Steelers respect Lions' weaponry

PITTSBURGH – The Steelers spent the week telling anyone who'd listen that the Detroit Lions are good, but ...

... unlucky, young, getting bad breaks, on the verge – take your pick. But at at the end of the week, James Harrison put it down cold:

"They can score points," said the linebacker. "Their problem has been stopping the other team from scoring more points."

Any team with 6-5, 239-pound wide receiver Calvin Johnson should score points. On the other side of the second pick of the 2007 draft is Bryant Johnson, a capable No. 2 receiver. Rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew (6-5, 265) was the apple of the Steelers' eye this past draft, but the Lions drafted him 20th and put him in the starting lineup.

The No. 1 pick of the draft, rookie Matthew Stafford, had been showing off his immense athleticism as the Lions' starting quarterback, but a partially dislocated right kneecap against the Bears last week forced him to miss practice this week. He's listed as questionable for today's game against the Steelers in Detroit, with the addendum from Lions Coach Jim Schwartz on Friday that "his arrow is trending up. There's a lot of time between now and Sunday."

The alternative is Daunte Culpepper, the 10-year vet who made a name for himself early in his career by throwing the ball deep to Randy Moss, one of the few human beings with the athletic skill set to match Johnson's.

In his first four seasons as Minnesota's starting quarterback, Culpepper threw 129 touchdown passes. After Moss left, Culpepper threw 17 touchdown passes in four seasons with four different teams. But Culpepper has life left in that arm, otherwise the Steelers wouldn't have offered him their backup job last year after Charlie Batch went down. The Steelers liked Culpepper over Byron Leftwich, but Culpepper wanted too much money. Today he may get the chance to show the Steelers he was worth the big money.

So, which quarterback is more dangerous to the Steelers?

"I don't care," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "Most of the time they're just people, just positions. You just have to go out there and play. I was looking at both of those guys, both very strong-armed football players. I see Culpepper has a little bit more experience and I think Stafford has really come into his own. It's going to be a challenge either way. These guys can score points."

Of course, stopping the other team has been Detroit's problem. While the 1-3 Lions average 21 points per game, they allow 34 points per game. Former Steeler Larry Foote is the new leader of a defense that's not sure it's a 4-3 or a 3-4.

"The tough part is that they brought a lot of new guys in, a new coaching system, a new style of play," said Foote. "We had to learn on the run. But if you watch the games, we're getting better defensively every week. So hopefully we keep growing."

Foote is the Lions' runaway tackles leader with 34. The next most productive tacklers are three defensive backs, which says as much about their front seven as does the 5.2 yards per carry they allow.

Those numbers bode well for a Steelers offense that surged last week against the Chargers behind a new-found running game. Rashard Mendenhall stepped in for Willie Parker and rushed for 165 yards behind a line that was perhaps unrecognizable for the way it finished off its many pancake blocks.

"When you're running back hits the holes, puts his head in there and breaks three or four tackles, it makes us want to block," said guard Trai Essex. "You really want to block for a guy when he's running that hard."

Mendenhall will start again today, and if the running game holds up, the near-flawless passing of Ben Roethlisberger will make the Steelers a strong contender to repeat as NFL champions, particularly when defensive playmakers Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons are healthy.

Polamalu will miss this game – his fourth in a row – with a knee injury, while Timmons is still showing the affects of his high ankle sprain.

"It's still sore," said Timmons, who's played the last two games. "But I really don't think it's affecting me out there."

Antonio Gates and Cedric Benson might disagree, but the Steelers' pass rush has begun to take up the slack. Harrison recorded two of the team's season-high three sacks last week, and this week Harrison goes up against Jeff Backus, a left tackle whose best days are behind him.

While the new regime in Detroit has spent the past year reworking the starting units – 15 of 22 new starters from opening day 2008 to opening day 2009 – the depth, in the form of the special teams, has expectedly languished.

Last week, the Lions allowed kickoff returns of 102 and 43 yards and three punt returns of 20 or more yards. In fact, the Lions allowed one more yard on returns (277) than they allowed on defense (276). They're ranked 31st in kickoff coverage and 28th in punt coverage. Their return man, Aaron Brown, muffed two kickoff returns last week and was cut, replaced by Derrick Williams, the rookie out of Penn State.

The Steelers would like to take advantage of the Lions' lack of depth with a return man – Stefan Logan – whose fumble (on a poor officiating call) resulted in a San Diego touchdown last Sunday.

Logan didn't talk to reporters this week with the realization that his once-promising career is as tenuous as Aaron Brown's. But it's a good day for Logan to get back on track, and for the rest of the Steelers to stay on track.

"It's about being consistent," said Steelers right tackle Willie Colon, who was speaking for the line, which in turn correlates with this Steelers team.

"You don't want to just have one great game and everybody pat us on the back. We ought to be able to do that every Sunday, no matter who's out there. That's the true measure. If we do that and stay healthy, the sky's the limit."

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