shown. While the unit hasn’t been a complete disaster, it should be a concern for Pittsburgh. They’re averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on the ground (29th), and their team run blocking grade of 55.7 ranks them 29th per PFF. That said, they’ve done an admirable job pass blocking, as they’ve only ceded 18 sacks (t-16th), and have the sixth-best pressure allowed percentage (20.6%).
Vegas odds for Sunday: Steelers by 8