The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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November 17, 2013

Surging Lions facing test with desperate Steelers

PITTSBURGH — Reggie Bush wouldn’t use the word “unstoppable” to describe the Detroit offense, even if few teams in the NFL have the dynamic options at quarterback Matthew Stafford’s disposal.

All-everything wide receiver Calvin Johnson emerging as the finest pass catcher of his generation. Bush in the backfield showing the speed and creativity that made him so dangerous in college nearly a decade ago. The breakout performance of rookie tight end Joseph Fauria and the steady hand of veteran Brandon Pettigrew.

All of whom work at the pleasure of Stafford, who appears to be morphing from big-armed talent into one of the league’s elite.

Good, yes. Unstoppable? Not really. At least, not yet.

“I would say we’re pretty tough to match up against,” Bush allowed.

And that’s been more than enough this season for teams who play the erratic Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6), who still believe they can chase down AFC North leading Cincinnati if they can somehow develop the consistency that has eluded them throughout the fall.

“We realize that the mistakes that we made early on in the season has put us in this hole, but they are just what they were, mistakes,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We’ve worked to correct those mistakes and hopefully that translates into the wins that we need to be able to make it into the playoffs. The guys feel like we can do it. That’s the belief we have in this locker room.”

It’s a belief that can be crushed if Megatron gets loose.

Five things to look for as the Lions try to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1955:

Steady Stafford: The days when Stafford would just cock his arm and heave it are over. Now in his fifth season, the

25-year-old Stafford has become one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league. He’s taken just 10 sacks despite averaging over 40 pass attempts a game, thrown only seven interceptions and displayed a flair for the dramatic.

As impressive as his last-second dive over the top against the Dallas Cowboys was last month, perhaps a bigger sign of his maturity came on the nine-play, 74-yard drive Stafford led in the fourth quarter at Chicago last week. The score turned a slim one-point lead into an eight-point cushion with a perfect 14-yard strike to Johnson.

“He makes good and fast decisions,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He puts balls in places for guys to make plays.”

Red-zone woes: The Steelers have started to gain momentum offensively behind the rise of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, yet that hasn’t translated to touchdowns. Pittsburgh has scored four touchdowns in its three wins and kicked 11 field goals. It’s a ratio that needs to change for the NFL’s 28th-ranked red zone offense. Less than half (45 percent) of the Steelers’ red zone possessions end with six points.

“I think when we get down there we need to keep staying aggressive and not get too conservative and bring in extra lineman,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We have great weapons.”

Road warriors: The Lions have been competitive at home for years no matter how bad things have been – except perhaps in their winless 2008. This year, they’ve found a way to take that act on the road.

Detroit already has victories at Washington, Cleveland and Chicago.

“It takes a full team to win on the road,” Stafford said. “They’re not often pretty wins, not often do you go in to somebody else’s place and just put a whooping on them. It’s usually a grind-it-out game where each phase of the game has to make a play to help you. We have been able to do that.”

Doing it in a place the franchise hasn’t won since Hall of Famer Bobby Layne was flinging spirals would set them up for a very favorable stretch drive that includes four games at Ford Field and trips to Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Stopping Suh: Roethlisberger joked the best way to keep perpetually irritated Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at bay is to “try not to upset him.”

Good luck with that.

Roethlisberger has already endured 35 sacks this season, the second-highest total in the league. An ever-changing combination of linemen hasn’t helped. Neither has Pittsburgh’s tendency to fall behind early, forcing the Steelers to abandon the run. If Detroit jumps in front, Roethlisberger could be in line for another long day.

Desperation time: The Steelers abandoned the “big picture” approach after a 2-6 start and have instead focused on treating every week as if their season is on the line. They enter Sunday in a weird spot, two games behind the Bengals in the loss column, but also only two games clear of conference doormat Jacksonville.

“I look at one game and one game only,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t think you can afford to look at where you sit and what other teams are doing. All we can do is control what we need to control.”

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