3TFO: Lions @ Steelers, Week 11
The Steelers can’t be ruled out of the playoff race quite yet, as they sit just two games back of the AFC North leading Bengals in the loss column. However, the mood in the Steel City can’t be seen as positive. Dick LeBeau’s defense has struggled this season, which forces the ball into Ben Roethlisberger’s hands with below average offensive line in front of him. The team has certainly received a boost from rookie LeVeon Bell, but with an aging defense, the odds are stacked against them to complete what would be a miraculous turnaround after an 0-4 start.
The Lions, on the other hand, could be in the midst of a surge while their NFC North foes are suffering issues at quarterback. With Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay on the schedule before their showdown with the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, Detroit has a very distinct chance to be 8-3 heading into Turkey Day. With no firm timetable of return for Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler, if the Lions take care of business over the next few weeks, they will be in the driver’s seat heading into the last month of the season.
A raucous Heinz Field crowd will do their best to lend their hand, but will it really matter? The Lions create matchup problems for every defense and with the Steelers’ inability to create pressure on the quarterback, it could be a long day for Pittsburgh’s defense. Let’s look at some of those matchups.
Megatron vs. Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark
Defending Calvin Johnson is more about limiting the damage he inflicts than shutting him down. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys. Double teams, triple teams, it doesn’t seem to really matter anymore for the dominant wide receiver. Despite running 323 pass routes, which ranks just 29th in the league, Megatron leads the league in Yards per Route Run. He’s very much over the knee injury that held him out Week 5 and caused him to be limited in Week 6. Something defenses have been taking away from Matthew Stafford is the deep ball to Johnson. This season, Detroit’s No. 1 receiver has been targeted 20 times on 20+ yard throws. He’s hauled in just six of those passes, including one drop. In 2012, on 46 such targets, he caught 21 passes. It’s quite possible that defenses were playing off coverage near the end of most of Detroit’s losses, allowing Stafford and Megatron to pad some their downfield numbers. That’s pure speculation, but regardless, it’s another reminder that Calvin is the most complete receiver in the league. If he’s not racking up yards down the field, he’ll be open in the middle of the field and produce after the catch. You have to pick your poison.
Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark will likely have the unenviable task of keeping Johnson in check for most of the game Sunday. The unfortunate situation for the Steelers is that Taylor, at the age of 33, is in decline. Taylor’s passer rating allowed has been climbing for the last three years, culminating this season with quarterbacks racking up a 99.5 passer rating when targeting him. That sits 54th out of 68 cornerbacks who have played 50% of their teams’ snaps. Taylor won’t be alone in taking on Calvin, though. Free safety Clark will provide some coverage on the backend. Clark has been a liability in run defense this season (-4.6), but that’s not what he’ll be asked to do on Sunday. It’s very likely that he sits over the top on whichever side Megatron lines up. He’s been solid in coverage in 2013, allowing a catch once every 33 cover snaps, which is good for ninth among safeties. Nate Burleson will be sitting out again despite being fully recovered from his broken arm, but Kris Durham stands to benefit from the coverage Megatron will see.
Ndamukong Suh vs. David DeCastro
Against a highly potent offensive attack, it shouldn’t be any secret that the Steelers will try and control the game with Le’Veon Bell. However, since their defense is unlikely to stop the Lions, Ben Roethlisberger will likely be dropping back 35+ times. Ziggy Ansah is still nursing an ankle injury and seems unlikely to suit up, which should reduce some of the pressure on Big Ben. However, the offensive line has been well below average this season. As a unit, they rank 26th in our Pass Blocking Efficiency metric, as they’ve allowed 128 total pressure on Roethlisberger’s 381 passing plays. The matchup on the line to watch is easily defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh versus right guard David DeCastro. Suh plays the majority of his snaps at left defensive tackle, so they’ll be tangling all day. The controversial DT is attempting to let his play speak for itself, and his play is worthy of billing as the top 4-3 defensive tackle in the game. He leads all DTs in total pressures and is behind just Gerald McCoy in pass rush grade.
DeCastro has been very solid in 2013 after his rookie season was derailed by an ACL and MCL injury, which limited him to all but three games. DeCastro has yielded just 13 pressure on his 305 passing plays while players around him, like Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, are giving the turnstyle treatment to opposing defensive lineman. It’s imperative for DeCastro to hold Suh in check, as the other lineman will have their hands full with Willie Young, Nick Fairley, and Israel Idonije. If DeCastro can stand up one-on-one with Suh for some snaps, it will allow for double teams on the other guys. Unfortunately, Big Ben may be running for his life on Sunday.
Reggie Bush vs. Steelers Linebackers
Reggie Bush has been the perfect scheme fit for the Lions’ offense. Bush is easily one of the free agent signings of the season, and reminds of Jahvid Best working in the offense. Operating the best in space, Bush is just 13th in the league in carries with 133, but has forced 32 missed tackles, tied for third in the league. With defenses pressed into stopping Stafford, Bush is doing damage in between the tackles. He’s produced 436 yards on 81 totes when running between tackles. Moreover, Bush is clearly the No. 2 target behind Megatron in the passing game. Bush is fourth among running backs in Yards per Route Run, and that includes being behind his own teammate, Joique Bell.
Against the Lions, the Steelers are likely to not be in their base defense much, meaning ILB Vince Williams will step off the field in exchange for another defensive back. That will leave Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu as the main second-level defenders tasked with stopping Bush. Polamalu has played 78.7% of his run snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, but he hasn’t had his usual impact, logging just six run stops. Timmons and Polamalu haven’t exactly wowed in coverage either, which could spell a big day for Bush and Bell in the passing game. Timmons is giving up a catch every 8.5 coverage snaps, which ranks second to last among ILBs who’ve played at least half their teams’ passing snaps. The Steelers could choose to double team both Calvin and Bush, leaving Kris Durham, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, Joique Bell, and temporary slot man Jeremy Ross to hurt them. That may be the only chance to stop the Lions, but as we’ve seen before, double and triple teams on Megatron just don’t matter.