MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: What we learned from Week 8

Posted Oct 31, 2017

Mike O'Hara takes a look at what we learned from Week 8 of the 2017 season.

Just because the stars come out every week in the National Football League doesn’t mean that they are the ones who always shine the brightest.

The Detroit Lions did a good job of defending wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell in Sunday night’s 20-15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are two of the best players at their position in the league.

They weren’t shut down completely. Bell carried 25 times for 76 yards. He averaged 3.0 yards per carry – a full yard below his average going into the game – and he lost a critical fumble in the second half. Bell scored Pittsburgh’s first touchdown on a five-yard run in the second quarter.

Brown had five catches for 70 yards, with a long reception of 40 yards with Miles Killebrew trying to cover him. Bell’s TD run came on the next play.

The player who did the most damage to the Lions was rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. No one could have predicted that he would be the offensive star of the week.

What we learned by his performance is that in a league full of world-class athletes, any of them can beat you at any time. And Smith-Schuster did that. He had seven catches for 193 yards.

Among the other things we learned Sunday include not assuming a backup player won’t hold his own on the offensive line; that there’s always a little rust to be knocked off when a player has been out for an extended period; that head coach Jim Caldwell doesn’t budge on not commenting on rumors and hypothetical situations; and that there is a world outside the meeting room and practice field that motivates young players like Smith-Schuster.

This week’s lessons: 

On Smith-Schuster: He made the play of the game with a 97-yard touchdown on a catch and run with 3:01 left in the third quarter that gave the Steelers a 20-12 lead.

It was a game-turning play on a third and nine from the Steelers’ three-yard line – and just three plays after the Lions passed on going for a field goal on fourth and goal and were stopped.

The TD catch inflated Smith-Schuster’s average per catch to a gaudy 27.6 yards. However, he was more than a one-play wonder. His other six catches gained 96 yards, for an average of 16 yards per catch.

Smith-Schuster was not an unknown commodity going into the game. Pittsburgh drafted him in the second round out of Southern Cal. In seven games before Sunday, he had 17 catches for 231 yards and three TDs.

More on Smith-Schuster: He had a clear lead on Lions nickel back Quandre Diggs and safety Glover Quin as he sped to the end zone, but he looked back anyway to check his pursuit. After the game, he told reporters that he was looking back because he had a fairly low speed rating in the Madden video game.

“My speed is like 82, 83,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Nah, I think they’re going to catch me. And then next ... I pulled away and and swerved to the right and I was able to get the touchdown.”

On Madden marketing: Next thing you know, speed ratings will replace jersey numbers to save players the trouble of running all the way to the end zone when they have a clear lead.

On Brian Mihalik: He made his first pro start at offensive left tackle for the Lions as a replacement for Greg Robinson, who started the first six games as the replacement for Taylor Decker.

Strictly from the eye test, there was no falloff in performance between Mihalik, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2015 to play defensive end, and Robinson, who was drafted second overall by the Rams in 2014 to play left tackle.

A one-game test isn’t automatically the first brick in building a 10-year pro career, but Mihalik held up his end against a defense that has multiple pass rushers.

On the rust test: There is nothing like performing under live game conditions, and that holds true for kicking specialists.

Sunday’s game was the first of the season for Lions punter Sam Martin. He missed all of training camp, the preseason and the first six games because of an offseason injury. He boomed all six of his kickoffs for touchbacks, and his first two punts were for 45 and 50 yards with no return yardage.

However, Martin’s third and last punt went 19 yards in the third quarter. All in all, it was a solid first game back for one of the NFL’s elite punters.

Caldwell, trade rumors: Monday’s press conference was another example of Caldwell’s stand on not commenting on trade rumors, injuries and hypothetical situations.

Caldwell would not comment about reports that tight end Eric Ebron is on the trading block and could be dealt before the deadline at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“I do my very best not to comment on any rumors and innuendo, and I’m going to try to remain true to that,” Caldwell said, repeating a version of that answer to followup questions.