NFL Preview - Detroit (6-3) at Pittsburgh (3-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Roles are reversed a bit this week in Pittsburgh as the traditional powerhouse Steelers are in the cellar of the AFC North while the normally hard-luck Detroit Lions are alone atop the NFC North.
Pittsburgh has taken three straight over the Lions and 11 of 13 overall. Meanwhile, it's been nearly 60 years since Detroit has won in Western Pennsylvania. Dating back to 1966, the Steelers have won eight consecutive times over the Lions in the Steel City, and you have to go back another 11 years for Detroit's last victory there, a 31-28 triumph back on Nov. 13, 1955.
Ben Roethlisberger was born 27 years after the Lions' last win in his town and the current Steelers quarterback has never lost to Detroit (2-0). Big Ben has done a lot of winning in recent seasons, though, and earned his 90th career victory in just his 135th start last week, the fifth-fastest to that mark in the Super Bowl era.
Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass and the Pittsburgh defense rebounded from one of the worst performances in franchise history as the Steelers earned a 23-10 win over the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh was coming off a 55-31 shellacking at New England, with the Patriots' points and yardage (610) total marking the highest allowed by the Steelers in their history.
Facing Buffalo rookie quarterback EJ Manuel proved to be the remedy for the unit, however.
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, shook off an interception on the game's opening drive to throw for 204 yards on 18-of-30 passing. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell added a rushing touchdown for the 3-6 Steelers, who are a game back of both Baltimore and Cleveland in the AFC North and 2 1/2 south of division- leading Cincinnati.
"Yes, it really was. It's what they're capable of and it's the type of men we have," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said when asked if he expected this kind of bounce-back performance from his club.
Things figure to be far tougher this week against Matthew Stafford and the high-powered Lions, who took over sole possession on first place in the NFC North last week when Calvin Johnson caught two touchdowns in the second half to lift Detroit over the Chicago Bears, 21-19, at Soldier Field.
Stafford passed for just 219 yards on 18-of-35 attempts with an interception, but did have three touchdown passes as the Lions came out of the bye week with their second straight win.
The triumph coupled with Green Bay's loss to Philadelphia on Sunday gave Detroit a one-game lead over both the Packers and Bears for the top spot in the division.
"The guys are happy in there, but we're not satisfied," said Stafford.
Johnson finished the game with six catches for 83 yards and his second touchdown catch was the 63rd of his career, passing Herman Moore to set the Detroit record for most touchdown catches.
Reggie Bush had 105 yards on 14 carries, and caught three passes for eight yards for Detroit, which won both games against the Bears this season. Brandon Pettigrew added five catches for 70 yards in the win.
"We weren't the best on offense, but we didn't have to be," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "We just have to score one more point than the opponent."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
When it comes to football, perhaps no city is as well versed in the soft bigotry of low expectations as Detroit. Lions fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop -- especially in Green Bay, Chicago or Minneapolis -- but things are beginning to change.
Hindsight is now telling us that if you pick in that top five of the NFL Draft consistently, you'll probably accumulate enough difference makers to make a postseason run every now and again, and the Lions are doing exactly that.
It seems like Detroit has been picking in the top 10 of the NFL draft forever and few teams across the NFL can match what the Lions roll out on Sundays.
Four players on Detroit's roster were picked by Detroit in the top five overall -- Johnson (No. 2 in 2007), Stafford (No. 1 in 2009), defensive end Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 in 2010) and defensive end Ziggy Ansah (No. 5 in 2013).
Add in Bush, who was selected No. 2 overall in 2006 by New Orleans, and solid picks like defensive tackle Nick Fairley (No. 13 in 2011), offensive tackle Riley Reiff (No. 23 in 2012), linebacker DeAndre Levy (No. 76 in 2009) and safety Louis Delmas (No. 33 in 2009) and it's pretty evident Detroit is one of the more talented teams in football.
Now it's time for the next and perhaps most important step -- consistency.
Schwartz arrived in the Motor City after a decade of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron and Rod Marinelli, turning Marinelli's 0-16 embarrassment of 2008 into a playoff team by 2011 before taking a step back last season.
Even with the consistency problems Pittsburgh will have a difficult time dealing with a powerful offense spearheaded by Stafford, who is fourth in the NFL in TD passes with 19, along with Johnson, who is first in receiving yards per game (113.0) and tied for second in touchdown receptions with nine, and Bush, who ranks third in the NFL with 120.8 scrimmage yards per game.
"Johnson needs no endorsement from me," Tomlin said. "He is the best wide receiver in the game and one of the best football players period regardless of position in the game of professional football."
Stafford also seems to amp it up against AFC foes, throwing for 2,686 yards (335.8 per game) with 19 TDs and a 99.2 passer rating in his last eight outings out of conference.
Despite the hiccup against the Pats, Pittsburgh has been pretty solid against the pass this season, allowing 201.3 yards per game, good for fourth in the NFL. The Steelers also held Buffalo to just 227 total yards in last Sunday's win.
"Their defense is playing well," Stafford said. "They still have playmakers. They have guys that can get after the passes, guys that can pick it off. (Troy) Polamalu is still a big-time playmaker."
Pittsburgh, though, will be without emerging rookie safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) and quite possibly veteran linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), injuries that could make life even tougher for Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who played with the Lions from 1959-72.
"They have a lot of different looks," Stafford said. "Their coordinator is a great coordinator. Been a coordinator in this league for a long time and does a great job."
The Steelers, meanwhile, have been trying to fend off trade rumors surrounding Roethlisberger with both the team and the QB himself denying any such talk.
"I don't know where that came from," Roethlisberger said. "It is one of the most (untrue) stories that I've ever heard of. I've always said that I want to be a Steeler for life. I love it here. I'm happy here."
Happy or not Roethlisberger needs just nine more TD passes to surpass Terry Bradshaw for the most in franchise history (212). He does, however, have to take care of the ball better and improve upon the Steelers' disastrous minus-11 turnover ratio.
As always the running game is what makes Pittsburgh go and Bell is slowly starting to come on, rushing for his fourth TD last week. Since 2011 the Steelers are 15-3 when rushing for 100-or-more-yards in a game.
To this point Schwartz has been unable to field a smart, consistent team, capable of staying away from those 15-yard death sentences that extend opposition drives and cost you games, on a daily basis.
The Lions, though, have amassed more than enough talent to be a serious contender.
The real question now is, can they get out of their own way?
"We have six wins. That's not going to be enough," Schwartz said. "I don't know if anybody looks at it the way that. We don't talk about standings and things like that this time of year. You have to go out and prepare for your next opponent."
That next opponent happens to be the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a city where Detroit hasn't won in nearly six decades and a place where the Lions can show their critics they are indeed for real.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 23, Steelers 21
11/14 12:08:56 ET