Detroit — The Lions offense had few problems moving the ball, navigating into the red zone five times, but couldn’t manage to get into the end zone once, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-15, Sunday night.
The closer the Lions got to the goal line, the more inept the offense became. On back-to-back drives in the second half, they stalled out at the 1-yard line.
On the first, they turned it over on downs when quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked trying to scramble through traffic. On the second, they settled for a 19-yard Matt Prater field goal.
“Just missed here and there and didn’t protect well enough down there, didn’t run the ball well enough down there,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We just didn’t function very well in that area. And against a team like that, against a good football team, unless you score touchdowns it’s very difficult to beat them kicking field goals all day.”
Prater was superb, making all five of his kicks on the night, but, as Caldwell said, zero touchdowns isn’t a reasonable path to victory.
The Steelers scored two and it was a 97-yard touchdown pass to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the third quarter that proved to be the winner.
The dagger came after the Lions coughed it up on downs. Facing a third-and-9 from their own 3-yard line, Smith-Schuster shook nickelback Quandre Diggs in the slot and took a perfectly placed ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger down the seam and outran the rest of the Lions’ defense for the score.
“On that play, you see two high safeties, middle field open, you take it,” Smith-Schuster said. “Soon as I caught it ,I burst. I started picking up my legs. And once I got past the first safety, missed him, and then the second guy went for my ankles, couldn’t get me down, and I was like, ‘Man, I got this.’ ”
It was the key play in the coming out party for Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick in the most recent draft. Starting in place of the benched Martavis Bryant, the rookie hauled in six passes for 189 yards and the touchdown. He had 231 receiving yards through the first seven games.
Smith-Schuster helped the Steelers take an early 3-0 lead, catching a 41-yard pass on the first play of the night. Roethlisberger faked a short pass with a pump fake, drawing in cornerback Nevin Lawson as Smith-Schuster slipped behind the defense.
The Steelers nearly had a touchdown on that opening drive, but Eli Rogers dropped a wide open pass in the end zone on third down, leading to Chris Boswell settling for a 34-yard boot.
The Lions quickly tied it with a 43-yard field goal after an eight-play, 55-yard drive.
Detroit took the lead in the second quarter on a 37-yard Prater effort. Back-to-back false start penalties against offensive tackle Brian Mihalik and center Travis Swanson derailed the drive in the red zone before Prater came in for the save.
The Steelers regained the lead on the ensuing possession when All-Pro receiver outmuscled safety Miles Killebrew for a 40-yard catch to the 5-yard line and running back Le’Veon Bell punched it in from there.
But Prater tacked on two more field goals before the half to send the Lions to the locker room with a 12-10 advantage.
The Lions opened the third quarter with the ball, but had a rare offensive sputter and Sam Martin shanked a punt, giving the Steelers the ball in Lions’ territory. They turned that into a field goal to take the 13-12 lead.
That led into the Steelers’ goal-line stand and Smith-Schuster’s long touchdown.
The Lions had a few more chances to take the lead, but they settled on a 19-yard field goal when running back Dwayne Washington was stopped at the 1-yard line on third-and-goal and Golden Tate inexplicably fumbled without being touched on another possession.
Washington struggled with short-yardage opportunities in his return to the lineup after a four-game injury absence. Caldwell defended the decision to use the second-year back in the role.
“That’s who we choose to run with,” Caldwell said. “We think he’ll give us the best opportunity to do what we are trying to do down there in that situation, plain and simple.”
Tate’s fumble came after he hauled in a deep pass from Stafford in Steelers territory, but as he prepared to make his move in the open field the ball squirted free of his grasp. Steelers cornerback Artie Burns pounced on the loose ball.
The defense came up with another spot, but on Detroit’s final possession, the team again sputtered deep in the red zone. On 3rd-and-goal from the 5, Stafford audibled into a draw to Theo Riddick, which was stopped for a loss of 2. Stafford’s fourth-down throw was disrupted by pressure and nearly intercepted.
“We just didn’t execute it well and that’s on me to get everybody on the same page,” Stafford said about the audible
The Steelers got a final first down, on a shovel pass to Smith-Schuster, to run out the clock on the win. The ending was marred by shoving match between the two teams, which saw defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey ejected for throwing punches.
Stafford threw for 423 yards in the loss and Marvin Jones led the Lions with 128 yards receiving.