As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, the Detroit Lions’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Lions’ Run Game
It’s not their strength and they haven’t had a 100 yard rusher in years, the longest active streak in the NFL. Their main cog is Ameer Abdullah, averaging just 3.8 YPC despite busting off four runs of 20+ yards. Have to give their run game, and really, their whole offense, has avoided fumbles. None by the entire team through six weeks.
Theo Reddick is the #2 but he’s pretty much more of a receiver than an actual back. Zach Zenner, #34, is their goal line/short yardage situation guy but also a competent blocker.
The offensive line though…is a mess. No Greg Robinson at left tackle, who was only starting because Taylor Decker has missed the whole year. That would leave Brian freakin’ Mihalik as the third stringer, the former DT the Steelers had in camp. What a matchup for Watt/Dupree. They’re also in danger of missing their starting RG, Emmett Cleary. That would call Tim Leito into action. Elsewhere, Graham Glasgow at LG, Tim Swanson at C, and Rick Wagner – their best linemen – at right tackle.
Going to get a lot of inside zone to let their speedy backs read and hit the hole. Abdullah has great acceleration and Reddick too, though again, is used less as a runner. Split zone too with the tight end pulling across. They don’t have a true fullback but used linebacker Nick Bellore (#43), four times this season.
Lions’ Passing Game
The most notable stat that stands out is the number of times Matthew Stafford has been sacked. A whopping 23 and as I pointed out their offensive line woes above, that pace isn’t likely to improve Sunday.
But there is good news. For them. Golden Tate is shaping up to play. They’re likely to be without rookie red zone threat Kenny Golladay but that’s a trade off worth taking. That has caught 36 of 48 targets and is as hard-nosed as they come. Hard to tackle in the open field.
On the year, they aren’t getting as many explosive plays in the pass game as they’ve like. Tied 24th in passes of 20+ yards, tied 27th in 40+ with two. But the weapons are still there. That’s led by Marvin Jones, who has been their deep threat. Caught less than half his targets but averaging 14 yards per catch.
Reddick is a key piece in the pass game, second on the team with 22 catches. Watch out for the Texas/angle route out of the backfield, where the back initially releases outside and then cuts in on a slant.
Couple other stats. They’re middle of the pack on 3rd down, 14th in the league, but strong in the red zone. Fifth best at a 60% touchdown clip. One reason for their success is their +6 turnover ratio, fourth in the NFL. A team that doesn’t fumble the football away.
Tight ends aren’t used by this offense but they have a couple of big guys. Especially their #2, Darren Fells, standing in at 6’7 270. Predictable red zone threat too and they like to send the Y down the seam in the red zone.
On the whole, even without talking about specific concepts, the Lions do a good job of using the middle of the field. Some “Pin” (post + dig) routes meant to stress the safety and helpfully open up the deep crosser. See it to the top though Stafford is sacked on the play.
And watch out when the #1 receiver, usually Tate, is in pre-snap motion. Reduce split means curl or drag. Check him out to the bottom.
Josh’s Individual Report
Finally, a primetime game for the Pittsburgh Steelers!
It’s Week 8, so that means a trip to the Motor City for a clash with the Detroit Lions, who are coming off of a bye week sitting at 3-3 on the season.
Early on in the season, Detroit looked like a solid football team that would once again compete for an NFC playoff spot. Fast forward a few weeks and it’s clear the Lions are a bit dysfunctional on both sides of the ball, which has lead to three losses in the last four games after staring out 2-0.
A lot of the issues with Detroit offensively has to do with a below-average offensive line in pass protection and in the run game, which has led directly to Matthew Stafford playing through a couple of injuries on the year.
As the offense has struggled to consistently move the ball and take care of the football, the defense has largely fallen off as well, which makes for a tough situation for a team fighting for a playoff spot.
For this piece, let’s focus on the Lions’ offense, starting with Stafford.
This season, the veteran quarterback doesn’t seem to push the football down the field much. More often than not, Stafford is throwing slants, out routes, digs and comebacks along the boundary. With as big of an arm as he has, I’d expect to see him push the ball down the field more, especially with a guy like Marvin Jones on the roster.
That’s not the case though. Maybe that’s one offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter for not calling deep shots, and maybe some of its on Stafford not being comfortable in the pocket (he rarely has a clean pocket to work with).
The simple fact is this seems like a Detroit offense is an easy one to plan for, considering they don’t take the top off of defenses, constantly throwing underneath in hopes of guys like Golden Tate, TJ Jones, Marvin Jones and Jared Abbrederis breaking tackles for big gains.
I liked rookie receiver Kenny Golladay a ton coming out of Northern Illinois. He’s a big, physical specimen with some speed to work with, but after a hot start to the season he’s had a hard time staying healthy. It doesn’t look like he’ll go again this week, but if he does he’s a matchup problem in the red zone.
Tate is banged up coming into Sunday night’s game on national television and might not play (currently a limited participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday), and Marvin Jones has come on strong as of late in the last two weeks (12 catches, 150 yards, one touchdown), but it’s mostly a bland passing attack.
When Tate and Jones are making plays after the catch, it’s an explosive passing game, but as of late that simply hasn’t happened much.
Yes, the Lions put up 24 and 38 points in the final two weeks before the bye, but roughly 42 of those points came in garbage time with the Lions facing large deficits.
Against New Orleans in Week 6, Stafford gets the ball out quickly on a comeback route to Tate along the right sideline. Following the catch, Tate is able to shake the New Orleans cornerback before racing in for the touchdown.
That play right there about sums up what type of receiver Tate is. He’s a guy who will catch the ball short and make some defenders miss. He’s elite after the catch, so it will be very important for the Steelers to tackle well on Sunday, should Tate play.
In the backfield, the Lions will deploy three separate running backs throughout the game. Ameer Abullah is the clear workhorse on the ground, but scat back Theo Riddick is the pass-catching threat out of the backfield as Detroit tries to get him matched up against linebackers in coverage.
Zach Zenner is the short-yardage back. In the last two games before the bye, Zenner went 2-for-4 in short-yardage situation, scoring one touchdown against the Panthers in Week 5. Fifty percent in those situations isn’t great, but Zenner is the clear power back out of this group, so more often than not when he’s in the game it will be short yardage.
Prior to the bye, the Lions really struggled to run the football from under center. However, when under center Abdullah’s best run is the outside zone, which has given the Steelers fits. I’m sure Cooter will try to run that often on Sunday until the Steelers show they can consistently stop it.
When in shotgun, Abdullah seems the most comfortable in that situation as the sidecar to Stafford. He seems to see the field much better from shotgun formation and picks his lanes quickly, bursting up field for gains.
This is out of the pistol in Week 6, but you can see how deep he is lined up before the snap. After taking the handoff, Abdullah stretches it out towards the sideline as far he can before planting his right foot in the ground and bursting up the seam for a big gain against the Saints.
When Abdullah sees a hole, he’s going to hit it fast and hard, which can give defenses fits.
Where Riddick comes into the game is on third downs. He’s a serious matchup problem for defenses, especially if you’re asking a linebacker to cover him in the flat or across the middle on Texas routes.
He’s a shifty route runner and has a great feel for working open to show Stafford his numbers. But he’s even more of a problem once he gets his hands on the football, racking up serious YAC.
Against a loaded blitz from the right side here in Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at home, Stafford checks it down to Riddick as the hot route, forcing star linebacker Luke Kuechly to try and get from one side of the field to the other to try and chase down Riddick on the hot route.
Once Riddick gets his hands on the ball, it’s over for Kuechly. He’s a shifty runner in the open field, and one the Lions could lean on if Tate isn’t able to go on Sunday.
At tight end, Eric Ebron has been a massive disappointment in Detroit after being a high draft pick in the first round just a few years ago. He struggles to create separation in his routes, largely due to his lack of attention to detail in his route running, and he’s had a hard time catching the football, getting booed at home three weeks ago for multiple drops.
Stafford seems to have moved away to him some when it comes to targets, having targeted backup tight end Darren Fells a bit more in the red zone, connecting on two touchdowns against Carolina in Week 5.
Ebron isn’t much of a blocker, and when he’s not producing in the passing game, he’s basically rendered useless on the field.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a poor offensive line that has dealt with a bunch of injuries this season.
Standout left tackle Taylor Decker has yet to suit up this season due to injury, while right tackle Rick Wagner has been banged up the last few weeks, which has led to former Steeler Brian Mihalik seeing snaps at right tackle for Detroit. Poor Stafford.
Here’s how Detroit is expected to line up left to right on Sunday: Mihalik, Graham Glasgow, Travis Swanson, TJ Lang, Wagner.
The center of the line will need to come up with a big game on Sunday in the run game if the Lions want to take some pressure off of Mihalik on third downs where TJ Watt and James Harrison could wreck Detroit drives.
On special teams, star kicker Matt Prater just signed a three-year extension earlier in the week and has been solid since coming to Detroit from Denver a number of years ago.
This season, Prater is 10-for-12 on the season, with both misses coming from 50+ yards. He’s money from 50 yards and in, which has helped bail out the Lions a time or two this season.
Jeff Locke was the punter for the Lions, but he was just recently released despite averaging 45.3 yards per punt on 27 kicks, pinning offenses inside the 20-yard line 11 times on the season. Locke was released due to the return of Sam Martin, who was hurt in Week 1.
Punt returner Jamal Agnew has been the best punt return in football this season, taking two punts back for touchdowns while averaging 23.2 yards per return on 11 attempts. Agnew can single-handedly swing a game in favor of the Lions. Just ask the New York Giants.
Agnew, Zenner and running back Dwayne Washington share kick return duties, but again that seems to be Agnew’s area of expertise, returning eight of the 11 attempts for Detroit, averaging 18 yards per return.