The New Orleans Saints will trying to win their second road-game of the year this coming Sunday. They'll need a near-miracle to do so. The defensively0challenged Saints are facing a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is rolling offensively and is still fighting for its playoffs life in the tough AFC North.
Neal Coolong, the Managing Editor of SB Nation's Behind The Steel Curtain was kind enough to answers our questions about the Saints next opponent.
1 - When I hear the name "Pittsburgh Steelers," my first thought is: defense. I imagine a relentless, aggressive, suffocating army of Dick Lebeau demons, running all over the field, making offenses miserable. But it was shocking for me to see that so far this year, Football Outsiders has the Steelers ranked 28th overall in the NFL in total defensive efficiency, with an 8.3% DVOA. In more details, FO has the Steelers 29th against the pass (22.1% DVOA) and 19th against the run (-6.5% DVOA). How do you explain such a decline from a unit that had perennially been in the top five in the NFL year in and year out?
The trend isn't even all that new. The real decline occurred more from 2012 to 2013, and the narrative last year was more on injuries and inexperience. I want to say it's much of that this year as well (the Steelers will likely return three starting-caliber players to the field in Week 13, SS Troy Polamalu, LB Ryan Shazier and CB Ike Taylor) with the possibility of the return of two others by Week 14 (OLB Jarvis Jones and NT Steve McLendon).
It doesn't really feel like that's the issue, though. Polamalu just simply isn't the same explosive player he used to be. No one is confusing Taylor for an elite-level cornerback and Shazier, when healthy, will split time with two other younger linebackers. Jones was off to a good start this year but his production has been, at least, matched by that of James Harrison. McLendon has missed more time than would be desired, and he's a solid player when healthy, but overall, I'd say it's been an inconsistent unit that has shown excellent performances at times (in the same FO stats you're citing, they have the fourth-highest variance of any team in the NFL in terms of defensive efficiency).
Simply put, it's been a unit that's put up good statistical performances at times - the defense played well despite four offensive turnovers against the Jets in a bad loss, it played well against Tennessee overall in Week 11 (312 total yards, 49 rushing yards allowed, defensive touchdown), but they allowed an 80-yard touchdown pass. But it hasn't played at a high level for four quarters. There were lots of new faces on the defense this season anyway, and to deal with the amount of injuries they have to starters, the inconsistency is a result. It's too late in the year now to worry about such things, and they need to find their highest game and quick if they want to compete for a division title.
2 - On the other hand, the Steelers are an offensive juggernaut this year. Football Outsiders has Pittsburgh ranked fourth overall in the league with a 17.6% DVOA. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is balling as the Steelers are fourth in the league in passing with an unbelievable 41.6% DVOA. The running game is no slouch either, as Pittsburgh is ranked 11th by FO with a -1.9% DVOA. Tell us a little bit about what has made this offense work so well this year despite earlier reports of friction between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
You start a car first thing in the morning, exhaust immediately flows out. The engine burns off some gas as it warms up to its peak efficiency. That's really what the Steelers' offense was at the start of the Todd Haley Era in Pittsburgh. It hit its stride probably after 11 games last year, and performed well down the stretch. Big things were expected of the Steelers' offense this season, and at times, it has exceeded even those expectations - Roethlisberger was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Weeks 8 and 9 after six-touchdown performances against the Ravens and the Colts. He played as well as I've ever seen a quarterback play against Indianapolis, but that kind of pace just isn't sustainable. I think he fell off a little the following week against the Ravens (nasty pass rush there, as the Saints saw last week) but still played very well. He really fell off against the Jets in a bad offensive game all around. He still left a few things on the field against the Titans in a ground-based win, and this is about the time Ben needs to get back to where he was going.
Like any quarterback, much of it will come down to protection. There's the simple yet highly complex art of pass protection, but there's also receivers and running backs knowing routes, blocking assignments and blitz pick-ups. The Steelers' offensive line has done a decent to good job in pass pro, but there have been times where receivers haven't gone where they're supposed to go against blitzes, running backs failed to get pick-ups and Ben ended up hanging onto the ball too long. If and when those things click, the Steelers' offense is as dominant as any unit in the game. It's a young line - the first year under OL coach Mike Munchak and the first year where C Maurkice Pouncey and RG David DeCastro played more than three games together - and clearly we've seen the benefits of a much-improved line along with the production of All Pro-level players like Le'Veon Bell (second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage) and Antonio Brown (first in receptions, second in yards). The key is going to be keeping all of that together.
The exhaust will pour out of even a well-functioning machine. If any reports of alleged friction between Haley and Roethlisberger had significant merit, I'd say that friction probably created the level of success they're now enjoying. Conflict between two people working toward the same goal is a good thing. Sean Payton and Drew Brees reportedly work together very well. I'd be shocked to hear they agree with each other 100 percent of the time. Perhaps the failure here is the airing of a little too much dirty laundry, but every team has it.
3 - The Steelers are 7-4 and in a tough division battle against the Bengals, Browns and Ravens. What's mind-boggling is that two of Pittsburgh's four losses were to the 2-9 Tampa bay Buccaneers and to the 2-9 New York Jets. What happened in those games? Are Steelers fans at all worried that the team's fifth loss could come against another bad team in the 4-7 Saints?
Steelers fans groused about the loss to Tampa Bay for weeks - right up to the loss to the Jets. They're still feasting on that (I'd bet money the first comment made in regards to this piece will be something to the effect of "nothing else matters, they lost to the Jets and cost them a division championship."
They've taken it a bit hard, needless to say.
And there is legitimate and valid concern surrounding this game. I think it really comes down to how you want to define "bad team." People hate this, but the guys on the other side of the line get paid too (I heard Bell say the exact same thing in a recent interview). We put a bit too much stock into records and not enough into specific strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I feel the Steelers match up better with the Saints than they do the Jets (caveat to that, I'm referring to the motivated "We're Not Giving Up On You, Rex!" Jets, not the ones who were smoked by the Bills in Week 12). The fact the game is in Pittsburgh (4-1, having scored 121 points over their last three games there) tilts the scale in their favor even more. The Jets have the defensive ability to make their opponent one-dimensional. When you do that, and you catch a break or two (turnovers), you can change the outcome of the game in a way that has nothing to do with your record.
I think the Steelers should beat the Saints, but not because the Saints are 4-7. I don't think their defense has the horses to run with the Steelers' offense. My concern, and what should be the concern of Steelers fans and a sense of excitement for Saints fans, is it's a wonder whether the Steelers have the horses to compete with the Saints' offensive players.
Look at the Titans game. As I mentioned before, the Steelers put up some dominating statistics; 313 total yards, 46 rushing yards, a defensive touchdown. One would look at that, while looking at the ability the Steelers have on offense and think it's probably 31-10. The Steelers were down 24-13 in the third quarter because they gave up an 80-yard touchdown and turned the ball over. Every team is going to put together a drive or two in a game. The league is just too slanted toward the offensive team nowadays to think that's not going to happen. What used to be a game where one could say a good strategy is simply to ensure every drive you have ends in a kick - an extra point, a field goal or a punt for field position - has become more about points per possession. The Steelers and Saints are 11th and 12th, respectively, in points per play, incidentally.
Simply put, teams that can score points are difficult teams to beat. The Steelers blew opportunities to close out the Buccaneers, choked on the road against the Jets (find me a team that won't win the vast majority of games with a +4 turnover differential) and had to overcome an 11-point deficit against the Titans. To me, it's just as fair to wonder if the Steelers could be 9-2 right now as it is to ask whether they could be 5-6. What we know is they're 7-4 and have not proved, week-to-week, they are a team that should be considered a shoo-in against anyone.
4 - It has been well-documented that the Saints' defense in year-two of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been abysmal. New Orleans is ranked 31st in total defense by Football Outsiders with a 12.5% DVOA. They are terrible against the run (31st) and not much better against the pass (30th). If you were the Saints' defensive coordinator and had the unenviable task of slowing down the freight train that is Pittsburgh's offense how would you go about it?
I'll bet you a beer you'll see Ben Roethlisberger get hit low and get hit late in the first quarter of this game. We've seen a few times now where Ben is getting hit late and low and he's been noticeably less confident. I don't think it's an accident the same Ravens player picked up personal fouls in each of their two games this year for blatant cheap shots against Roethlisberger. In fact, there were four roughing the passer penalties against Roethlisberger in the team's last three games.
Please note that this is not a dig in any way at the Saints. I'm not calling them a dirty team, and I'm not unearthing SpyGate BS here (only difference between what they allegedly did and what most teams likely do is they openly emailed about it). It's the dirty secret the league wants to keep quiet. They don't want fans to think about the fact these guys hurt each other as a means of job security and survival. Defensive players and coaches aren't given big contracts by watching Roethlisberger slaughter them up and down the field. If they can find a way to make him less effective, they'll do it. Rob Ryan strikes me as the kind of guy who would take that kind of advantage should it present itself. I believe his brother did the same thing in Week 10 (Jason Babin somehow didn't hear a whistle for a false start and drove DeCastro seven yards into the backfield and lunged into Roethlisberger's knees a full three seconds after the whistle blew). I think the Ravens took Roethlisberger out of the game with an early hit from Courtney Upshaw (he was penalized and fined). Neither of these players is particularly outstanding, yet both committed pretty blatant penalties. Call me paranoid, but that's not a coincidence. If a defense is willing to lose a 15-yard battle for the sake of the war, then it seems like a perfectly acceptable sacrifice.
I don't like it, but I understand why it's being done. Frankly, I'm not sure the Saints' defense has the personnel to really stop the Steelers over four quarters without putting some fear into Roethlisberger. If he's too comfortable in the pocket, he's going to have a big day. Ryan knows that. He's battered Ben before, holding him to one of his worst performances in an upset loss to his Browns back in 2009. I don't recall that being particularly dirty, but for as not-good as that Browns team was, they had some players who could get after the passer (eighth in the league in sacks that year).
I'm very curious to see how Ryan prepares his defense to play in this game, and I'm not saying he's going to goon it up, but a hit or two on the quarterback to get him off his game is as much a part of the game of football as chalk, elderly officials and annoying fans complaining about their Fantasy teams.
5 - How do you see this game play out? Who wins and why?
I always make a point to mention in these I'm nearly always wrong. I see a high-scoring game. If I'm Sean Payton, I see I have a banged-up defense that will have a tough time containing the Steelers' offense, and in that, I'm going to need to get them a lead to protect. I see Ike Taylor on the field, not having played since Week 3, I'm going to stretch him deep early and often. If I see a secondary that is putting Taylor back on the field after having missed the team's last eight games, I'm going to attack the other guy - William Gay, incidentally, is the guy who gave up the 80-yard touchdown pass against Tennessee, and he's also the guy who had the pick six, but Brees ain't no Zach Mettenberger.
I think the Steelers will score points and I think it will end up being a quiet start to a roaring finish kind of game. I'm saying 34-27 Steelers, and the last three drives of the game will be the deciding factor.
Many thanks to Neal for taking the time to speak with us.
For more coverage on the Steelers, please visit Behind The Steel Curtain.