DETROIT – This was the kind of game they have lost in the past.
A game on the road, against a middling opponent, coming on the heels of a couple of significant victories over teams they either were trying to catch in the standings, or were established rivals, or both. They either weren't good enough, or deep enough, or mature enough to do what was necessary to prevail in those kinds of situations.
But yesterday in Detroit, they were. They were good enough, deep enough, mature enough, resilient enough to get out of Ford Field with a 20-15 victory over the Lions that sent them into their bye with a 6-2 record at the midway point of the 2017 regular season.
It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty, and as this group of Steelers takes stock in themselves individually and as parts of units during this week off, they will find plenty to improve upon, plenty they will have to improve upon to end up being what they want to be once February rolls around. Those areas are some of the same ones that have dogged them since this all started back on Sept. 10.
Red zone offense might be chief among those. The Steelers arrived here for this game ranked 30th in the league after converting only 42.3 percent of their 26 red zone possessions into touchdowns, and it's doubtful that ranking improved much after they were 1-for-3 against the Lions. That this offense could be so bad at scoring touchdowns with the talent it is able to put onto the field at the positions that typically are responsible for getting the ball into the end zone defies explanation.
There are theories, of course, but they're only theories. Maybe Vance McDonald becomes the blocking/receiving tight end who's critical in that area of the field, the kind of tight end the Steelers haven't had since Heath Miller retired. Maybe there has been too much energy expended on making the perfect play-call. Maybe things need to be simplified to enhance the possibility of better execution. Or maybe it's just a matter of a receiver who's wide open in the end zone catching the ball when it hits him in the hands, which is what Eli Rogers didn't do on the game's opening possession yesterday.
Matthew Stafford passed for 423 yards, and the Lions consistently were able to exploit the area of the field down the sidelines in between the cornerback and the safety. Maybe that gets fixed by allowing cornerbacks Artie Burns and Joe Haden to play more man-to-man, but in the meantime the Steelers mitigated the damage yesterday by being extremely stingy on possession downs, with the Lions converting only 2-of-14 in third- and fourth-down situations.
The Steelers defense may have allowed 482 total net yards, but the Lions never crossed the goal line in five trips into the red zone, and they also were 0-for-3 in goal-to-go situations with one of those possessions ending with a sack by Tyson Alualu on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Le'Veon Bell was held under 80 yards rushing, Antonio Brown had only 70 yards receiving, and Martavis Bryant was inactive, but picking up the slack were JuJu Smith-Schuster, with seven catches for 193 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown, and Jesse James who had two timely catches for 42 total yards.
One of the things Mike Tomlin said about this group all the way back in mid-August was that it would be a team in development into the regular season, and that development has been progressing nicely over the first half of the schedule. There used to be a specific recipe the Steelers would follow to lose the kind of game they won here, and it involved red zone failures plus some turnovers plus some untimely defensive lapses plus the stars not playing like stars.
But while this group experienced all of those things to varying degrees against the Lions, it also compensated, by getting some star-caliber contributions from other individuals and with units making up for lapses in one area with excellence in another.
Certainly that speaks to the depth and talent of this roster, but what also was on display was a maturity to fight through some of the issues that had tipped the balance against them in similar games like this in the recent past. The tendency can be to blame losses in games like this to lapses in preparation, to failures of coaches to treat these opponents as seriously as others.
The reality is that there is no difference in preparation. Practices and meetings are just as thorough, attention to detail is preached just as intensely, mistakes are identified and corrections are attempted. Mike Tyson always claimed that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and the maturity these Steelers seem to be developing comes in the ability to take a punch and not lose their sense of purpose.
A dropped pass in the end zone on the game's opening series is only a setback instead of a death knell. Giving up chunks of yardage doesn't necessarily lead to points allowed. Bad red zone offense can be mitigated by good red zone defense. A positive outcome in a particular game doesn't have to be traced back to the performances of a few select individuals and only those select individuals.
The 2017 Steelers are at the midway point of their season, and at 6-2 they are in control of their division and sit atop the AFC, but even more significant is that despite their imperfections they are more of a complete team now than they were eight weeks ago.