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Detroit Lions vs. Pittsburgh Steelers preview, prediction: On Paper

Can the Lions pull off the upset and notch their first win of the season? Let’s take a closer look.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions come out of the bye week holding a pretty big advantage that can’t be ignored. They’ve had two weeks of rest and preparation for their Week 10 opponent. All week, Lions coaches have spoken about the importance of self-scouting over the break, and many seem confident that the mistakes that have plagued this team over their 0-8 start are fixable down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a short week, having played a tight contest against the Chicago Bears on Monday night. Shortened weeks are always tough no matter the situation, but when your opponent has had extra time to prepare, it should, in theory, make a sizable difference.

But in the NFL, nothing supersedes talent. The better team doesn’t always win, but they certainly win more often than not. So let’s take a closer look at the talent of these two teams and see what we can figure out for Sunday.

It’s Lions vs. Steelers: On Paper.

Lions pass offense (30th in DVOA) vs. Steelers pass defense (20th)

In case you needed a reminder after a week off, the Lions' passing offense has been a pretty big disaster with Jared Goff behind center. While Goff has been a big problem with his hesitancy to throw downfield, his ill-timed turnovers, and lack of mobility, the Lions’ issues run deeper than that. Pass protection has been a problem as of late—Detroit ranks 27th in pressure rate (26.8%)—and the Lions receivers just haven’t been getting open.

But if you are to believe head coach Dan Campbell, it certainly sounds like the Lions are ready to just force the ball downfield and give their receiving corps a chance to win.

“I do feel like we need to make more of a point of emphasis to get these guys the ball a little bit. It’s one thing to say, ‘Well, we’re not quite separating up there.’ Then pretty soon, they don’t get any balls. They’re not separating, we don’t throw it, and before long, guys lose a bit of confidence. So I think it’s important that we try to get everybody involved a little bit.”

And to help with the pass protection, it sure looks like left tackle Taylor Decker is trending towards making his 2021 debut. The impact of his return will most likely be felt on the right side, with rookie first-round pick making his right tackle debut—although he’s got a tough matchup this week. More on that later.

Overall, the Lions current rank 28th in yards per attempt (6.5), 25th in passer rating, and 21st in sacks allowed (23).

The Steelers haven’t faced the most potent of passing attacks this season, but they have performed quite well with what they’ve faced.

Like most years, their pass defense is defined by their ability to pressure the quarterback, and they remain lethal in that category. Here’s a reminder from my scouting report earlier in the week on the Steelers pass rush:

- 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)

However, if pass protection holds up, the Steelers are a bit vulnerable on the back end. While they’ve got Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick back there, the rest of the secondary is nothing to write home about. Their overall coverage PFF grade of 42.9 ranks 29th in the NFL.

Overall, they’re allowing 7.7 yards per attempt (21st), a passer rating of 98.1 (22nd) and they have just three interceptions on the season (t-28th)

Player to watch: T.J. Watt vs. Penei Sewell. This is the biggest key to the matchup—maybe the biggest key in the game. Sewell, in his first career start at right tackle, has to deal with quite possibly the best edge rusher on that side of the field. Watt has 11.5 sacks so far this season and ranks fifth in pass rush win rate. Sewell has struggled against speed guys like this so far in his rookie season. And although it doesn’t matter much to this matchup, it’s worth noting that both Sewell and Watt are tremendous in the run game. In other words, watching this matchup on every snap of the game will be excellent TV.

Advantage: Steelers +2. I’ll believe in this new downfield passing offense when I see it. From all the data I have on this Lions passing attack, it’s horrible, and even just an average pass defense like the Steelers should have no problem with it. Throw in a couple playmakers on Pittsburgh’s side, and it could be another rough day for Goff. I will admit there is a relative amount of unknown in this matchup with Sewell making his right tackle debut, and the Lions talking a lot of changes on the offense—including moving Amon-Ra St. Brown to the outside in some formations and potentially the addition of Josh Reynolds—but I can’t give the Lions any credit for something they haven't done yet.

Lions run offense (28th) vs. Steelers run defense (9th)

This seems to happen every year. To start the year, it looks like the Lions had finally fixed the running game, only for it to fall back below average shortly thereafter. Now, it hasn’t been terrible, but teams like the Bengals and Eagles showed that they have a long way to go before they can assume the ground-and-pound identity that they clearly want to be. It should come as little surprise that those two games also happened to be the team’s worst games of the season. If they can’t run the ball, this team is in trouble.

The return of Decker could help this team, but the bigger issue is that it doesn’t look like the team’s best runner—Jamaal Williams—will play. Williams is carrying the entire team’s yards per carry average (4.1) seemingly on his own (4.4). Meanwhile, D’Andre Swift has struggled to run between the tackle and only has averaged 3.2 YPC this season. Look for the Lions to use converted safety Godwin Igwebuike or rookie Jermar Jefferson more this week.

The Steelers have given up 96 rushing yards or more in seven of their eight contests and have ceded 4.0 yards per carry or more in seven of eight games. That being said, they’ve faced a handful of good run defenses and that solid performance against the Browns stands out as a display that they can occasionally stop some of the better rushing attacks in the league.

Overall, the Steelers are allowing 4.4 yards per carry (22nd) and ceding first downs on 24.9 percent of carries (18th). I’m not sure why they have such a high DVOA ranking, but I would call this more of an average-to-below-average run defense. It is worth noting, however, that they have the seventh-highest success rate in short-yardage situations, so if the Lions are facing third or fourth-and-1, they’re outmatched.

Player to watch: Cameron Heyward vs. Jonah Jackson. The Steelers' other marquee pass rusher comes from the interior, but Heyward is also a phenom in the run game. He’s been credited with 20 defensive stops by PFF, good for seventh among all interior defensive linemen. Jackson holds a 77.3 run blocking grade, which is 11th among all NFL guards.

Advantage: Steelers +1. I would have really loved to see this matchup with a physical runner like Jamaal Williams in the game, but without him, I’m not very confident in this rushing attack. We’ll see how things look with Decker in the mix, but I think this defensive front is too talented for a Lions backfield that has not proven it can function without Williams.

Steelers pass offense (19th) vs. Lions pass defense (29th)

Ben Roethlisberger is a transformed quarterback. Long gone are the days in which he would throw the ball for 300 yards a week and test defenses downfield. Injuries and age have caught up with him, and he’s very much a checkdown machine. His 6.1 intended air yards per pass attempt are the second-lowest in the league, just barely ahead of the king of checkdowns Jared Goff (6.0).

But that isn’t to say that the Steelers passing offense hasn’t been somewhat efficient. They rank 23rd in yards per attempt (6.7), 23rd in passer rating (89.7) and they somehow have seven plays of 40+ yards (t-third) despite the low amount of downfield passes.

Part of the problem is their pass protection. With a completely new set of offensive linemen, the Steelers rank ninth in PFF’s pass protection grade, but 30th in ESPN’s pass block win rate. Pittsburgh has the sixth-lowest pressure rate in the NFL, but part of that has to do with Roethlisberger getting the ball out incredibly fast. His Time to Throw metric of 2.38 seconds is lowest in the NFL.

In terms of receivers, the Steelers will likely be missing their top option in Chase Claypool, although Diontae Johnson has been their big-play threat thus far.

That Lions haven’t been able to stop much of anything through the air this year. A combination of injuries to both the defensive front and the secondary with young, inexperienced players has led to problems just about everywhere.

When it comes to a pass rush, the Lions have been severely lacking as of late. Detroit’s pressure rate of 22.7 percent ranks 26th in the league despite a blitz percentage of 26.3 percent (12th). Their team pass rush win rate is 31st (30%) and their PFF pass rush grade (66.9) ranks 23rd.

Meanwhile, their secondary—riddled with injuries—is putting up a fight, but ultimately losing. Detroit ranks last in PFF coverage grade (29.6), yards per attempt (9.3), and passer rating allowed (112.7).

It’s all a tough pill to swallow, especially considering it feels like the Lions coaching staff is actually doing an okay job with a defense that is starting two undrafted rookies at cornerback. But, ultimately, talent overrules everything.

Player to watch: TE Pat Freiermuth. The Steelers’ rookie tight end tore up the Lions in the preseason and he’s on a bit of a hot streak right now. In the past three games, he has 16 catches, 145 yards, and three touchdowns.

Advantage: Steelers +1. This is far from the toughest passing offense the Lions will face, but Detroit hasn’t been able to stop literally anyone yet this season. It’s about as favorable of a matchup the Lions will be able to find this year, but when you’re the worst pass defense in the league by a lot of metrics, you’re not going to find yourself with an advantage here.

Steelers run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (25th)

Najee Harris has been all of the rage over the past couple weeks, but truth be told, this Steelers rushing attack has been bad all season. It’s not at all Harris’ fault—his PFF run grade of 67.6 is more than adequate—but he’s probably been getting more credit than he deserves.

The run game is improving, as you can see from the chart, but the efficiency numbers remain incredibly low for this rushing attack. They’ve surpassed 4.0 yards per carry in just one game this season. They’ve rushed for over 120 yards in just one game this season.

As a team, they rank 29th in yards per carry (3.6) and just 20.5 percent of their rushes are earning first downs (28th).

The Lions’ best unit on their team may be their run defense, but it’s also by far the most inconsistent. They’ve done a fairly good job bottling up the Ravens, Vikings, and Rams. But they were absolutely rolled over by the Bears, Bengals, and Eagles.

Overall, Detroit ranks 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and 20th in percentage of rushes allowed earning first downs (25.3).

They’ve had disappointing play from their interior defenders, and their linebacker play has been very up and down. Overall, it’s a below-average unit that is simply very hard to predict week in and week out.

Player to watch: Alex Anzalone. The King of the Lions’ inconsistent run defense, how goes Anzalone goes the rest of the run defense. His best performances (Ravens, Rams) happen to be the best performances of the team’s run defense. His worst performances (49ers, Eagles) match up with the worst run defense performances. Anzalone leads all linebackers with 14 missed tackles (per PFF), and unfortunately for him, Harris is the kind of back that forces a lot of missed tackles—he ranks fifth in the NFL in forced missed tackles.

Advantage: Even. The Lions are too inconsistent for me to give them an edge here, but they should certainly be capable of stopping the Steelers rushing attack. The Lions should have an advantage on the line, but will the Lions linebackers and secondary be able to clean up Harris?

Last week’s prediction

While I correctly picked the Eagles, I don’t take much pride in my 20-16 prediction when Philly walked all over Detroit to the tune of 44-6. Where I really messed up was the running game of both teams. I thought the Lions would be able to run a little against Philly, but without Jamaal Williams, they certainly didn’t. I thought they may be able to contend against the Eagles' rushing attack, and they most certainly did not.

I’ve made the executive decision to not give out an On Paper award this week, as nobody came anywhere close to the final score. It was a complete shock to everyone. So instead, we’re burying the Week 8 On Paper predictions.

This week’s prediction

The Steelers come out with a modest +4 advantage, which matches what I’ve been saying all week. The Steelers are beatable. Unfortunately, the Lions don’t have a clear advantage in any aspect of the game short of special teams. However, they do have the advantage of the bye week.

If this coaching staff is as good as advertised, they’ll come out this week with a handful of surprises. We saw what this team can do when they throw the kitchen sink at the Los Angeles Rams. With two weeks to prepare for a far worse team in the Steelers, the element of surprise could push them to victory this week.

But I don’t work in hypotheticals with this article. I live in the data pool. And until the Lions can produce on the field, I’m not so sure I can predict them to win. Steelers 20, Lions 10.

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