Know Thy Enemy: New Orleans Saints

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The Pittsburgh Steelers play their first prime time game of the season when they take the field in front of 70,000 cross-dressing lunatics in New Orleans on Sunday night.  In many ways, this will be the first real test of the season.  Yeah, the Steelers have played some quality teams already but there were mitigating circumstances.  Against the Ravens, they were starting Charlie Batch.  Against the Falcons and Titans, they had a completely healthy defense.

The defending Super Bowl champion Saints have issues of their own.   They’re plodding along at 4-3, coming off an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns.  And you thought the Steelers’ post-championship funk was bad.  Hangovers probably last longer in New Orleans.


The Steelers currently boast the 4th ranked defense in the NFL.  Looking deeper, their rankings break down as 1st against the rush but only 24th against the pass.  Some of that poor showing against the pass is misleading.  For one, many teams realize quickly they can’t run the ball so they throw a lot more than they ordinarily would.  Also, in a few of their games they’ve gotten big leads and then allowed the other team to pile up garbage time yardage which skews the final stats.

That said, I’ve been clear about my concern about the quality of their secondary.  Bryant McFadden returned after a disappointing year with the Cardinals and hasn’t really distinguished himself.  Troy Polamalu is one of the best safeties ever and Ike Taylor is a good cover corner but safety Ryan Clark and nickel William Gay have struggled at times.  The Steelers also like to drop linebackers into coverage which sometimes works and sometimes backfires.  You may see that less this week with LaMarr Woodley nursing a sore hamstring, although he is expected to play.

DE Aaron Smith is the key to the Steelers run defense.  When he’s been injured, their ability to stop the rush has always suffered.  Smith tore his tricep last week and is expected to be gone for some time.  Ziggy Hood gets his first start of the season in his place.  If the Saints had any inclination to run the ball, it just got a whole lot easier.   We did catch a break as both Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas are injured and not expected to be in the lineup.  That leaves rushing duties to rookie Chris Ivory and Seahawks castoff Julius Jones.

Of course, the Saints offense revolves around Drew Brees.  Breesus is having an off-year, throwing almost the same number TDs as picks (14/10).  Last week, he was intercepted four times by the Browns.   THE BROWNS!

For the Steelers defense to succeed, they have to get to Drew Brees.  The Steelers have the best quartet of linebackers in football.  When they pressure the quarterback, the secondary looks a lot better.  When they don’t and the corners are left in one-on-one coverage for an extended period of time, they get burned.  It’s all about the pressure in Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau‘s defense and the more you see on Sunday, the better off the Steelers will be.


Last year, the Saints had  39 total takeaways and a +11 turnover differential.  As I mentioned last week, extremely high (or low) numbers in that department tend to be the product of freakish luck and they usually baseline the following season.  Indeed, the 2010 Saints have forced only 14 turnovers, plummeting to a -5 turnover differential.

FS Darren Sharper is their dime-store version of Troy Polamalu.  He was sidelined from off-season knee surgery but returned last week.  Sharper has a nose for the ball and his return to full strength is expected to help the Saints D create more turnovers.  Their front four led by Will Smith and Sedrick Ellis don’t generate a lot of pressure so big plays have to come from the back end or they don’t come at all.

Flozell Adams and Trai Essex have been practicing and both are expected to give it a go.  Hopefully their presence will help get Rashard Mendenhall back on track after last weekend’s miserable 37 yard performance.  This team simply cannot win consistently without a strong ground attack.  Long grinding drives keep the defense fresh while also cutting down on turnovers.  Not to mention the longer you keep Brees off the field, the better.

Make no mistake, the Steeler can throw the ball with the best of them.  Last year, Ben Roethlisberger led one of the most dynamic offensive units the Black and Gold have ever had.  Who can forget his epic 500 yard passing performance in that manic shootout with the Packers?  Second year WR Mike Wallace is an emerging star, a pure burner who blows by coverage for a big play practically on a weekly basis.  All that said, I still don’t like the Steelers chances in a track meet with the Saints.

Then again, the Saints lost to the Browns.  THE BROWNS!

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