A year ago, the Detroit Lions would have been fresh meat for the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially if they went into the game without their starting quarterback and lost their primary receiver in the first quarter. But not only did the improving Lions keep the game close against the defending Super Bowl champs, they had a decent shot at a tie late in the fourth quarter. Instead, backup quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes) (subbing in for Matthew Stafford(notes), who was inactive due to a knee injury) took three straight sacks on Detroit's last drive to eliminate any chance. The Lions had first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 21-yard line with 1:54 left in the game, and then Culpepper took sacks from linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) and cornerback William Gay(notes), then by Gay alone, then by Lawrence Timmons(notes). By the time it was over, the Lions had lost 24 yards and faced fourth-and-34 at the Pittsburgh 45.
Still, it was a good sign that the Lions were in the game at all. All-Universe receiver Calvin Johnson(notes) was lost in the first quarter to his own knee injury, and Detroit didn't let the roster hits phase them. After the game, head coach Jim Schwartz told the media about his team's efforts.
"We didn't always play smart in this game; we didn't always play good in this game, but there's one thing you can't say, or one thing you can say is this team battled. I came into the game a little bit shorthanded, got shorthanded early in the game with some injuries, had a lot of guys jumble through and there were a lot of chances in this game that we might have, I don't want to say quit, but it might have gone a little different way and the players fought through it and had a chance at the end ... I don't want to think that this is anything other than a bottom-line loss, but I was proud of the team. I was proud of the way they fought."
The Lions can feel good about their performance. They ended the game with more first downs and rushing yards than the Steelers, and showed surprising toughness on defense. The primary problem in this game was the pass protection -- left tackle Jeff Backus(notes) was abused by endbacker James Harrison(notes) all day, and Culpepper was taken down seven times -- but if you watch the Lions week after week, you see the embryonic signs of improvement and competitiveness so foreign to the franchise in the Matt Millen era.