Steelers defense holds firm inside the red zone to key win over Lions
DETROIT — Early last week, the Steelers defense was challenged by its head coach regarding its play in the red zone.
Sunday, it was “disrespected” by its opponent by way of the same reason.
Steelers defenders took well to the challenge — and to the perceived slight.
“Our red-zone defense was amazing,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “Especially in making those goal-line stops. Amazing.”
Amazing. Superb. Excellent. Outstanding. Terrific. Sublime. Pick an adjective for the defense's play deep in its own territory during a 20-15 victory against the Detroit Lions.
The Lions snapped the ball 18 times inside the Steelers' 20-yard line. Counting a holding penalty, Detroit netted minus-1 yard on those 18 snaps.
“We made them,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said, “kick field goals.”
At best. During the Lions' five trips inside the Steelers' 20, three ended up with Lions' field goals. The other two were turnovers on downs.
“That's a huge momentum swing,” linebacker Vince Williams said. “When a team tries as hard as they can, they're a couple of inches away from the goal line and they can't get in, it really sets the tone.”
That's what happened three times during the second half at the end of three of the four Lions' possessions after halftime.
The first time, a first-and-goal from the 4 resulted in zero points when the Steelers stuffed two runs, Matthew Stafford tossed an incompletion and, on fourth down, Tyson Alualu sacked Stafford as he stepped up in the pocket.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions had a chance to tie the game — again, with a first-and-goal from the 4 — but produced an incompletion and two Dewayne Washington runs that gained a total of 3 yards. Matt Prater kicked his fifth field goal instead.
Then, the final time the Lions would have the ball, they were set up with a first-and-10 at the 11. The drive would end when, on fourth-and-7 from the 8, Stafford tossed an up-for-grabs ball that Shazier almost intercepted.
“That's critical. It's critical down there as a defense to get stops,” defensive lineman L.T. Walton said. “You gotta win down there.”
The Steelers did. And the Lions, conversely — or perhaps, as a result of — lost “down there.”
Stafford was 2 for 11 for 6 yards and a sack on plays that originated from the Steelers' 20-yard line or inside it. Running the ball wasn't much better: 5 carries, 5 yards.
The performance by the Steelers defense in the red zone Sunday was a far cry from what it had been over the first seven games of their season.
Opponents had scored touchdowns on 10 of 16 possessions in such instances. Only five of the other 31 teams had a worse ratio.
“(Coach Mike Tomlin) called us out in front of the whole team,” Williams said. “Fortunately, we had not given up too many trips into the red zone, but when we did give up trips to the red zone, people had been getting touchdowns on us. So he called us out in the beginning of the week, telling us we were going to have opportunities to step up. And I think we did a great job.”
They did. Stopping the Lions on all five of their third down opportunities and two fourth-down tries deep in Steelers territory.
The second fourth-down try was an obvious call to go for it for Detroit coach Jim Caldwell: It was at the two-minute warning and his team trailing by five. The first — down a point midway through the third quarter— left the Steelers defense feeling insulted.
“I felt they were trying us. That was disrespectful,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Prater's a great kicker. You better bring him out here, or y'all ain't about to get any points.' ”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.