The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their ninth regular season game of 2021 at home Sunday afternoon against the winless Detroit Lions, and they’ll likely enter that contest marked as a pretty big favorite of more than a touchdown. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh to come away with their sixth win of 2021 season.
Limit Their T.J. – The Lions’ leading wide receiver entering Week 10 is none other than tight end T.J. Hockenson, a former first-round draft pick out of Iowa. While Hockenson is no Darren Waller, he does have more catches than the Las Vegas Raiders tight end and the same amount of touchdown receptions, which is two. Hockenson is also heavily targeted by Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff on third downs, as well. Twenty-four of Hockenson’s 48 receptions this season have come in the Lions’ last three games, so the Steelers might want to seriously consider taking him away on Sunday just as they did Waller in Week 2. The Lions’ offense doesn’t have a very talented or deep group of wide receivers, so Hockenson can’t be allowed to have a big game. Goff needs to be forced to go elsewhere other than Hockenson on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Adjust To Halftime Adjustments Better – The Steelers’ defense hasn’t been great at times this season, especially in the second half of games. Against the Chicago Bears on Monday night, the Steelers’ defense followed up a solid first half with an equally lousy second half. That unit did not adjust well to the Bears’ offensive halftime adjustments, and it almost cost them the game. The Bears’ offense registered 10 plays of 16 yards or longer against the Steelers’ defense on Monday night, with seven of those coming in the second half. The Steelers’ defensive ANY/A (adjusted net yards per passing attempt) stat for the second half of games and on this season is a disturbing 9.42. That needs to change pronto if this team expects to make any sort of run at the playoffs. The Lions’ offense is averaging less than four explosive plays of 20 yards or longer so far this season, and four is the max the Steelers’ defense better give up to that unit on Sunday, especially in the second half of the contest.
Penei For Watt’s Thoughts – It looks like Lions’ tackle Taylor Decker will make his 2021 debut on Sunday against the Steelers, and if he does, rookie tackle Penei Sewell will likely be flipped from left tackle to right tackle. Sewell has played at left tackle while Decker has been out. He’s surrendered four sacks so far this season, as well. While Sewell, the Lions’ first-round draft pick this year out of Oregon, did play some right tackle during the preseason, and against the Steelers to boot, he didn’t look overly comfortable on that side of the offensive line against the likes of outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who has since been traded away. Watt didn’t play during the preseason, but he sure has played since then, and played well. The Lions are sure to give Sewell some help with Watt on Sunday in the form of a chipping running back or tight end. Even so, that sort of help is not sustainable for an entire game. Watt should have plenty of chances to welcome Sewell to the NFL on Sunday, and it’s important he makes the most of the chances that include Goff needing to hold the football longer than 2.25 seconds.
Time To Explode – To date, the Steelers offense has only managed to produce 23 explosive plays of 20 yards or longer, and only the New Orleans Saints (18) have produced fewer. Against the Bears on Monday night, the Steelers only managed three explosive plays, and thankfully, one of them came in the fourth quarter with 1:07 left, a short pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Diontae Johnson that covered 22 yards. Like was the case last season, the Steelers’ offense is relying way too much on throwing short with hopes the pass catcher will run long. The Steelers’ offense won’t have wide receiver Chase Claypool on Monday due to a toe injury. Even so, that Roethlisberger-led unit needs to find a way to overcome not having Claypool when it comes to deep pass receptions. If this Steelers’ offense can’t produce at least six offensive plays of 20 yards or longer on Monday against the Lions, there’s a good chance that the winless team from Detroit will still be in the game late.
Have Special-er Specialists – The last few games have included a few of the Steelers’ specialists, most notably punter Pressley Harvin III and returnman Ray-Ray McCloud, not being so special. Harvin has a net punting average of just over 40 yards through eight games, and that his him ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL. Harvin needs to be more consistent with his punting, especially in key moments of games. Him pinning the Lions deep in their own end on Sunday could pay huge dividends, especially if the contest includes a lot of rain during. As for McCloud, he’s on thin ice right now. His decision-making and handling of the football hasn’t been great the last few weeks on punt returns, and his fumble on Monday night against the Bears during a fourth quarter return was scooped up and returned for a touchdown. McCloud’s longest punt return so far this season is just 19 yards. Additionally, he’s yet to return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown in an NFL game. Sunday at Heinz Field would be a great time for McCloud to get his first. A huge return on Sunday by McCloud, either via a punt or kickoff, could wind up being a huge difference-maker in this Week 10 contest.