PITTSBURGH — Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell took off his baseball cap and rubbed his head, looking confused.
“Well, that was bittersweet,” Campbell said late Sunday afternoon after the Lions and Steelers tied, 16-16. “I don’t know how to feel about that necessarily.”
I’m not sure anybody does.
It wasn’t a win.
Wasn’t a loss.
So what was it?
“I mean this was ‘Twilight Zone,’” Campbell said. “I don’t know what this is really.”
It was that one, strange episode where a steady, cold rainstorm drenched Heinz Field and chaos broke out all over the place. Players would appear on screen, like characters in surprising roles, and then get injured.
Jermar Jefferson, the Lions third-string running back, ripped off a fantastic 28-yard touchdown run … and then was carted off the field with an ankle injury.
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Tackle Matt Nelson gave the Lions some amazing blocks, lining up as a tight end while offering a cool wrinkle to the offense… and then he got hurt.
And quarterback Jared Goff threw a long pass… and injured his ribs. Think of the thousands of passes Goff has thrown in his life and this was the first time he had ever suffered that injury.
There were times when it felt like a win. Then it started feeling like a loss. And then, well, everybody walked away feeling cold, wet and awkward.
“Feels better than a loss but still not where we need to be,” Goff said.
The stats from this game looked straight out of the “Twilight Zone” as well.
Goff completed just 4 of 7passes for 11 yards in the first half.
I’m talking, the entire first half.
Between plays, he would throw on the sideline, trying to stay warm on a cold day.
He showed all kinds of toughness by just completing this game.
“We all felt like he was good,” Campbell said. “So that’s why I stuck with (him). I have to go with my gut and look him in the eyes. And I have to listen to the opinion of our trainers. And if we feel like he can make it, he can make it.”
Now, we are stuck in a strange semantic game.
The Lions losing streak is technically over.
But the winless streak continues.
Like he said, “Twilight Zone.”
“It was weird,” Goff said. “I think it’s my first tie.”
The good news is the Lions won’t be the first team to go 0-17. So that’s a positive.
But nobody is screaming: Yeah, this won’t be the worst team in history!
Because what if they go 0-16-1?
Not all was ‘lost’
“Here’s the positive,” Campbell said. “That’s a good football team. And that’s a winning football team. They’ve done it right for a long time. They play a physical, bully-type brand of football. And we went toe-to-toe with them. And I think that’s what it says.”
Yes, there were positives for the Lions
Campbell took over the play-calling duties and put this team in position to win. They ran for 229 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. And that’s an incredible positive.
Part of the Lions emphasis on the run was because Goff’s injury.
And part of that was because of crummy, wet conditions.
It seemed as if the Lions found their identity on Sunday in Pittsburgh. They can run the ball when they commit to it.
And it worked.
At least for a while.
But when they needed to run the ball late in the game, they couldn’t. Basically, the Steelers figured out the Lions couldn’t pass and had no desire to do so.
The overtime period was a chaotic, confusing, punt festival. There were missed opportunities. And hold your breath moments.
The glass was half … wet
The Lions blew all kinds of chances to win this game.
The Steelers were playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday night — a giant opportunity on a golden platter.
Just daring the Lions to grab it.
Of course, they couldn’t.
Because they made tons of mistakes.
They had chances to make interceptions but the ball slipped through their hands.
They had chances to throw the ball deep but couldn’t find the open receiver.
They were missing blocks. Lining up offsides. Putting 12 men on the field at the same time. Blowing coverages. Missing tackles.
Missing chances: That’s the story of this team so far, and that hasn’t changed.
But in the end, there was progress on this cold, wet, rainy day; and they did it against a team they would like to emulate.
“We are looking for our first win,” Campbell said. “But I know this, we were better than we were two weeks ago, So that’s a good team.”
Well, they couldn’t get much worse. Indeed, this was improvement from the disaster against the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago.
And it was encouraging for the Lions to do this against the Steelers.
A team they would like to emulate.
The Steelers are what the Lions hope to build. A tough, physical, defensive-minded team.
“Just met with the team in there and acknowledged the fight but didn’t congratulate them for it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Just too sloppy to win.”
So that is how a winning coach looks at this.
It was not acceptable. And maybe, the Lions will reach that stage someday.
But they are nowhere near there.
Right now, they just have relief that it wasn’t another loss.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.