The Saints went into Sunday’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers with seemingly no chance whatsoever of beating them. New Orleans was coming off a three game skid, with all three losses coming at home, against a team that had proven that they could put up points in bunches. The Steelers came off a Bye to play against New Orleans at Heinz Field, where Ben Roethlisberger had thrown for 12 touchdowns in his last two games. In addition to Roethlisberger’s propensity for throwing touchdowns at home, the Steelers’ star running back Le’Veon Bell had had a career week going into the Bye with over 200 yards against the Tennessee Titans. The Saints matched up HORRIBLY to the Steelers coming into the game, having given up 182 yards to Baltimore Ravens’ running back Justin Forsett just a week prior.
Pittsburgh, however, had a baffling gameplan coming into the game (and not in a good way), whereas the Saints’ defense made the decision to get back to basics. Roethlisberger went 32-58 in the game for 435 yards, but these numbers are massively inflated by garbage time yardage and completions. In the 4th quarter, Roethlisberger went 19-26 for about 250 yards and two touchdown passes, his only two of the game. That can be read as, through the first three quarters, Roethlisberger was 13-32 for approximately 185 yards and no touchdowns. Roethlisberger's completion percentage was inflated from 43% to 55% from that quarter after completing 73% of his 4th quarter passes. The Saints’ defense also had a pair of interceptions, marking their third multi interception game of the season (their other multi interceptions came against Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers of the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, respectively). The Steelers handed the ball off to Bell 21 times, who carried for 95 yards. However, it was the Steelers’ efforts in the passing game that were so confusing.
Meanwhile, defensively, the Saints went back to a more simplistic scheme that relied on either 2 high safeties or a single high safety that shaded towards the corner opposite their #1. The Saints put Keenan Lewis on Steelers’ number two receiver Markus Wheaton for much of the game, while Patrick Robinson trailed Antonio Brown with help shaded towards Brown. The Steelers never adapted to this scheme, which allowed the Saints to take the number one and two targets out of the game until they went to a shell defense in the fourth quarter.
One more factor worth noting was the injury to Roethlisberger’s hand. It’s impossible to tell if this affected Roethlisberger for the whole game, or indeed, at all, but in the throws immediately succeeding the injury Roethlisberger missed several over the middle of the field, including a play towards the end of the half that had a wide open Heath Miller over the middle.
On the first play of the game, the Steelers come out in a 12 set. The Saints run a shell cover three defense, in which safety Pierre Warren is responsible for the middle of the field. However, the wrinkle is that Warren is responsible for locking out the inside for Brown, and Robinson is responsible for the outside. Meanwhile, Lewis is responsible for Wheaton in man to man coverage.
Post play action, the Steelers have 8 men in to block for Roethlisberger. Notice how Warren is completely opened towards Brown, and Robinson had conceded the inside. Wheaton, meanwhile, is running a straight streak downfield with Lewis trailing him. The Saints’ linebackers, who were responsible for the intermediate routes on the play, are now left in no-man’s-land while the play is happening over the top.
By the time Spaeth (the second string tight end on the top side of the screen in the flat) breaks free of his chip, the Saints’ linebacker is still underneath to take away the checkdown. Every Saints’ defender that isn’t in the deep zone is playing within 10 yards of the original line of scrimmage, thus eliminating the threat of the underneath dump off. Lewis is isolated up top, and Brown makes his break, where Robinson is waiting, allowing no separation. Roethlisberger decides to take his shot downfield and take a chance on the man to man coverage.
The result of the play is an overthrown incompletion, in which Lewis has given up no separation to Wheaton. The Saints looked at Lewis on Wheaton as a matchup that favored them all game.
The Steelers ran a great deal of 2 or 3 man routes, presumably to take advantage of the perpetual threat of the running game. The problem with this tactic was that it allowed the Saints to isolate their best corner on the Steelers’ receiver lining up opposite Brown, whether it was the inexperienced Wheaton or Martavis Bryant or the aging Lance Moore. This allowed the Saints to focus their over the top help on Brown, thus taking away the threat of the pass, no matter how long Roethlisberger had in the pocket.
A similar example came on the Kenny Vaccaro interception in the second quarter. The Steelers run a three man route on the play, where Brown runs a slant over the middle. Rob Ryan runs a hybrid defense, in which the top side defenders play zone and Robinson trails Brown. The result is that the top side of the field is isolated for the Saints’ secondary, and they’re only forced to consider the top side. Lewis is playing the top third of the field deep, while the nickel corner takes the intermediate top side. The Saints keep two safeties deep.
When the play begins to develop, Robinson is sealing off Brown inside and the Saints’ linebackers (they were in a 3-3-5 formation initially) keep an eye on the middle of the field. Warren is responsible for the near sideline, but no one is there. The Steelers don’t have a checkdown option on the play. Lewis and the nickel corner (in this case Corey White) blanket the receivers on a wheel route. Bryant is left running free over the middle of the field, and Vaccaro sees the receiver coming on the fly being corralled by the underneath help.
This moment is where Roethlisberger really screwed up. Now that two options of the field are kept in check (particularly the top side receiver, who can’t even be thrown open), Bryant is running loose across the middle of the field. If Roethlisberger makes this throw underneath the coverage, the Steelers still pick up a good 20-25 yards and are in field goal range as a result. Warren and Vaccaro now have their sights set exclusively on Bryant, and begin their convergence on him. Roethlisberger, of course, still has time in the pocket due to the 6 men blocking against a 4 man pass rush.
Roethlisberger, however, decides to absolutely bomb it to Bryant. Bryant is stuck underneath both Warren and Vaccaro, with the latter having a 5 yard jump on him. Roethlisberger puts the ball into the end zone, where it is intercepted by Vaccaro, and the Steelers lose a potential scoring chance.
This game was seemingly a classic case of a team overthinking its gameplan. The Steelers wanted to exploit the Saints on the deep ball (which is a perfectly viable strategy, given their lack of depth/arguably talent at safety), but went about it in all of the wrong ways. Teams that beat the Saints deep do so by spreading the field and attacking them that way, rather than by letting their quarterback just wait in the pocket. Obviously, time in the pocket is important, but it isn’t everything. The Steelers are the best in the league when it comes to secondary routes, and at no point did Pittsburgh try to exploit the obvious lack of depth in the NO secondary. Brown, Wheaton, Bryant, Moore and Miller should all, in theory, come to a greater sum than Lewis, Robinson, White, Warren, Ball and Vaccaro. However, the Steelers chose to try to utilize the threat of the run instead of the reality of their depth, and it cost them up until the 4th quarter. Roethlisberger also stubbornly chose to go deep instead of taking what the Saints’ defense gave him, and it cost the Steelers dearly.
It isn’t entirely the Steelers’ ineptitude in their gameplan that won this game for the Saints, however. In a week that was fraught with controversy, Rob Ryan called quite possibly his best game of the season. Rather than relying on safety packages and different looks, he went back to what worked and used the talent that was put on the field for him. With Lewis able to shut down one threat, thus creating the ability to put focus on the other, Roethlisberger seemed to spend a great deal of the game in frustration, until eventually he was using the checkdown as his primary read. If Ryan can continue to use who he has on the field instead of trying to create looks that simply aren’t there, the Saints may be able to make it in as a playoff team yet.