PREGAME STRETCH: Pittsburgh at Detroit

With social media focus, can Steelers keep it real on the field?

The game: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) vs. Detroit Lions (3-3), NBC, Sunday, 8:30 p.m., Ford Field, 65,000.

Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth. These two have been the gold standard for broadcasting teams for the past three years or so, but that might be changing with the rapid ascent of Tony Romo on CBS’s No. 1 team. Contrary to what you might believe and what you definitely hear some Steelers fans saying, Collinsworth does not hate the Steelers and he is usually very complimentary towards them and fair in his analysis. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Dome conditions. Pittsburgh will go into its bye having played eight games in near-perfect conditions. This will be the first turf game of the season for the Steelers with three more (Indy, Cincy, Houston) to come. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: John Hussey. Hussey had a rocky first year as a white hat and did two rocky Steelers game in 2016. Through six games this season, this crew is right at the league average of 13 flags and 117 assessed penalty yards per game. The Steelers are now that eighth most penalized team in the league at 415 yards assessed and are actually +26 in net penalty yardage when you consider what opponents have been assessed. Pittsburgh is third in the league in offensive holding calls at 14 assessed. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: Ben Roethlisberger threw for 347 yards and four TDs as the 3-6 Steelers spanked the 6-3 Lions, 37-27, at Heinz Field in November 2013. Antonio Brown accounted for 147 receiving yards at two scores. The Lions scored all 27 of their points in the second quarter. The Steelers have won the last four games in the series, scoring 147 points in the process, and that win streak would be nine games if it weren’t for a fellow named Phil Luckett and his Thanksgiving Day 1998 shenanigans.

The line: Pittsburgh -3/45

Smarts say: Bettors were split 50/50 on which team to take in this one at midweek, but heavily invested in the over. After six unders in Pittsburgh games to start the season, last week’s Steelers-Bengals game just snuck over the line at 43 total points. The line here would mean something like Steelers 24-21. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 10th passing, 16th rushing, 16th scoring (21.0 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (10)

DET defense, 22nd passing, 8th rushing, 26th scoring (24.8 ppg), 22nd sacks (13)

When the Lions have the ball:

DET offense, 19th passing, 26th rushing, 8th scoring (26.8 ppg), 28th sacks allowed (23)

PIT defense, 1st passing, 15th rushing, 3rd scoring (16.6 ppg), 2nd sacks (24)

So…: When you see an offense is 19th in passing, 26th in rushing and 28th in sacks allowed, but scoring nearly 27 points per game, you know turnovers have to be involved, and they are here, with the Lions ranking fourth in the league with a +6 turnover differential. That makes ball security a key on Sunday night. Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: Allie Villanueva and Chris Hubbard vs. Anthony Zettel and Ziggy Ansah. Why: The Steelers have done a stellar job the past two weeks taking the opponents’ dominant defensive player out of the game. So how will they do having to neutralize two such players? Ziggy, the vet coming off an injury, and Zettel, the kid, both have four sacks this year from their defensive end positions and much of Detroit’s success in the past few years has started with their pass rush. Hubbard had a rough introduction into life as a starter after Marcus Gilbert’s injury, but he’s gotten rave reviews from teammates in the past two wins. Villanueva is still a bit of an enigma, he can play solid football nine plays out of 10 but is still is prone to whiff on that 10th block.

Player on the spot: Antonio Brown. Why: Can you remember a week in the past few years where Brown got less publicity than he’s gotten the past week while his young teammates were at the center of not one, but two, social media feeding frenzies – Tradegate with Martavis Bryant and Bikegate with JuJu Smith-Schuster? AB is a textbook narcissist and there is no possible way he is happy right now. We can almost guarantee you he’s going to do something Sunday night to put himself back in the spotlight. That could be very good news for the Steelers – or it could be very bad news.

Quick hits:

+ The social media drama (which is not real drama, after all) surrounding one unhappy receiver in Pittsburgh is really personal drama between two people: Martavis Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger. If you remember, Roethlisberger called Bryant out shortly after his last suspension, saying the receiver lied to him. And Bryant was asked about that comment in every interview he did during his suspension and re-entry into football and he’s been adamant that what’s done is done and he doesn’t feel he owes any of his teammates an apology, including the guy who ultimately decides is he gets the football in his hands. The tension between the two has never gone away and it’s likely that Bryant’s frustrations about being ignored in the offense are really frustrations about being ignored by Roethlisberger. The quarterback did nothing to quell those feelings this week when we said publicly to Bryant, “If you’ve got a problem with the offense, talk to your quarterback.” Roethlisberger (and pretty much every other Steelers player) was quick to praises Bryant’s work ethic, his effort in games and his locker room decorum. Still, it’s clear to us, at least, that Big Ben is still waiting for that apology.

+ “Kid is special.” If we’ve seen that written once this week in reference to JuJu Smith-Schuster, we’ve seen it written in a hundred places. And the amazing thing is that the adjective doesn’t just (or maybe doesn’t even) apply to his football skills. After all that’s happened to him since April and the aplomb he’s handled every single bit of it with, it’s still almost unfathomable that he’s not yet 21 years old. Yet with all that maturity that he’s shown on the professional side of football and the serious side of his life, he brings the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child to almost everything he does, including running routes, blocking downfield and celebrating touchdowns. He’s a superstar waiting to happen and a marketing agency’s dream pitch man. The only question is whether there are enough footballs in the Steelers offense.

+ Although it’s no fun watching the Ravens win, Baltimore’s drubbing of an unprepared and unmotivated Dolphins team Thursday night is good news, we think, for the Steelers, as it will require them to keep playing with an edge to maintain control of the division.

+ We know we’re in the extreme minority here, but we think the proper way to deal with Kiko Alonso’s hit on Joe Flacco has already been executed, a 15-yard penalty. The violence of the hit and the fact Flacco’s helmet popped us triggers an emotional response is us as viewers. But step away (and turn off the friggin’ slow motion replays!!!!!) and we have a runner who does not have “defenseless player” protection, a late slide and a defender who was already in motion at the time of that slide. The fact Alonso’s target area ended up being the head and neck of a sliding player is a penalty, as assessed. But, by rule, nothing else about that play is off kilter.

The pick: This is a tough one. We strongly believed before the season started the Steelers would be 5-3 at the bye, thinking they would lose at least one game they weren’t “supposed to” along the way. We did not think they’d lost two that way, but we also didn’t think they’d sweep the division games. That’s how these things work in the NFL, they even out over time and most teams end up about exactly where you thought they would. That said, we really like the vibe we’re getting from the Pittsburgh defense right now and when you look inside the numbers, the Lions really have been winning with smoke and mirrors. With that being a coin flip, we’re going with Pittsburgh based on their history of strong prime time performances under Mike Tomlin (against teams not named New England) … Steelers 27-21.

Last week: We were happily and doubly wrong last week, thinking the Steelers would be unable to capitalize on the advantageous position they now find themselves in. That leaves us 3-4 straight up and 4-3 against the spread.


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