Skip to main content

O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Lions need more post-bye magic

If nothing else seems to be on their side, at least the Detroit Lions' have their recent history to use as a springboard as they return from the bye week to play the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Lions have played winning football after the bye under head coach Jim Caldwell. They have to do it again as they restart the season with a 3-3 won loss record if they're going to make the playoffs for a second straight season and the third time in four years.

Good things have happened after the bye under Caldwell.

The Lions have a 3-0 won-loss record in their first game after the bye, and they've had winning records all three years. That propelled them to playoffs berths in 2014 and '16, and in 2015 they salvaged a respectable 7-9 won-loss record from the ashes of a 1-7 start with a 6-2 post-bye record.

Caldwell has never been one to base performance on history – unless it's a history of sustained good play and preparation. What they've done last year or any time in the last three years cannot predict what will happen Sunday night.

"Every year is different," Caldwell said. "We don't have any secret formula in terms of coming out of the bye. We just go to work and try to find ways to improve. This year is a lot different than those three previous years."

Breakdown: The Lions could not have hand-picked a tougher opponent than the Steelers for any game. The Steelers were at the top of their game on both sides of the ball in beating the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals in the last two games. 

The bye came at a fortuitous time for the Lions. It gave key players a chance to recover to some degree from injuries.

What the week does to performance is another matter. The Lions played well only in spurts in losing their last two games before the bye to the Panthers and Saints. The Steelers can hurt the Lions in two areas where they've been vulnerable – pass rush and offensive balance. 

Nothing the Lions do should be a surprise. They've come through before under Caldwell in situations much more dire than what they face now with a 3-3 record. But this time, odds do not favor their history

Prediction:Steelers 26, Lions 24. 

Series history: The Steelers have a 16-14 lead with one tie, and they've won the only meeting at Ford Field --  28-20 in 2009.

Flip side: The last time the Lions beat the Steelers was on Thanksgiving Day in 1998 -- 19-16 in overtime at the old Pontiac Silverdome.

More notable than the outcome was the controversy over the coin flip to start overtime.

Steelers co-captain Jerome Bettis called "tails," and the coin came up tails – which should have let the Steelers receive the kickoff to start overtime. However, referee Phil Luckett said he heard Bettis call "heads." The Lions received the kickoff and drove to the game-winning field goal on the first possession. 

Lions focus – stop the stars: Simple math shows how much running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown mean to the Steelers' offense.

Putting together a defensive game plan to stop them is another matter. 

That is the chore facing the Lions' defense, and it's not an easy one. In most cases, a running back-receiver combination represents a dual threat, but Bell's ability as a receiver-runner makes it a triple threat.

"They're really good, those two guys in particular," said Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "We have to be judicious in how we play them, but it doesn't mean we're going to be scared."

They both carry the load for Pittsburgh at their respective positions. Bell has 684 of Pittsburgh's 796 rushing yards on 169 of the 208 carries.

The passing game is spread around more evenly, but Bell and Brown get the biggest share. Brown has 52 catches for 765 yards. Bell has 33 for 214 yards. Combined they have 85 of the team's 152 catches and 994 of the 1,789 receiving yards.

What Bell provides is a running back with power, vision and instincts that can grind down an opposing defense. He uses patience to let his offensive linemen open a hole for him to run through. In that regard, he's like a cobra waiting to strike.

"He is the most patient runner I think anybody will ever see," Austin said. "He doesn't rush a run. He lets the blocks develop, and he's got great vision."

Steelers focus – bring the heat: The success of the Steelers' pass rush comes from a group effort as opposed to a single star, and that can cause matchup issues across the board.

The Steelers are tied for second in the league with 24 sacks, and they've done it with what looks like a relay race to the quarterback. Three players are tied for the team lead.  Cameron Heyward, Vince Williams and rookie T.J. Watt all have four sacks. Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo are next with three.

Adding to the Lions' challenge of protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford is that the Steelers get pressure from both levels of the front seven in their 3-4 alignment. Heyward is at left end. Watt and Dupree are the outside linebackers, and Williams is inside. Chickillo, a backup, also plays outside.

Not to be overlooked is Ryan Shazier, a fourth-year starter at inside linebacker who is coming off a Pro Bowl season. Shazier doesn't have a sack, but he's done everything else – five passes defensed, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a team-high 41 tackles.

"There's no one guy to really clue in on," Stafford said when asked about the Steelers' pass rush. "They've got quite a few. Both their inside linebackers are good blitzers, too. Their guys off the edge do a great job. Their guys in the middle push the pocket.

"It goes hand in hand. They cover receivers, make quarterbacks hold the ball – they're going to get there. And every once in a while, they just get there on their own."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content