Pittsburgh Steelers Week 8 notes, report card: Steelers pleased bye week is here

By The Sports Xchange  |  Oct. 30, 2017 at 7:10 PM
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-2 as they streak into their off week, and they are feeling good about their chances to earn the top seed in the AFC.

After beating the Detroit Lions 20-15 on Sunday, the Steelers are tied atop the AFC with the Patriots and were a half-game ahead of the Chiefs prior to Kansas City's Monday night game against Denver. The Steelers would own the tiebreaker over the Chiefs because of their head-to-head victory in Kansas City earlier this month. The Steelers play host to the Patriots at Heinz Field in December.

That's not all there is to like about the second-half schedule. Other than the Patriots, the only teams with winning records are the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, and they're just 4-3.

The other six opponents are .500 or worse, including the 2-6 Colts, whom the Steelers visit for their next game Nov. 12.

The Steelers have won three consecutive games, but count head coach Mike Tomlin among those who believe the off week is coming at an ideal time for the Steelers. They played without right tackle Marcus Gilbert for a third consecutive game due to a hamstring injury and had to play without starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt for a second game in a row because of a back injury.

Others went down during the game. Chris Hubbard, the replacement for Gilbert, sustained a concussion in the fourth quarter, so third-string tackle Matt Feiler had to finish the game. Safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis also left the game in the second half. Mitchell did not return.

"We're going to need this bye week to get right in several ways," Tomlin said. "Obviously, we need to continue to work to get better and analyze what we do, but just from a health standpoint, I think it's an appropriate time."

One thing the coaches will be examining during the off week is the offense that has struggled to score points on a consistent basis. The Steelers are 20th in the NFL in scoring, averaging just a shade under 21 points per game.

The Lions game was an example of how the Steelers have played on offense through eight games. They had almost 400 total yards, but could only manage 20 points. For the season, they rank 11th in the league in total offense.

"That's been the story of our season so far," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Going to the bye at 6-2 feels really good. It can be frustrating at times offensively because we're not executing the way we want to, but we're finding ways to win football games. Being able to hold onto the ball at the end of the game, converting that third down, taking a knee ... That's the greatest play in football, when you can take a knee to seal it. When we can find ways to win football games, our defense is stepping up huge. We need them to keep playing like that because the offense is going to come around."

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Tomlin challenged his defense early last week. While the Steelers were No. 1 in the league in pass defense and second in total defense, he confronted his defenders in front of the entire team when he noted how poorly rated that unit was in the red zone.

The Steelers entered the Lions game 26th in the league in red-zone defense. Opposing teams had converted 62.5 percent of their trips inside the Steelers' 20-yard line into touchdowns.

But against the Colts, the Steelers rose up and pitched a shutout. The Lions had five possessions inside the red zone, including three inside the 10-yard line, and the Steelers did not allow the Lions to score a touchdown.

"He called us out in front of the whole team," linebacker Vince Williams said. "He was like y'all red-zone defense sucks," Williams said. "The only thing that's saving y'all is people aren't getting down there much. If you let people down there you have to stop them."

The Lions had almost 500 yards of total offense, including 423 passing yards from Matthew Stafford. Giving up that many yards usually isn't a recipe for success, but the Steelers came through with some big stops when they needed them.

"We gave up a lot of yards, but we definitely didn't break," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "And then I feel like it really helped us grow a bit. We played a great quarterback, man. He's the highest paid in the league for a reason. He has the arm to throw the ball wherever he wants and it was just great to be able to stop him in the red zone and make them kick field goals."

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Tomlin didn't want to speak after the game about his decision to bench wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant was inactive because Tomlin punished him for requesting a trade through his Instagram account. When pressed on whether he is confident Bryant will help his team over the final eight games of the season, Tomlin gave the following answer: "I'm not. We'll see."

Bryant has been upset over the playing time rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has received. Smith-Schuster proved Sunday night why the Steelers like him so much. He caught seven passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown catch was a 97-yarder and tied for the longest play from scrimmage in franchise history.

Plenty of people on the outside wondered how the Steelers' offense would perform without Bryant. But it doesn't sound like any of his teammates are surprised by what Smith-Schuster, who at 20 is the youngest player in the NFL, did against the Lions.

"Big-time player, great performance," fellow receiver Antonio Brown said. "The man stepped up big. He made a huge play down the middle, 97 yards. One of the biggest plays in (Steelers) history. First game starting, I'm really happy for him. Hard-working kid, he comes to work every day and watches everything I do and it's great to see him have a big game today."

"The best player under 21 ever and I mean that," running back Le'Veon Bell said.

The Steelers have plenty of time during their off week to figure out the best way to proceed with their receiver rotation, but Smith-Schuster showed he's capable of playing a lot and producing with more snaps.

Of course, Bell won't be able to say what he did much longer. Smith-Schuster turns 21 on Nov. 22.

NOTES: QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown touchdown passes of 94, 95 and 97 yards. The 97-yarder was completed to JuJu Smith-Schuster Sunday night in Detroit. The 94-yarder was to Martavis Bryant in 2014 and the 95-yarder was to Mike Wallace in 2010. ... WR JuJu Smith-Schuster's 193 receiving yards were the second-most by a rookie in team history. Jimmy Orr had 205 receiving yards in 1958. ... DE Cameron Heyward recorded his 30th career sack, which is tied for third-most in team history by a defensive lineman.

REPORT CARD VS. LIONS

--PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Ben Roethlisberger threw for 317 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he and the Steelers left about another 100 yards on the field in missed opportunities. On the Steelers' first drive of the game, receiver Eli Rogers dropped a touchdown pass. In the second half, Roethlisberger overthrew a wide-open Darrius Heyward-Bey on a deep ball in the end zone. He also missed a wide-open Jesse James over the middle for a big gain when he was wide open. But Roethlisberger did throw a perfect pass to Smith-Schuster for the biggest play of the game and 16 other passes, including two others for 40 yards or more.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The Lions were intent on keeping Le'Veon Bell in check, and they were largely successful. Bell, who had 125 rushing yards or more in the previous two games, was held to 76 yards on 25 carries. He did score on a 5-yard run early in the game that gave the Steelers an early edge. But overall, it was just an average game for Bell. His longest run was for 8 yards. As a team, the Steelers averaged just 2.6 yards per carry.

--PASS DEFENSE: C -- The Steelers allowed Matthew Stafford to throw for 423 yards. They allowed seven completions of 20 yards or more, including three of 40 yards or more. It was by far the most passing yards the Steelers allowed this season. They entered the game with the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL. But give the Steelers' secondary credit for stepping up when needed. The Lions did not score a touchdown because the defensive backs made plays in the red zone, including three goal-line stands in the second half. It was far from a perfect performance, but the pass defense came up with big plays when needed.

--RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Lions' leading rusher was Ameer Abdullah with 27 yards on 11 carries. The Lions had just 71 yards rushing for the game with the longest rush being 11 yards. The Steelers have shored up their rush defense after a couple of shoddy performances against the Bears and Jaguars. In their three consecutive victories, opponents have not been able to threaten the Steelers with their running game.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Punter Jordan Berry had one of the best games of his career. He averaged 47 yards on four punts and pinned the Lions inside their 20 on two of those. Lions punt returner Jamar Agnew, one of the best punt returners in the league in the first half of the season, was a non-factor. Kicker Chris Boswell continued his strong season with two more field goals.

--COACHING: B -- The Steelers won another game on the road, their fourth win away from home in the first eight games. The ability to stack wins on the road is one of the reasons the Steelers are in contention for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has to worry about his pass defense again after Matthew Stafford threw for 423 yards, but the red-zone defense was the reason the Steelers won. Todd Haley's offense continues to struggle scoring, but one good sign from Sunday was Ben Roethlisberger hitting on some deep balls. He completed three passes of 40 yards or more after struggling to make big plays in the first seven weeks of the season.

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