Detroit Lions: 10 keys for a week 8 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: The Detroit Lions link arms during the national anthem before a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: The Detroit Lions link arms during the national anthem before a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions go into Sunday night with two straight losses and questions about their offense. Will the Lions be able to put a complete game together?

The eyes of the nation will look to Detroit with NBC hosting “Sunday Night Football”. The Detroit Lions are down, losing their last two games and an offense with more questions than answers. The Lions healed up over the bye week and look to change their fortunes.

However, the Pittsburgh Steelers are rolling with two straight wins. The Lions will need a lot to go right to pull off the upset and get back in the thick of the NFC North race. Here are ten keys to lead the Lions to victory.

1. Matthew Stafford must play better

I am not putting all of the blame on Matthew Stafford for the woes on offense. That is an asinine assertion and a lot of the problems on offense have nothing to do with him. However, the Lions have not had a monster game from Stafford since week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals. Everyone knows he is the franchise quarterback and it is time for Matthew Stafford to have a big game.

The question will be if Jim Bob Cooter has better designed a game plan for Stafford to succeed. It would also help if the offensive line would provide adequate protection around him. Despite those issues, Stafford cannot have 12 batted balls like in week 6. He cannot hold the ball and must feel when the pocket collapses. The Lions cannot afford negative plays against the Steelers.

2. How do the Lions replace Haloti Ngata?

I originally underestimated the impact Ngata brings to the Lions run defense. The New Orleans Saints gashed the Lions for 193 yards on 37 carries in week six and the run defense seemed lost. The Lions activated Khyri Thornton after his suspension this week and might see some playing time. How much help he provides on running downs remains to be seen. It is time for A’Shawn Robinson to be an enforcer on the front line. He needs to step his play up and hold down the fort on the front line this week going against Le’Veon Bell.

I think Teryl Austin should call more run blitzes and focus on pressure from the outside collapsing in. Le’Veon Bell loves to take his time and wait for the hole to open up. Bringing pressure from the C gap or outside the ends could curtail some of those big runs.

3. Play Theo Riddick as a wide receiver

The Lions are using Riddick more in the passing game, which is an improvement from the first quarter of the season. On Sunday night, the offense must be innovative with Golden Tate‘s injury and Kenny Golladay missing another game. Yes, Tate is likely going to play but this can be a new look for the offense. This means more Riddick as a slot receiver to get mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Getting Riddick out wide to provide a reliable pass catcher will give Stafford some comfort and allow the offense to keep backs in to protect.

4. Force field goals

In week six, the Lions played a weak red zone offense in the New Orleans Saints but did not prevent touchdowns. In week 8, the same thing is in play. The Steelers are 30th in the NFL at scoring touchdowns in the red zone at 42.3%. The Steelers offense will move the ball with the weapons they have but if the Lions can prevent touchdowns, they will keep the game competitive.

5. Do not telegraph your screens or draws

I cannot put my finger on the exact reason, but watching the film it’s obvious defenses are keying on the screen game. It led to the issues with tipped passes at the line in week 6 and the screen game is getting zero traction. Consequently, this is getting Detroit behind the chains.

The Steelers love to blitz and use a plethora of linebackers to get after the quarterback. With a  10% sack percentage, the Steelers are third in the NFL at getting after the quarterback. They have five defenders with at least three sacks through seven games. Ultimately, the Lions must use screens and draws to counter the Steelers defense. The main concern is not tipping these plays to the Steelers. Jim Bob Cooter will need to change formations and tendencies for the screen game to succeed.

6. With no Steelers deep threat, use an extra defender in the box

As the world turns in Pittsburgh, wide receiver Martavis Bryant went rogue by criticizing his role in the offense. While not a vital part of the Steelers offense, he is their main deep threat. This takes away a key part of their offense and game plan.

With that in mind, this means the Lions can focus more stopping the run. Antonio Brown is always a threat, but you have Darius Slay to cover him. The other wide receivers for Pittsburgh do not scare me. Therefore, I am bringing an extra safety or corner in the box. If Ben Roethlisberger beats you deep, so be it. The concern should be stopping Le’Veon Bell and getting the defense off the field.

7. Player to watch: Marvin Jones

After a slow start, Marvin Jones is finally waking up. He has 12 catches and 150 yards in his last two games, with the Lions giving him 22 targets. In week 8, he will see a lot more plays designed for him. Golden Tate will likely play on Sunday night, but Jones will be a major factor. A big hit or awkward landing might take Tate out. This means Jones will be the de facto number one receiver.

My biggest concern isn’t necessarily his ability, but how the offense will use him. Will he just be a deep threat or can the Lions expand his route tree? We know Jones can have big games and Sunday night will be a test. The Steelers love playing press coverage and tight zone, so Jones must be able to separate and find open spots in the passing game.

8. Wrap up Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger has not been himself this year, throwing 8 interceptions and completing only 62% of his passes. He is still dangerous despite the inconsistent play. The key will be containing him in the pocket. He still breaks tackles and extends plays out of the pocket. The Lions must gang tackle him in the pocket and keep coverage even if he looks to be taken down.

9. Use the backs to protect

Teams know that Theo Riddick struggles in pass protection. When he lines up next to Stafford, it’s a tell it is a five-man protection. If you use Riddick more as a wideout (as in point #3), this can help the offensive line pick up blitzes. You can now use Ameer Abdullah or Zach Zenner as a sixth blocker and protect, especially on third down.

The Steelers will use six linebackers to go after Stafford. They bring pressure from everywhere and show multiple looks to free up linebackers to blitz. Keeping a back to block (or maybe using a tight end in the backfield) will buy Stafford a little more time. The offensive line needs as much help this week with how much Pittsburgh dials pressure.

10. Show something different

The next two weeks decide the season. If the Lions can win their next two games (in primetime no less) to go 5-3, they put themselves in prime position to win the North, especially with the weaker portion of the schedule coming up. If you split with a win versus the Packers, the Lions will still be okay but have a lot of work to do.

Next: Lions week 8 injury report

However, losing the next two games would be an abject failure. Going 3-5 will put Detroit in a near impossible position to win the division. The Steelers are one of the better teams in the NFL and will most likely win the AFC North. This is a playoff team the Lions will face. I won’t label this “must win” but losing three straight really puts you behind the eight ball. Winning in prime time against a brand name team like the Pittsburgh Steelers gives you momentum and sends a message that the Detroit Lions will be a playoff contender.