Monday, October 12, 2009

Just Like That, Steel Curtain Closes On Lions' Chances

They say more NFL games than you know come down to a handful of plays. The talent level, supposedly, is so close from team to team that in any given game, wins and losses are often decided by maybe no more than three or four percent of the total number of plays run.

Usually, though, those three or four plays are scattered throughout the game's sixty minutes. They're rarely bunched together, rat-a-tat-tat, at the end of the match.

But that's exactly what happened at Ford Field---a.k.a. Heinz Field North---on Sunday as the Pittsburgh Steelers fended off the Lions, 28-20.

The Steelers sacked Lions QB Daunte Culpepper three straight times within the final 90 seconds of regulation, turning a 1st-and-10 from the Steelers' 21 into 4th-and-34 from their 45, thus sealing the victory.

Only the Lions could turn such a golden opportunity for a tying score into a desperate, Hail Mary situation in a matter of seconds.

Well, the Lions---and the Steelers themselves.

This is no ordinary defense, the one they have in Pittsburgh. Pro Bowler James Harrison spent almost as much time in the Lions backfield as running back Kevin Smith. The Steelers pressured Culpepper more than what the Hoover Dam deals with every day.

And the Lions have no ordinary offensive line. In fact, they'd kill for ordinary, because they're still not quite at mediocre yet.

And you hoped that Matthew Stafford would play on Sunday? Heck, we might be eulogizing him this morning.

Culpepper, though, didn't exactly show much elusiveness in that final drive, which was surprisingly punctuated by a couple of nice catches by rookie Derrick Williams. Daunte may have lost a lot of weight, but he went down sometimes if he was breathed on funny.

Sadly, he picked a couple of those times during that fateful three-play stretch. Steelers DB William Gay blitzed on the third sack, and clipped Culpepper with his arms, and the Lions QB plopped to the turf, his attempt at avoiding Gay about the most pathetic you'll ever see.

Would Stafford had done better? Even if he had---on that play---let's just say that the kid picked a good game to miss.

And the Steelers fans picked a good game not to miss.

They came in droves to Detroit, and if there was a home field advantage for the Lions, it was a trickle---the Steelers fans filtering it capably.

But it was because of those Steelers zealots that the game was sold out in time for the NFL to lift the blackout.

Which meant, of course, that we were lucky enough to see those three rat-a-tat-tat sacks that effectively squashed the Lions' hopes of tying the game.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the former Lion, is up for Hall of Fame consideration. It's debatable whether it's more for his exploits on the field or on the sidelines. But in about 30 seconds on Sunday, LeBeau sealed his induction, as far as I'm concerned.

Those three sacks should go down in Steelers lore, albeit them coming against the---no pun intended---sad-sack Lions. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a team change a game so definitively and so dramatically, so quickly and so late?

That's a lot of "sos," I know, but goodness gracious---LeBeau dialed up the pressure and his players responded, big time.

Ahh, players. The Steelers, like most NFL teams save a handful, have more good ones than the Lions have. But the Lions showed some moxie, making big plays on both sides of the ball and converting 11-of-18 third downs, which is their new thing this year.

DB William James had a "pick six" for the Lions, and I think the last one of those might be Shaun Rogers' long gallop against the Denver Broncos at Ford Field, two years ago.

But Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 passes in a row after James' interception, proving why he's one of the game's greats. The elite guys bounce back like super balls following such duress.

As for the Lions, despite the new cast of characters, you still don't get the feeling that any late-game drives are going to end up positively, such as Sunday's. And you won't, until they actually start to occur. But here's the rub: I think they might, sooner rather than later.

The o-line is bad, but the Lions put a scare into the Steelers without Calvin Johnson, injured earlier. The playcalling is the main reason; o-coordinator Scott Linehan calls a good game, for the most part. Until the Lions get reinforcements on the line, they'll struggle, but the talent level and Linehan's mind will just have to combine for at least one heroic, late-game drive this year.

The Steelers fans who piled into their vehicles and made the trek to Detroit went home happy.

You can only wonder when you can start saying that with any consistency about the hometown folks, whose twenty, thirty minute jaunts have seemed longer than the one from Detroit to Pittsburgh in recent years.

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