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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-2) at Detroit (1-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Welcome to the Week 5 "Extreme Game."
Where a well-heeled representative of the "haves" section of the National Football League - either traditionally or just recently - meets a lowly member of the league's less-exclusive "have nots" club.
Or, for simplicity's sake, just call it Pittsburgh vs. Detroit.
For those unaware last season, the perennially powerful Steelers rose dramatically to their record sixth Super Bowl title in February, using a last- possession drive to overcome Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals.
As for the Lions in 2008, well...never mind.
Detroit suffered through the first winless season since the league shifted to a 16-game schedule a few decades ago, earning them the scorn of an already downtrodden Michigan fan base and the ignominy of selecting first in the subsequent spring's collegiate player draft.
And while the ray of hope they drafted - Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford - has shown promise early on and even guided the Lions to their first win in Week 3, the franchise's typical luck seemed to return last Sunday, when Stafford injured his right knee in a 48-24 loss at Chicago.
Stafford did not practice with the team Wednesday, leaving the mid-week controls in the hands of veteran Daunte Culpepper. Coach Jim Schwartz, when asked of Stafford's condition and prospects for playing, was decidedly non- committal.
He is listed as questionable on the league's injury report.
"There's no ulterior motive from a competitive standpoint," Schwartz said. "We're not playing possum. We're not doing one of those things. I don't know what's going to happen (Thursday).
"I don't know what's going to happen on Friday, what's going to happen on Sunday. I know that he wasn't able to practice (Wednesday), and if he was, he would've, and he wasn't."
Culpepper, who made his own NFL debut in 1999, finished the game against the Bears last week and was 6-of-11 for 54 yards in the fourth quarter. He's 41-54 in 95 career starts in the league, including previous stints in Minnesota, Miami and Oakland.
"One guy's got more experience than the other, that's how I see it," Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "Just got to be ready for anything. Whoever's back there, we've got to go back there and play. Got to watch film on both guys, and when Sunday comes, just show up to play."
For their part, the Steelers got back in coach Mike Tomlin's good graces with a Week 4 defeat of San Diego, which ended an uncharacteristic two-game tailspin. Pittsburgh opened with a three-point overtime defeat of Tennessee in Week 1, then dropped consecutive three-point verdicts at Chicago and Cincinnati to fall to 1-2.
The offense returned in full force against the Chargers, churning out 497 yards - including 165 on 29 carries and two touchdowns from second-year man Rashard Mendenhall, who was subsequently named the AFC's offensive player of the week.
He was the sixth Steeler to rush for at least 165 yards and two TDs in a game since 1970.
Mendenhall received the bulk of the carries in the absence of Willie Parker, who missed the game with a toe injury. Parker was unable to practice Wednesday, leaving Mendenhall in position to carry a second straight heavy workload.
"We hadn't pondered the division of labor to this point," Tomlin said. "I think the most important thing is we find out the level of availability of Willie, and then we'll make that determination, but, at this point, the ball is in Rashard's hands until we get further information in regards to Willie Parker."
The all-time series between the Steelers and Lions, which dates back to the 1934 season, is knotted, 14-14-1. Pittsburgh evened the series with a 35-21 home triumph in the 2005 regular season finale, a win that placed the Black and Gold in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl title. The Steelers have won two straight in the series but were 19-16 overtime losers when they last played the Lions in Detroit, in 1998. Pittsburgh's last regular season win in Detroit came in 1989, though the team also won Super Bowl XL, over the Seattle Seahawks, at the city's Ford Field.
Since 1966, Pittsburgh is 10-2 in regular season games against the Lions.
The Steelers' Tomlin and Lions' Schwartz will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Regardless of who lines up behind him, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger has been effective, racking up 1,193 yards (third-best in the league) and a 98.1 passer rating (third-best in the conference) through four weeks. He is 15-5 in his career against the NFC with 25 touchdowns and a 90.0 passer rating. Including playoffs, Pittsburgh is 30-2 when "Big Ben" posts a rating of 100 or better. His leading target statistically this season has been veteran Hines Ward, who has 26 catches (tied for third in the league) for 355 yards in four games. Ward posted his second 100-yard game of the season against San Diego, finishing with a season-high 113 yards. Elsewhere, tight end Heath Miller tied career-highs with eight catches and two touchdowns. In the backfield, a healthy Parker gained 135 yards in his lone career meeting with the Lions. As a unit, the Steelers are averaging 383.8 yards per game - third-best in the AFC.
Stopping the opposition has been an early-season issue for the Lions, who've given up 40-plus points in losses to New Orleans and the Bears and 134 overall - worst in the NFL by 16. Additionally, that's translated into 361.5 total yards per game and a minus-3 turnover margin. As for the individuals, linebacker Larry Foote meets his former team for the first time after he was drafted by the Steelers in 2002 and played with them for seven seasons. Elsewhere, in the last 14 games in which linebacker Julian Peterson has a sack, his teams are 10-4. End Jason Hunter leads in that statistic through four weeks with two. End Cliff Avril had a sack and a forced fumble against the Bears and safety Louis Delmas, a youngster from Western Michigan, was the league's defensive rookie of the month in September. Anthony Henry and Ko Simpson share the team lead with an interception apiece.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
For Detroit, both Stafford and Culpepper provide the same thing in terms of one stat - passer rating. Stafford's number last week was 89.6 before the injury, while Culpepper's career rating as a starter in 89.0. This season, Stafford sits at 65.5 through 139 attempts over four games, while Culpepper was 68.0 during last week's cameo. Among their weapons, running back Kevin Smith - who's second in the NFC with three touchdowns - has scored on the ground in three of four games against AFC opponents. He had two scores against the Bears. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson had eight catches for 133 yards against Chicago and is second in the league with 13 TD catches since the start of last season. His 323 yards this year are also second in the conference. Lastly, wideout Bryant Johnson had a 54-yard TD catch against the Steelers in 2003, while with Arizona.
Defensively, it's pretty much status quo for the Steelers, who are third in the AFC in total yards allowed per game - 279.8 - and have received the usual menacing push up front from linebacker James Harrison, who's tied for second in the league with 19 sacks since the start of last season and has recorded a team-best three sacks in the last two weeks. As a unit, Pittsburgh leads the AFC and is tied for third in the league with 95 sacks since 2007. Though he's been dinged up this season and was limited in practice with a bad knee Wednesday, Troy Polamalu leads team with a single interception.
For Pittsburgh, it's all hands on deck. The Lions are among the worst in the league in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs, quarterbacks and tight ends, so Mendenhall, Roethlisberger, Miller and the wide receiver of choice are essentially must starts. The defense figures to seize upon either a gimpy rookie or an unfamiliar veteran as well. As for Detroit, only Calvin Johnson has earned his fantasy stripes against one of the league's best defenses.
If it were any other team, then the mental lapse that often comes with a road game against a woeful opponent could apply for Pittsburgh this week. But considering the Steelers already have two losses in a division with a pair of one-loss front-runners, Tomlin doesn't figure to step off the gas this week in terms of preparation. The matchups all favor the visitors, as does the Lions' shaky QB situation.
It may not be easy, but it shouldn't be close.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 30, Lions 10
10/08 13:23:26 ET
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