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5 things we learned as Steelers head into bye week with win over Lions

October 30, 2017 GMT

Here are five things we learned from the Steelers 20-15 victory over the Lions on Sunday night in Detroit.

1. Martavis Bryant wasn’t missed … sort of.

With the Lions having shutdown corner Darius Slay match up with Antonio Brown, it left opportunities for other receivers, and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster obviously took advantage. Smith-Schuster introduced himself to a national television audience with seven catches for 193 yards and the 97-yard touchdown reception that put him in the Steelers history books.

With Smith-Schuster stepping up as the No. 2 receiver, it would be easy to say the Steelers didn’t need Bryant, who was benched for his social media outbursts. It also wouldn’t be entirely correct. Witness Eli Rogers dropping a touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone on the first drive of the game. Or Darrius Heyward-Bey coming up short on a third-quarter pass to virtually the same part of the end zone.

The Steelers settled for field goals on each drive. Perhaps if Bryant was on the field and targeted on those pass plays, he makes those catches. We’ll never know, but a one-game sample size isn’t enough to write Bryant out of the Steelers future plans.

2. Bye week comes at good time for pass defense

With a week off, defensive coordinator Keith Butler will have a chance to analyze what went wrong against the Lions as Matthew Stafford picked apart the secondary for 423 passing yards. In the first half, Stafford had 206 passing yards, more than four quarterbacks had accumulated over an entire game against the Steelers this season. None of those quarterbacks, however, had Stafford’s pedigree or paycheck (he’s the highest-paid player in the league).

The goal-line stands and Artie Burns’ fumble recovery in the fourth quarter helped the defense save face. Too often Stafford picked apart the middle of the field. Cornerback Joe Haden, caught playing zone, was beaten on a couple of deep passes down the right side. For a pass defense that did so many things right in becoming the NFL’s No. 1 unit through seven weeks, it was a return to the bend-but-don’t-break performances of recent seasons.

3. Jesse James remains a part of the passing game

Remember when James answered Mike Tomlin’s challenge that the tight ends weren’t varsity enough with two touchdown catches in the season opener? On a much smaller scale, James had another bounce back of sorts against the Lions.

James was held without a catch in wins over Kansas City and Cincinnati, but he rebounded with two catches for 42 yards against the Lions. One was a 32-yarder, the longest of James’ three-year career. James also was open in the third quarter on the play preceding Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard catch-and-run, but Ben Roethlisberger overthrew him.

It helped that Vance McDonald didn’t play because of an injury, giving James a chance to be on the field for 58 of 64 offensive snaps. And James showed he still is a viable part of the offense.

4. Third downs made the difference

Tomlin likes to call them possession downs, with success on third down determining whether possession continues or is changed.

No stat in the game was more lopsided. The Steelers were 7 of 14 on third-down conversions, the biggest play being Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown on a third-and-9. Smith-Schuster also had the clutch third-down catch with 1:28 left to seal the win, and that came after Rogers drew a pass interference call on third down that also moved the chains.

It was a vast improvement for an offense that still ranks No. 18 in third-down efficiency.

The Lions, meanwhile, converted just 2 of 12 third-down attempts. Twice, the Lions were stopped on third-and-goal from the 1 (and another time on fourth down). On third-and-5 at the 6 with the clock ticking toward the two-minute warning, a run by Theo Riddick lost two yards and set up Stafford’s final incompletion.

5. J.J. Wilcox was an unexpected bystander.

When Mike Mitchell went down with an ankle injury, it was Robert Golden chosen to fill his spot at free safety and not former Dallas Cowboys starter J.J. Wilcox.

Wilcox did not show up on the injury report all week so his inactivity (he played just one defensive snap and five on special teams) can’t be chalked up to a medical issue. The Steelers traded for Wilcox prior to the season opener after Mitchell missed almost all of training camp with a hamstring injury, and he was acquired for instances such as the one that happened Sunday night.

Perhaps Golden, who lost his starting strong safety job last season to then-rookie Sean Davis, has made a resurgence up the depth chart. Golden also was this week’s representative as special teams captain — a designation he held the previous three seasons.

Golden finished with two tackles and a pass defensed.

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