Match the defending champions with a 1-23 team that is missing its starting quarterback and its All Pro wide receiver, and what do you get?
Another 4th quarter nail biter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Detroit Lions 28-20 at Ford Field, improving to 3-2 and a share of second place in the AFC North.
Alas, the 2009 Steelers have an uncanny knack for keeping it interesting until the final gun. This one never should have been close.
- Pittsburgh ran up impressive totals on the stat sheet
- But again, the Steelers dominance didn’t extend to the score board
- Fortunately, something was different in Detroit
- And perhaps that reveals something about the meaning of being 3-2
Steelers Run Up Stats on Lions
If statistics dictated score, the Steelers would have run away with this one.
Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdowns and completed 76% of his passes for just under 300 yards. He hit six receivers with Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Mike Wallace scoring touchdowns.
Rashard Mendenhall ran strong in his third start, averaging 5.1 yards for 77 yards.
The Steelers offense went 4-4 in the Red Zone.
The Steelers defense held Kevin Smith to 54 yards and tossed Dante Culpepper to the turf 7 times, one shy of doubling their season sack total. They cut short four promising drives, intercepting the Lions once and forcing 3 field goal attempts.
Despite the dazzling stats, the Steelers almost stumbled into another fourth quarter meltdown.
Strong Stats Don’t (Always) Equal Consistent Play
The Steelers victory over the Lions shows how offense, defense, and special teams can all perform well, but you can still fail to play complete game.
The scoring summary tells the tail:
- The Steelers defense held Detroit to 13 points
- The Steelers offense put up 28
A 15 point differential is a victory formula on any given Sunday…
…but Ben Roethlisberger weakened that formula with an interception returned for a touchdown.
The defense diluted its accomplishments by letting Detroit quickly drive 82 yards for a touchdown that put the Lions within 8 with 4:57 remaining to play.
But the Steelers defense has no monopoly on 4th quarter difficulties. As Jim Wexell indicated in Steelers Digest, against the Chargers last week the Steelers offense added to a fourth quarter lead for the first time since week 16 of the 2007 season.
Alas, the late scoring streak lasted one game, as the Steelers fourth quarter offensive output amounted to:
- 13 net yards on 12 plays that ended in 3 punts.
This time Pittsburgh did not stubbornly stick to an ineffective rushing attack late in the game.
If anything, Bruce Arians’ desire to deliver a knockout punch was too zealous. Early the in 4th, Ben Roethlisberger twice took sacks trying to go deep – a broken series which opened the door to Detroit’s final touchdown drive.
Arians mixed the play calling on the two other 4th quarter possessions, but Pittsburgh executed poorly, giving up a sack and failing to convert separate third downs.
With 3:07 remaining, the Steelers once again couldn’t move the chains while the defense once again was giving up quick scores. Once again, the all elements for meltdown were assembled.
The Difference Against Detroit
Laymen chalked the losses to the Bears and Bengals to Troy Polamalu’s absence. Pittsburgh certainly missed Troy, but an astute analysis of those collapses revealed that the Steelers defensive emphasis too often shifted from pressure to coverage on key plays.
- Dick LeBeau took note, and he did something about it.
Like their feline counterparts two weeks before, the Lions began at their own 29 and drove deep into Pittsburgh territory.
The difference in Detroit was that LeBeau mercilessly unleashed the blitz. The Steelers planted Dante Culpepper on his back on four out of final nine pass attempts.
When the Lions reached the Steelers 21 yard line, LeBeau turned it up a notch, sacking Culpepper three consecutive times, backing him up to the Steelers 45.
The Meaning of 3-2 for the Steelers
The Steelers have taken leads into the fourth quarter in each of the four games since the opener. The first two times Steelers Nation agonized as Pittsburgh lost in the closing moments. Against San Diego the offense stepped up, and against Detroit the defense took its turn and both times Steelers won.
As Mike Tomlin says, “they don’t add style points.”
At 3-2 the Steelers aren’t playing dominating football, but nor have they played their best football yet.