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O'HARA'S FINAL THOUGHTS: Lions return from bye to take on Steelers in Pittsburgh

As much as any team might scout and design game plans to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, they know themselves better than any opponent ever will.

That is what has made the Steelers so good for so long, and why it's a dilemma for the Lions in today's game at Heinz Field.

The Lions are looking for their first win of the season after going 0-8 before taking their bye last week. The Steelers have a four-game winning streak that has put them back in the AFC North race with a 5-3 record.

No franchise in the NFL – and perhaps in any team sport – has been more consistent and more stable than the Steelers. They've had only three head coaches since hiring Chuck Noll in 1969. He was succeeded by Bill Cowher (1992-2006) and now Mike Tomlin, who's halfway through his 15th season – and likely to join Noll and Cowher in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Teams know what they're going to get when they face the Steelers from those years of consistency, and the Steelers remain as hard to beat as ever with their tough, fundamentally sound style of play.

"They know their scheme in and out because they have done it for so long," said Lions head coach Dan Campbell. "They know their own blind spots. Sometimes that's what makes you one of the great ones because they know how they are going to be attacked.

"And they're really good at that. And then on top of that they've got some players. You can draw up all kinds of good stuff, but then you've got T.J. Watt off the edge. You've got 97 (Cameron Heyward) in there, and 55 (Devin Bush) can run.

"With what they have, and the fact they're all high motor and they're all going after the football, that's what makes them hard."

While the game might be viewed as a mismatch, the Lions have played their best ball against the toughest opponents – the Ravens, Vikings and Rams. They lost to the Ravens and Vikings on last-play field goals and had the lead late in the third quarter vs. the Rams.

The Steelers have an identity, and their performance matches it.

"They do have an identity, and we know that when we play the Steelers, especially in Pittsburgh," said offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. "You've got to deal with the crowd. It's going to be loud as hell, and you have to play a physical football game. If not, they're going to run you out of that stadium.

"That's the standard, their trademark."

Lining up: A big chunk is still missing in the middle of the Lions' offensive line with Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow on injured reserve, but Taylor Decker's return to left tackle gives the unit four starters at their expected positions.

In addition to Decker, that means Jonah Jackson at left guard, Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right guard and Penei Sewell at right tackle. Evan Brown remains at center since taking over for Ragnow.

Decker's size (6-7, 324) and five years as the starter at left tackle strengthens a unit that was considered the Lions' strongest position before injuries struck.

Decker's presence might give quarterback Jared Goff a little more time to throw, plus help the running game.

"To have him back on the field, that would help a lot," said Lynn. "I do believe, you hold up in protection, you get a little confidence to throw the ball down the field a little bit. Decker's just as good in the run game.

"Decker's a big, powerful man. With him and Jonah (Jackson) on the left side, if he can go this week, that would be great."

Random Thoughts:

History repeats?: The 2015 Lions were in a similar position -- if not worse – as the current team after the bye and rebounded to make a run at a playoff berth.

The 2015 Lions went into the bye with a 1-7 won-loss record after a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs in London.

Team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew were let go during the bye. There also was a shakeup in the offensive coaching staff, before and during the bye week.

Adding to the Lions' plight, their first game back was on the road against the Packers, who had not lost to the Lions in a home game since 1991.

A seemingly hopeless situation became the launching point for a remarkable comeback by the Lions.

They beat the Packers, 18-16, and went 6-2 in the final eight games to finish the season with a 7-9 record. They might have made the playoffs as a wild card had it not been for a loss to the Packers Week 13 on a last-play Hail Mary TD at Ford Field.

Steelers youth: They had holes to fill on offense, and succeeded in the 2021 draft. Their top four picks have started all eight games, as follows:

  • First round: Running back Najee Harris has been a dual threat: 541 yards rushing and four TDs: 40 receptions for 289 yards and two TDs.
  • Second round: Tight end Pat Freiermuth has 27 catches for 245 yards and four TDs.
  • Third round: Center Kendrick Green
  • Fourth round: Tackle Dan Moore Jr.

That's an impressive job of retooling an offense that likes to play a power game – running back, tight end and offensive linemen at the key positions, center and left tackle.

Break time: Tight end T.J. Hockenson woke up refreshed Monday from having a week off with no game. The bye week came at a good time for him.

Hockenson played 451 of the Lions' 545 offensive snaps in the first eight games. That's a heavy workload for a player who has to block in addition to running routes and catching passes.

"I felt pretty good Monday," he said. "It was good. I woke up on Monday feeling no aches and pains. After having a week off, you have some hiccups, some things you want to get back to, like cutting, catching a ball.

"You're used to doing that every day. It's nice to come back out here and practice – to go through the week and get those out of the way before Sunday."

Hockenson had 48 receptions in the first eight games. In a 17-game season, he's on pace for 100 catches.

"I didn't know that," he said. "Let me know when I get there."

Lions-Steelers breakdown: The Steelers are more of a force on defense than they are on offense. That could play into the Lions' favor if they avoid turnovers and generate some offense. Campbell got more involved in the offense this week, and said he wants Goff to pull the trigger more often to get big plays. The Lions receiving corps might not be built for that, but they'll never know unless they try.

Pick: Closer than most people think. Steelers 23, Lions 20.

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