By BOB LABRIOLA
The last time the Steelers returned from a football game in Detroit, they brought a Lombardi Trophy home with them.
They don't have the same opportunity with this weekend's trip, but what they can bring back is something they'll need if they hope to contend for the hardware once again.
"First of all, it's an important game because it's our next one, but we're trying to get a couple things done that we haven't done to this point in the year," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "One is stacking victory performances on top of one another, trying to get consecutive wins. If you desire to be a world championship caliber team, like we do of course, you've got to be capable of doing that. Also, we're searching for our first road victory. Similarly if you're going to be a championship caliber team, you've got to be able to go in a hostile environments and play winning football."
The Steelers snapped a two-game losing streak – both of which happened to come on the road – with a win over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday night, but that game was at Heinz Field. That means the Steelers are a perfect 2-0 at home so far this season, but a very imperfect 0-2 on the road.
The Detroit Lions team that awaits the Steelers at the end of this week set a record for imperfection last season by going 0-16, and the last 10 men who have been the coach there -- dating to Don McCafferty in 1973 -- have left with losing records. But the Lions front office has been purged of Matt Millen, who's back in the broadcast booth where he belonged in the first place, and Jim Schwartz is the latest coach to try to fix this situation.
There is a culture of losing in Detroit that will have to change, and these Lions are 1-3 so far in 2009, but one of the sidebars to losing so consistently is that there is a natural accumulation of high-round draft picks taking place over time.
Because the Lions have been losing so much lately, it's apparent they've missed on a lot of those picks, but nobody misses on every one and so there is some talent assembled in the home locker room at Ford Field.
"Talking about these guys offensively, the focus is on the young, high-round draft picks they've acquired over the last several years who are making great strides," said Tomlin. "Matthew Stafford … has ridiculous arm strength and accuracy … and his No. 1 target of course is Calvin Johnson who's extremely talented, an alien if you will in terms of matchups. We've got to try and find a way to minimize the damage that he does to us."
Enter Ike Taylor.
A starting cornerback for the Steelers since the start of the 2005 season, Taylor never will be widely recognized as an All-Pro caliber player at his position, because that status is reserved for the guys who come up with interceptions. Taylor has only eight interceptions in 64 career starts.
But if interceptions are how cornerbacks get voted to the Pro Bowl, the way Taylor is playing so far this season is helping the Steelers to win games.
Matched against the opponent's top receiver, Taylor leads the team with seven passes defensed, which according to the way the coaches grade the video means that seven times Ike Taylor has caused an incomplete pass either by getting his hands on the ball or knocking the ball out with a hit on the receiver.
He will get the assignment of dealing with the Lions' alien – Calvin Johnson.
"I'm sure you guys understand that Ike Taylor will be following Calvin Johnson," said Tomlin. "Ike is a top quality player, he has a desire to be great, his actions match his words in that regard. He prepares extremely hard every week. He's as good a practice player as we have. He's always game for those challenges. He and I usually have funny exchanges early in the week, when he comes and asks for those premium matchups. That's what the great ones at that position and the ones who desire to be great at that position, that's the mentality that they have."
In the last two weeks alone, Taylor has lined up against Chad Ochocinco and Vincent Jackson. He had four passes defensed against the Bengals and Ochocinco had only 54 yards receiving, and he had two passes defensed against the Chargers, and Jackson finished with 56 yards receiving.
"He didn't wait until Wednesday to ask about that matchup this week," said Tomlin about Taylor. "He doesn't take it lightly, we don't take it lightly."
Neither is Tomlin naïve enough to believe one defensive back can cover a guy like Johnson all over the field for a whole game.
"We're not going to send Ike over there to stop Calvin Johnson. He's going to have some help in different forms and fashion," said Tomlin, "but that's just the nature of the game. Ike's a good player, and the more you have the more we're going to ask you to give. And he does that week in and week out."