By Michael K. Reynolds
Hail mediocrity! The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t have picked a better season to be in transition. Err…I mean reloading.
How else could you explain a 3-6 team still playing games heavy with playoff implications? In fact, the AFC in general and the AFC North in specific are so weak the Steelers could lose this weekend and still have post-season hopes.
The wildest truth is that if the Cincinnati Bengals lose this weekend and the Steelers win then the road to the AFC North championship…dare we say it…could run through Pittsburgh. That’s right, with that scenario, the Steelers would be in control of their own destiny in their division. Remarkable.
What is undeniably wonderful for Steelers fans is this game against the Detroit Lions counts. And counts big. In fact it’s so ripe with fascinating match-ups it may end up being the most exciting game of the season. Here are just a few of the upcoming highlights:
Ike Taylor (& friends) vs. Megatron
All eyes will be on Ike to see what he can do against Calvin Johnson, the undisputed number one receiver in the NFL. Ike will get plenty of help over the top, and probably from the linebackers as well on the slants, but this is clearly number 24′s biggest challenge of the year–another career defining moment.
The Rest of the Receivers vs. The Rest of the Coverage
With everyone paying attention to the Ike and Megatron show, the greater challenge may be on the other side of the field. Whether it’s William Gay or Cortez Allen, both will be left on their own islands with everything shifting toward Johnson. And don’t forget the talent the Lions boast in towering tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. The Steelers coverage will be stretched to the limit.
Reggie Bush vs. Lawrence Timmons or Troy Polamalu
In Bush, the Lions have the closest semblance of Barry Sanders they’ve had since the great one retired. Although he’s nowhere near the runner as Sanders, his shiftiness and ability to run routes like a receiver will cause the Steelers fits. Who will Dick Lebeau use to match up with Bush? Timmons? Polamalu? Regardless which chess piece is used, it will be a joy to watch.
The Battle of the Trenches
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line will come limping into the game only to match glares with some of the nastiest, most powerful defensive linemen in the NFL. How the interior of the line face down Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley may have more to say about the outcome of the game than anything else. Flipping things around, the Lions have only given up ten sacks this season, a combination of Matthew Stafford‘s rapid release and a strong line. Will rookie Jarvis Jones be able to break out with a couple of sacks and make up for a wounded Steelers D-line?
Dick LeBeau vs. the Whispers of Retirement
These are the kinds of games that can make or break a defensive coordinator’s season. If LeBeau can conjure up a scheme that would make the Lions offense look ordinary it could silence those seeking to hasten him to the golf course. Count on LeBeau and the defensive coaches to serve up some of their most innovative and daring strategies with the season on the brink.
Jonathan Dwyer vs. Mike Tomlin’s Doghouse
There is no doubt the Steelers will be hoping to keep the Lions formidable offense off of the field by controlling the clock with an effective running game. But this will be a tall order against the behemoths of the Lions. Although Le’Veon Bell continues to impress in his rookie season, Jonathan Dwyer‘s ability to run through and around walls may make the difference. But has he earned the right to be the number two back in Tomlin’s eyes? Will he get much time on the field?
The Steelers Receivers vs. Disrespect
Lost in all of the hyperbole about Calvin Johnson is the fact that Antonio Brown is the leading receiver in the league in terms of receptions with 67 catches. Then you have Emmanuel Sanders who is working for a big paycheck next season. Jerricho Cotchery may be most underrated receiver in the NFL. And don’t forget Markus Wheaton, who no doubt is anxious to regain the pre-season buzz he once savored. Make no mistake, the Pittsburgh receivers will be intent on staking their own claim to the spotlight.
Do you agree this will be a great game? Maybe the most interesting of the year? What other match-ups are you excited about seeing this weekend?