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Steel Mill A.M.: Lions QB Matthew Stafford impressed with Steelers defense

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, 8:24 a.m.
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates his sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates his sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates his sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates his sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at Heinz Field.

The Steelers' 24 sacks, exceeded only by Jacksonville's 33, have caught the eye of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Stafford has been dropped 23 times, more than every quarterback but Indianapolis' Jacoby Brissett, heading into the prime time matchup Sunday against the Steelers at Ford Field.

“They show some imagination in their blitz packages,” Stafford said earlier this week. “They're doing a nice of job sending some blitzers, but maybe dropping some guys on the other side so the number of players they're getting after the quarterback with isn't exactly a huge number They are able to put pressure on the quarterback and drop some guys into coverage, which makes it difficult.”

The sacks haven't been contained to members of the defensive line or outside linebacker personnel. Inside linebacker Vince Williams is tied for the team lead with four, and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Joe Haden have gotten to the quarterback this season.

The ability to put pressure on the quarterback has helped the Steelers craft the NFL's best passing defense and second overall unit through seven weeks.

“The guys up front have been doing a heck of a job getting to the quarterback,” Stafford said. “The guys in the back are doing a nice job of making some plays and keeping everything in front of them. They are a talented group and are playing well within the system.”

Stafford will have to depend on an inexperienced left tackle to help hold off the Steelers pass rush. Brian Mihalik, who spent most of last season and the 2017 training camp with the Steelers, is expected to make his first NFL start in place of an injured Greg Robinson.

Game watch

Steelers (5-2) vs. Detroit Lions (3-3), Ford Field, Detroit

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m., NBC

Series history: Steelers lead, 16-14-1

Series streak: Steelers have won four in a row.

Last Steelers win: Nov. 17, 2013: Steelers 37, Lions 27: Steelers scored 17 points in the second half to overcome a 27-20 deficit and improve to 4-6 on the season.

Last Lions win: Nov. 26, 1998: Lions 19 Steelers 16, OT: This was the infamous Jerome Bettis coin toss game that led to the Lions kicking the winning field goal in overtime. This started a five-game, season-ending losing streak for the Steelers, who finished 7-9 and gave coach Bill Cowher his first losing season.

At stake for the Steelers: A win would give them a 6-2 record heading into their bye week, maintain a two-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and keep them the No. 1 seed in the conference.

At stake for the Lions: A win would snap two-game losing streak and give the Lions a 4-3 record, tying them with Green Bay for second place in the NFC North.

Three Steelers players to watch

T.J. Watt: The rookie right outside linebacker will line up across from ex-Steeler Mihalik. Watt and possibly James Harrison will try to take advantage of Mihalik, a converted defensive lineman.

Jesse James: The third-year tight end wasn't targeted once in each of the past two games. With Vance McDonald missing the game because of injury, James should take on a bigger role in the offense.

Eli Rogers: With Martavis Bryant sitting out the game, Rogers should play regularly in the slot while JuJu Smith-Schuster and perhaps Justin Hunter play on the outside. Rogers has been little used since his two-game benching, but Ben Roethlisberger likes his grit and ability to make combat catches.

Three Lions players to watch

Jamal Agnew: The rookie cornerback already has two punt returns for a touchdown and has a hefty 23.7 average per return.

Darren Fells: The tight end has only 10 receptions through six games, but he is tied for the team lead with three touchdowns. He has become a favorite target of Stafford's in the red zone.

Darius Slay: The talented cornerback will match up against Antonio Brown, rekindling a pairing that had a spirit contest in a joint 2016 training camp practice. Slay already has three interceptions this season.

Stat watch

The Lions rank second in turnover margin (plus-6), with 14 takeaways and eight giveaways. The 14 takeaways rank third in the NFL and they are second with 61 points off turnovers and third with nine interceptions.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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