Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saints vs. Steelers preview

By Scott Brown and Mike Triplett |
November 27, 2014

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: Fox 

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints are in the hunt for division titles, but for different reasons. Despite a couple of bad losses, the 7-4 Steelers have managed to keep pace in an AFC North, where every team is at least three games over .500. 

The 4-7 Saints, despite their best efforts to play golf in January, are tied for first in the NFC South, which has delivered the kind of parity that the NFL doesn't want. 

ESPN Saints reporter Michael Triplett and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game. 

Brown: Mike, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made the Saints' offense sound all but unstoppable earlier this week. With the weapons they have, starting with Drew Brees at quarterback, why does this team have only four wins in late November? 

Triplett: The biggest problem has been the Saints' defense, which ranks 27th in the NFL in yards allowed, 29th in takeaways and dead last in third-down percentage. But Brees deserves plenty of blame, too, for way too many costly turnovers in big moments. Essentially, he's been under pressure to do it all this year, and he hasn't handled that well enough, forcing the ball too many times on third downs or under pressure. 

Brees has still been sharp in a lot of areas (on pace for over 5,000 yards and a league-best 70.3 completion percentage). But he's thrown 11 interceptions and lost two fumbles -- many of them in huge moments. Last week was a perfect example. He threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens, but the Saints couldn't overcome the pick-six he threw in the third quarter. 

The Saints do have the NFL's second-ranked offense, though. And they're deep and diverse with guys like tight end Jimmy Graham and a run game that started great before stalling the past two weeks. What should they expect from Pittsburgh's defense? Where are they strongest, and where are they most vulnerable? 

Brown: The Steelers are getting healthy at the right time on defense and they should at least get strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor back for the Saints game. The return of two key players in their secondary, however, may not matter much if the Steelers don't get more out of what has been an inconsistent pass rush. 

The Steelers did anything but bother or fluster Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger in their last game. That is one reason why they had to rally from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat one of the worst teams in the NFL. If Brees gets as comfortable in the pocket as Mettenberger did, the Saints are going to put up a lot of points. 

The Steelers were able to generate consistent pressure against Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Baltimore's Joe Flacco the last two times they played at Heinz Field. They are home again and the defense should have a little extra juice Sunday given some of the players who are returning and the fact that the Steelers are coming off a bye week. 

Jimmy Graham's numbers are down a bit this season, but he is still an elite player and the Steelers have struggled against tight ends. Assuming the they pay extra attention to Graham, what other receiver or receivers could step up and hurt the Steelers? 

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have been inconsistent this year, and they lost their most dynamic weapon two weeks ago when rookie Brandin Cooks suffered a broken thumb. But then the receivers stepped up big last week, with Marques ColstonKenny Stills and speedy backup Joe Morgan all making big plays. Morgan had a 67-yard run and a 62-yard catch in the first quarter, even though he was only a small part of the game plan. 

For most of this season, the Saints have been content to establish the run with Mark Ingram and settle for shorter passes/screens, etc. I'm sure they'll do some of that to keep their defense off the field at Pittsburgh. But they vowed to be more aggressive after they were way too "flat" and passive against the Bengals two weeks ago. So I'm sure they'll keep taking their shots Sunday, as well. 

It sure feels like the Saints' only chance is to win a shootout. I'm not sure they can stop Ben Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell. Is Roethlisberger playing as well as he ever has? 

Brown: Statistically, there isn't any question that Roethlisberger is in the midst of his best season. The 11th-year veteran is on pace to establish career highs in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes for a season. I'm not sure, though, that this is the best Roethlisberger has played; he hasn't been as consistent as he would probably like. He didn't play well at Jacksonville and Cleveland earlier this season. Nor did he play well at the New York Jets after absolutely strafing the Colts and Ravens in back-to-back weeks at Heinz Field, and he was just OK at Tennessee on Nov. 17. Seeing a pattern here? Roethlisberger has been lights-out at home this season and rather ordinary on the road. 

Fortunately for the Steelers, they don't need to delve further into why Roethlisberger has 18 touchdown passes at Heinz Field and just six away from it until after this game. If he plays as well at home as he has in earlier games, Roethlisberger and Brees could stage quite a shootout. Former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis was a big loss when he signed with the Saints in 2013. How has he played, and do you expect him to shadow Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown? 

Triplett: Lewis has arguably been the Saints' second-most-valuable player behind Brees this year. Up until three weeks ago, he was the one constant in a shaky secondary. He routinely matches up against the opponents' No. 1 receiver and holds his own (see quiet performances from Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, among others). Fox analyst John Lynch said he'd put Lewis with Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson as the best corners in the league right now. That was the same case last year, when I thought Lewis was a blatant Pro Bowl snub. 

However, Lewis suffered a knee injury in Week 10, and he hasn't quite gotten back to 100 percent (though he was closer this past week). Obviously it would be huge for Lewis to help neutralize a guy playing as well as Brown is right now. Even if he does, the Steelers will pick on up-and-down corners like Patrick RobinsonCorey White and Brian Dixon with some other frightening big-play threats. 

To make matters worse, the Saints have suddenly become terrible against the run. Tell me more about Bell. He must be licking his chops after what fellow AFC North backs Justin Forsett and Jeremy Hill did against the Saints the last two weeks. 

Brown: Man, he has been a revelation in his second season. I thought Bell would build on what he did as a rookie and give the Steelers a nice all-around running back. I did not see the 2013 second-round draft pick emerging as one of the best running backs in the NFL, but there is no question Bell has done just that. The Steelers love him because there is nothing he can't do. Bell is an excellent receiver and he earned Roethlisberger's trust last year in picking up blitzes, something that is not easy for a rookie to do. 

Bell has really impressed me as a runner with his uncanny patience and ability to run with power and make people miss. His emergence as a premier runner, ironically enough, led to the exit of LeGarrette Blount, his good friend, from Pittsburgh. When the Steelers signed Blount in March, they envisioned more of a timeshare in the backfield as far as how carries were divvied up between Bell and Blount. 

Bell became so valuable to the Steelers that they didn't want him coming off the field in goal-line or short-yardage situations. Blount's shrinking role eventually led him to leave the field before the end of a game, and for the Steelers to waive him. 

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