The New Orleans Saints play a home game for the first time in December after three straight games on the road. They now host the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday, in a pivotal contest for both teams. The Saints have had some struggles offensively in recent weeks, failing to score a first half touchdown in each of the last three contests and averaging just 17 points in those three games. New Orleans still ranks second in the league in points scored, averaging 32.8 per game, while their 386 yards of total offense per outing ranks 7th. They take on a Steelers defense that ranks 9th in the league, surrendering 334 yards per game, but give up 22.6 points per outing, ranking 15th. The New Orleans offense is usually much more dynamic at home, and today we look at how they match up against the Steel Curtain defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. STEELERS PASS DEFENSE
Saints passing game has produced 259 yards per game to rank 11th, unfamiliar ground for a Sean Payton coached team that normally is at the top of the league. Quarterback Drew Brees has been efficient, completing nearly 75% of his passes with 31 touchdowns and 5 interceptions while throwing for 3,666 yards. He has five 300-yd. games this season, but none in the last month. Brees and his passing game have been in a monthlong slump, averaging just 176 yards through the air over the past four games. The New Orleans passing attack has two of the most difficult weapons to contain in the league with third year wideout Michael Thomas and second year running back Alvin Kamara, but have gotten very little consistency from any of their other receivers. Michael Thomas has 8 touchdown receptions, and leads the NFL with 109 receptions, breaking his own franchise record, while his 1,267 receiving yards are just 132 away from surpassing Joe Horn for the single season team record. Kamara, one of the most versatile running backs in the league, has caught 77 passes for 627 yards and 4 scores. The two have been responsible for well over 50% of the team's aerial production, but New Orleans will likely need another receiving threat to be effective in the playoffs. Tight end Benjamin Watson is third on the team in receptions (32) for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He has the trust of his quarterback in key situations, but the veteran is no longer effective on a weekly basis. Rookie wideout Tre'Quan Smith is loaded with gamebreaking potential. He has two 100-yd receiving games this season to go along with his 24 catches for 386 yards and four scores, but has not been a consistent threat and has struggled with drops and positioning. Undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood is a physical wideout with the athleticism to challenge defenses, and has worked his way into favor with 11 receptions for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns in just six games of action. Tight ends Josh Hill and Dan Arnold have had some nice moments, and have combined for 26 catches for 334 yards and two scores. Brees' targets have had difficulty getting separation from coverage in recent weeks, and the extra time it takes to get open has allowed the opposing pass rush to create pressure. Six of the year's 15 sacks on Brees have occurred in the last four games, and the additional pressure has forced the Hall of Fame quarterback into mistakes. Brees has thrown only five interceptions this season, but four of them have come in the past four contests. Left tackle Terron Armstead has missed the last five games with a pectoral injury, but seems poised to return in time for the playoffs, perhaps this week against Pittsburgh. His replacement, Jermon Bushrod, has struggled in pass protection, and left last week's win over Carolina with a hamstring injury that has him questionable this week. The Saints moved left guard Andrus Peat over to tackle to finish the game, but Peat is much more effective inside. Another injury to watch is center Max Unger, who suffered a concussion against the Panthers. He was replaced by Cameron Tom, but the team has brought in linemen for tryouts this week to prepare for a possible shuffle in protection if Armstead or Unger can't go.
Questions along the New Orleans offensive line could spell disaster against a Steelers defense that has 46 sacks on the year. Pittsburgh's pass defense ranks 13th in the league, giving up around 237 yards per game. They win when they get pressure up front, particularly from the edge. T.J. Watt leads the team with 11 sacks, and his four forced fumbles are indicative of the havoc he creates on opposing offenses. He is complimented at the other edge by Bud Dupree and his 5.5 sacks, and both players benefit from standout play by the linemen in front of them. Defensive end Cam Heyward, son of former Saints running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, has added six takedowns, while Javon Hargrave (6.5 sacks) and Stephon Tuitt (4) have given the Steelers a disruptive presence inside. The ability of Pittsburgh to get pressure without blitzing has allowed them to fortify some early season breakdowns in coverage in the secondary. The Steelers have only 7 interceptions on the year though, and have allowed some running room in the middle of the field after the catch. Cornerback Joe Haden is their best coverage player, and will most likely be matched up against Michael Thomas in man to man situations, but Pittsburgh's secondary has lacked a playmaking presence. Corners Mike Hilton, Artie Burns, and Coty Sensabaugh, along with safeties Sean Davis, Morgan Burnett, and rookie first rounder Terrell Edmunds are best suited at keeping the play in front of them, rather than matching up in one on one coverage. The Pittsburgh safeties and linebackers have been vulnerable against opposing tight ends and running backs at times, although they managed to control nemesis Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots a week ago, and some coverage schemes have even had their linebackers cover opposing wideouts in intermediate man coverage.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive tackles vs. Steelers edge rushers ~
The Steelers held Tom Brady and the Patriots to under 300 yards passing last week. Although they played well in coverage, the primary reason for their success was due to the pressure they put on Brady. Pittsburgh can pressure the passer with a variety of players, and the Saints line has struggled to protect Brees in recent weeks. Armstead's return could be a giant boost, but the team may choose to save him for the playoff run. When at full strength, the New Orleans line held formidable pass rushes like the Rams, Vikings, and Eagles, among others, at bay to allow Brees to flourish.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. STEELERS RUN DEFENSE
The 8th ranked New Orleans rushing attack averages 127 yards per game. Alvin Kamara leads the team with 860 yards on the ground, averaging 4.6 per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns, second best in the NFL. Mark Ingram has contributed 582 yards and five scores, while averaging 4.8/attempt, and is only 152 rushing yards and one touchdown away from passing Deuce McAllister as the Saints all-time leader in both categories. This is the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the league at the position, and each are capable of picking up the tough yardage inside or breaking big plays in the open field. The New Orleans line has brutalized opponents much of the year, and has paved the way for a league leading 22 rushing touchdowns. Although the entire line have been road graders for their talented backs, the team prefers to run over their right side, where guard Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk have had Pro Bowl worthy years.
Pittsburgh allows 97 yards per game rushing, ranking 6th in the NFL. Inside linebackers Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and L.J. Fort, along with safety Edmunds, are extremely active and effective in pursuit, while the Steelers defensive line stuffs the inside rush regularly. Only four opponents have gained over 100 rushing yards against Pittsburgh, but the Jaguars, Broncos, and Chargers have all run the ball effectively against them over the last month.
~ Matchup to Watch: Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Hargrave/Heyward/Tuitt ~
Despite the injuries up front, the Saints still rushed for 155 yards against a top ranked Panthers run defense. The team needs to win the battles inside to not only provide a clean pocket for Brees, but open up cutback lanes for Ingram and Kamara. The Steelers linebackers have struggled with elusive backs in the open field, but flourish when their linemates win the point of attack, leaving them free for pursuit or to finish plays in the backfield.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Saints passing attack has averaged 312 yards in games played at home, as opposed to just 218 yards through the air when they play on the road. The Pittsburgh defense is not designed for alot of man to man coverage. They instead prefer playing off the ball, ideally forcing opposing receivers to work through traffic in hopes that their pass rush can get to the quarterback first. The Saints receivers play well in intermediate zones, and if the line can hold up Brees is a master at carving up such coverage schemes. New Orleans often likes to take deep shots early in home games, but the onus will again be on the team's wideouts to gain separation, particularly on a quick rhythm passing attack that they are expected to employ. The Saints have been able to run the ball effectively in nearly every game, but the banged up offensive must be able to establish dominance for coach Sean Payton to maintain confidence in his playcalling. Kamara, Ingram, and the tight ends could play a key role in the passing game against a Steelers defense that has struggled against the positions. Pittsburgh has also not played well against physical running games, so New Orleans will likely try to establish balance immediately, but look for downfield shots early against their secondary and to slow the Steelers outside rush.
What is the most important match up for the New Orleans offense against the Steel Curtain defense?
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Saints OT's vs. Steelers edge rushers
Saints interior line vs. Steelers defensive line
Michael Thomas vs. Joe Haden
Saints WR's vs. Steelers CB's
Saints TE's vs. Steelers safeties
Kamara/Ingram vs. Steelers LB's