The 5-2 Pittsburgh Steelers will play the 3-3 Detroit Lions at Ford Field Sunday night in a Week 8 non-conference matchup and ahead of that game kicking off, there are several key storylines worth pointing out.
Below are what I consider to be the top five storylines for both teams ahead of Sunday’s game that will kickoff at 8:30 p.m. EST.
JuJu’s Big Adventure – Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had quite a week and it started during last week’s home win over the Cincinnati Bengals. First, the USC product made several major media highlight reels thanks in part to his long touchdown reception against the Bengals which was immediately followed by a creative post-score celebration that included him playing hide-and-seek with running back Le’Veon Bell in the end zone. After the game, Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant continued to take his frustrations out on the organization for his reduced offensive role on Instagram and that included him taking a shot at Smith-Schuster as he claimed he’s a better wide receiver than the rookie is. Smith-Schuster handled his teammate’s frustration and slight against him perfectly on Monday with the media but only after his prized bike had been stolen from his residence late Sunday evening. That theft made local and national news and the city of Pittsburgh, along with several Steelers players, made it a collective goal to get Smith Schuster’s bike recovered. While the hunt for Smith-Schuster’s bike heated up, it was announced on Tuesday that the wide receiver had been in concussion protocol since Monday morning due to him self-reporting symptoms. The wide receiver did, however, practice all three days this past week and has since been cleared to play Sunday night against the Lions. Smith-Schuster’s stolen bike was recovered mid-week and the wide receiver has now been reunited with it.
Me-tavis benched – As just mentioned, Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant once again made local and national headlines this past week thanks to him being unhappy with his usage on offense this season. The wide receiver blasted Smith-Schuster and the organization on Instagram after the teams win over the Bengals and followed that up with a claim to Josina Anderson of ESPN that he indeed would like the Steelers to trade him before the league deadline if things don’t change. Thanks mainly in part to his slight of Smith-Schuster, Bryant found himself demoted to the scout team this past week during practice. On Wednesday, Bryant informed the local media that head coach Mike Tomlin had informed him that he would be inactive for the Sunday night road game against the Lions. Bryant made it clear on Wednesday that he’s not really remorseful for his recent social media outburst and instructed the media to ask his agent why he’s been wanting out of Pittsburgh. With Bryant now set to sit out the Sunday night game against the Lions, fellow wide receiver Justin Hunter is expected to dress and play in his place.
New McDonald might be missed, E-I-E-I-O – While the Steelers will have to play another game Sunday night without the services of defensive end Stephon Tuitt (back) and tackle Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), they also won’t have tight end Vance McDonald on the field in Detroit as he’s now officially been ruled out for that contest due to a knee injury that he suffered last Sunday against the Bengals. While McDonald has only caught three passes for 63 yards in the six games that he’s played in this season, the Steelers offense has run the football extremely well as a whole whenever he’s been on the field. With McDonald now scheduled to miss the Sunday night game against the Lions, it will be interesting to see if fellow Steelers tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble can effectively pick up the slack and especially on running plays.
Former tackle in Lions clothing – With Lions starting left tackle Greg Robinson now officially ruled out for his team’s Sunday night game against the Steelers due to an ankle injury, former Pittsburgh tackle Brian Mihalik is expected to make his first career start. Mihalik, a former 2015 seventh-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, entered the NFL as a defensive lineman as he had played that position during his college career at Boston College. After signing with the Steelers in early 2016 as a futures player, Mihalik was quickly switched to tackle but he ultimately was injured during that ensuing preseason and was subsequently waived injured. After signing with the Lions for a few days last October, Mihalik found himself back with the Steelers after Detroit waived him. The enormous Mihalik ended the 2016 season on the Steelers 53-man roster and was with the team this year for all of training camp and the preseason before ultimately being waived during the final round of roster cuts. The Lions quickly claimed Mihalik off waivers from the Steelers and he was forced to make his NFL debut as a pass protector a few weeks ago against the New Orleans Saints due to Robinson injuring his ankle. Mihalik played less than 30 offensive snaps at both tackle spots against the Saints and it wasn’t pretty to watch. Sunday night against the Steelers, Mihalik will be tasked with trying to keep Pittsburgh outside linebackers T.J. Watt and James Harrison away from quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Situational situations – In addition to continuing to have problems scoring touchdowns inside opponent’s red zones this season, the Steelers offense has all of a sudden started struggling in short-yardage situations as well. In their Sunday win against the Bengals, the offense failed to convert three 3rd and 1 plays and one 4th and 1 play during the game. If that weren’t enough, the Steelers offense only scored one touchdown in six red zone trips against the Bengals and that in turn allowed Cincinnati to remain in the game well into the second half. Sunday night, the Steelers offense will face a Lions defense that has allowed 60% of all red zone trips against them to culminate in touchdowns and that percentage is high (24th in NFL). However, as far as their short yardage defense goes, the Lions have allowed just 8 of 20 3rd or 4th down short-yardage plays (3 yards or less) to be converted against them. The Steelers offense really needs to show improvement Sunday night in these two key situational game phases against the Detroit.