‘I’m in this twilight zone’: Campbell, Lions left unsatisfied by tie with Steelers

Detroit News

Pittsburgh — The Detroit Lions didn’t lose, but the team remains winless after blowing multiple opportunities to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday, settling for a 16-16 tie after a frenzied, yet scoreless overtime.

After a sluggish start, the Lions (0-8-1) found a mid-game rhythm, leaning on a physically dominating rushing attack and a surprisingly stingy defense. But the team proved unable to hold a fourth-quarter lead and couldn’t capitalize on numerous Steelers’ errors in the overtime period, including two turnovers, resulting in a less-than-satisfying result that left the team with mixed emotions.

“I’m in this twilight zone,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I don’t know what this is really.”

Rushing for 209 yards through three quarters, the Lions entered the fourth frame with a 16-13 lead, but mustered fewer than 20 yards of offense down the stretch as the Steelers tied the contest early in the quarter.

In overtime, the Lions won the coin toss and opened with a 30-yard pass play from Jared Goff to rookie Amon St. Brown before stalling out. The game then looked poised to slip away when Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson beat Mark Gilbert for a long reception, but the Lions backup cornerback rallied to punch the ball free, which the Lions recovered near midfield.

BOX SCORE: Lions 16, Steelers 16

Goff threw an interception on the first play of the following series, but it was negated by a defensive holding penalty against linebacker Devin Bush. A roughing the passer call against the Steelers pushed Detroit into field goal range, but Ryan Santoso’s 48-yard effort came out low and ended well short in the heavy rain.

“You’d like to think they’re going to make that kick, but, look, those conditions were rough,” Campbell said. “That’s why, if anything, I put that on us offensively, that we didn’t get down there farther. We put ourselves in a bind.”

The Lions quickly got the ball back after a botched snap led to a Steelers punt, but despite returning it just shy of midfield, the offense went backward as players struggled to grip the ball.

The Steelers (5-3-1) were able to frantically work into Lions’ territory in the closing minute of overtime. But safety Will Harris forced Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth to cough it up near the sideline, essentially ending the game.

For all the chaos in overtime, the game was played at a relatively methodical pace the first 60 minutes.

Uncharacteristically deferring after winning the coin toss, Detroit’s decision backfired as the Steelers efficiently drove the length of the field for a touchdown.

Rookie running back Najee Harris carried the ball five times for 24 yards and a 29-yard pass interference penalty against Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye gave the Steelers a first down just outside the red zone.

Facing third-and-8 from the 9-yard line, the Lions suffered a busted coverage with Steelers receiver James Washington coming wide open in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown to give the home team the early 7-0 lead.

That was the lone score in the opening quarter as both offenses went cold.

With three possessions, the Lions failed to net a single first down in the opening frame, while the Steelers went three-and-out on their second series and quarterback Mason Rudolph — filling in for Ben Roethlisberger after the starter landed on the COVID reserve list Saturday night — misfired on third down and was intercepted by Lions linebacker Julian Okwara late in the quarter.

The Lions had a chance to tie it the first snap after the turnover when receiver Kalif Raymond got open behind the defense, but Goff badly underthrew his target, leading to a pass breakup, and eventually another punt.

Goff suffered an oblique injury on the attempt, contributing to the inaccuracy of the pass, and struggled through the remainder of the contest, finishing regulation with just 54 passing yards before adding another 60 in overtime.

But after Detroit’s defense forced another three-and-out, Raymond found a crease returning the punt, bringing it back 48 yards before being tackled by Steelers punter Presley Harvin III.

Three plays later, rookie running back Jermar Jefferson burst through a hole on the left side of his line, racing for a 28-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 early in the second quarter.

Unfortunately, Jefferson suffered an ankle injury on the run, requiring him to be carted to the locker room.

The Steelers appeared to respond with a touchdown on the ensuing series after Harris got around the left side for a 7-yard score, but the play was negated by a holding penalty. That setback helped the Lions limit the Steelers to a 20-yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Detroit was able to counter with a short field goal of its own before the half behind a strong possession by running back D’Andre Swift, who carried the ball eight times for 62 yards, including runs of 21, 15 and 10 yards, with the latter converting fourth-and-1.

“That’s how I try to run any time I touch the ball, that’s kind of my mentality to have any time I touch the ball, try not to let one person take me down,” Swift said.

Swift stayed hot coming out of the locker room, surpassing 100 yards on the ground early in the third quarter, but it was Godwin Igwebuike, filling in for the injured Jefferson, who made the big play to give the Lions their first lead.

After a 14-yard gain on his first carry, Igwebuike found a lane to his right, broke a tackle in the second level and galloped into the end zone for a 42-yard score. Santoso missed the extra point, leaving the Lions with a 16-10 edge.

“I low-key blacked out,” Igwebuike said, describing his first career touchdown. “It was outside zone, somebody, I think a safety came and the O-line did a great job forcing him out. (I) turned a crack into a hole.”

With a rare second-half lead, the Lions defense got a little sloppy, allowing Rudolph to scramble for 26 yards on the first play of the possession. And a late-hit penalty against Jalen Reeves-Maybin provided the Steelers 15 additional yards two plays later.

But with the Steelers earning a fresh set of downs at Detroit’s 5-yard line, the Lions forced three straight incompletions, leading to a 23-yard field goal that cut the lead to 16-13.

The Steelers finished 1-for-3 with their red-zone opportunities, a big accomplishment for the Lions, who entered allowing a league-worst success rate of 83.3%.

After that field goal, the two sides traded punts, with the Lions ceding field position in the exchange, allowing the Steelers to start their first drive of the fourth quarter at midfield.

After four straight carries by Harris for 17 yards to open the series, the Steelers tried a deep shot on third down, but Washington was flagged for offensive pass interference. Harris was able to gain those 10 yards back on a replay of the down, setting up Boswell for a game-tying 51-yard field goal with 11:31 remaining.

Detroit essentially went three-and-out twice in response. After quickly being forced to punt, former Lions safety Miles Killebrew ran into punter Jack Fox, extending the drive. But Swift was dropped for a 5-yard loss and no gain on first and second down, squandering the gift.

Still, despite starting a possession in Lions’ territory, neither team could muster another score before the end of regulation, sending the matchup into overtime.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Goff said. “I think it’s my first tie. If I’m remembering correctly. It feels better than a loss, but still not where we need to be. It’s a step in the right direction.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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