NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (5-1) at New Orleans (4-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After capturing a Super Bowl title two years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem poised to make another run at an NFL championship this time around. The New Orleans Saints, last season's team that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, haven't exactly resembled an outfit that's primed for a return trip, on the other hand.
The surging Steelers aim to continue their terrific start to the 2010 campaign, while the suddenly-struggling Saints try once again to recapture their 2009 form, when the two powerhouses collide this Sunday in an intriguing interconference battle from the Superdome.
Pittsburgh has overcome nearly every obstacle to come its way, including a lengthy suspension to its franchise quarterback, in building a 5-1 record that's tied with the New York Jets and New England for the best in the NFL at this stage of the season. Three of those victories came with Ben Roethlisberger serving a four-game ban for violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy, with the Steelers withstanding their offensive catalyst's absence by playing ferocious defense and maximizing the available talent on hand.
Roethlisberger has since returned from his forced exile and immediately performed at an elite level, making Pittsburgh an even stronger early candidate to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLV. The standout signal-caller has averaged nearly 280 passing yards and thrown for five touchdowns with just one interception in helping the Steelers to their two most recent triumphs.
Pittsburgh's had a bit of good fortune come its way as well, with the team benefiting from a controversial call that factored greatly in last Sunday's narrow win at Miami. With the Steelers down by two points with 2 1/2 minutes to go, a Roethlisberger fumble into the opposing end zone was apparently recovered by the Dolphins, but referee Gene Steratore ruled that was inconclusive to determine which team came up with the ball and allowed Pittsburgh to retain possession on the one-yard line.
Kicker Jeff Reed than booted an 18-yard field goal on the subsequent play to provide the difference in a 23-22 verdict.
There was little dispute over the Saints' latest result, a shocking 30-17 home loss to one-win Cleveland in which quarterback Drew Brees threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns by Browns linebacker David Bowens.
The defeat left New Orleans with a 4-3 record and in third place in the NFC's South Division, one game behind front-running Atlanta and a half-game back of surprising Tampa Bay.
Mistakes have plagued the Saints numerous times over the season's first seven weeks, with the reigning champs having committed 14 turnovers in their last five contests. Brees has been picked off 10 times during that time frame, one less than his entire total of last year.
New Orleans' slumping offense has also been slowed by the absence of a consistent running game. With top backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush sidetracked by injuries, the Saints have averaged a pedestrian 92.6 yards per week on the ground.
A turnaround in that area looks to be a tall order this week, considering Pittsburgh leads the NFL in run defense in addition to yielding a league-low 13.7 points per game. The defense will be without one of its key pieces for the remainder of the season, however, after sturdy end Aaron Smith suffered a torn triceps in last week's win over the Dolphins.
The Steelers lead the all-time series with the Saints, 7-6, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 38-31 home victory when the teams last met, in 2006. The Saints won the previous meeting, a 32-29 triumph at the Superdome in 2002. The Steelers' most recent win in New Orleans came in 1990.
Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl victory came in New Orleans, when the Steelers defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, in Super Bowl IX from Tulane Stadium.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 0-1 in his career against the Steelers, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin will be meeting both Payton and New Orleans for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh utilized a run-heavy game plan during Roethlisberger's (559 passing yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) suspension, with fill-in quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch essentially serving as caretakers who were asked simply to manage the game, but the offense has become far more balanced -- and dangerous -- now that Big Ben is back under center. The Steelers have averaged nearly 275 passing yards per outing in Roethlisberger's two starts, with wide receivers Hines Ward (24 receptions, 3 TD) and Mike Wallace (14 receptions, 4 TD) the primary beneficiaries of the more wide-open approach. The ultra- reliable Ward amassed 131 yards and a touchdown on a season-high seven grabs against Miami, while the lightning-fast Wallace has hauled in a long scoring pass from Roethlisberger in two straight weeks and is averaging an impressive 25.3 yards per catch as the team's main deep threat. Ironically, Pittsburgh hasn't been able to run as effectively in the games Roethlisberger's played, with workhorse back Rashard Mendenhall (532 yards, 5 TD, 9 receptions) averaging a subpar 2.9 yards per carry over the past two tests. To help compensate, the club has called more short passes in the direction of backfield mate Mewelde Moore (9 receptions), with the Louisiana native coming up with four catches totaling 48 yards last week.
Roethlisberger will be firing away at a New Orleans defense that's surrendered the third-fewest passing yards in the league (179.7 ypg) but is really banged up in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (28 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Tracy Porter (17 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) both sat out last week's loss with shoulder and knee injuries, respectively, and it's unclear if either will be able to go on Sunday. The team did get back All-Pro free safety Darren Sharper, who tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions last season, for the Cleveland game after he missed the first six weeks recovering from knee surgery, and the veteran ballhawk is a welcome addition to a unit that's picked off only four passes thus far. The run defense, led by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (42 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and hard-hitting strong safety Roman Harper (36 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD), has been outstanding at times, limiting Arizona and Tampa Bay to a combined 83 yards in back-to-back weeks earlier in the month, but had some problems containing Cleveland's power-based ground attack in giving up 125 yards on the ground last Sunday. Roethlisberger's been prone to being sacked in the past, and the Saints do have a couple of proven pass rushers in tackle Sedrick Ellis (19 tackles, 3 sacks) and end Will Smith (18 tackles, 1 sack).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Moving the ball through the air hasn't been too much of an issue for a New Orleans offense that's fifth in the NFL in passing yards (289.9 ypg) and boasts one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks in Brees (2029 passing yards, 14 TD, 10 INT), but turnovers and breakdowns at critical times have too often stalled the group's progress. The Saints have also inexplicably had trouble generating points at home, having averaged a modest 17.8 points in their four Superdome games. Not having either Thomas (sprained ankle) or Bush (broken fibula) for the past four contests hasn't helped as well, and neither back appears on track to suit up again this week. That means the team will roll once more with youngster Chris Ivory (325 rushing yards) as the lead ball carrier and hope the rookie can duplicate a Week 6 showing at Tampa Bay in which he piled up 158 yards on only 15 carries. With the Saints likely hard- pressed to get that production against Pittsburgh's tremendous run defense, expect Brees to be chucking it downfield to a deep cast of pass-catchers headed by physical wideout Marques Colston (40 receptions, 452 yards, 1 TD), fresh off a season-best 10-catch, 112-yard display against the Browns. Lance Moore (22 receptions, 4 TD), Devery Henderson (19 receptions, 1 TD) and Robert Meachem (16 receptions, 2 TD) will also see plenty of snaps in Payton's multiple-receiver looks, with veteran running back Ladell Betts (111 rushing yards, 1 TD, 18 receptions) also getting looks from Brees out of the backfield.
The Saints figure to face a stern challenge from a Pittsburgh defense that's permitted only four passing touchdowns and six total on the year and has been the second-toughest to score upon within the red zone. The Steelers also excel at pressuring the quarterback, as outside linebackers James Harrison (44 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (22 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) form a devastating pass-rushing duo and inside starter Lawrence Timmons (62 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) can bring the heat from up the middle as well. Timmons is also one of the biggest contributors to a stop unit that's allowed a meager 63.7 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt, with space- eating nose tackle Casey Hampton and All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu (32 tackles, 2 INT) often making their presence felt as well. The depth across Pittsburgh's three-man front will be severely tested on Sunday, however, with Aaron Smith out for the year and fellow end Brett Keisel (12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) expected to miss a second straight week with a hamstring strain.
Brees may not be having his best season, but last year's Super Bowl MVP is still a top-notch fantasy quarterback and a mainstay in weekly lineups. The rest of New Orleans' offensive members are a little more tricky to figure out. While Colston's a safe choice, the Saints spread the ball around so much that its difficult to pinpoint a receiver one can use with confidence. The best bet of the bunch may be Lance Moore, the team's leader with four touchdown catches, though he's no better than a flex option. Sit Ivory in a matchup against Pittsburgh's stellar crew of run stoppers unless in a real bind, and avoid erratic kicker Garrett Hartley and the New Orleans defense as well. The Steelers' most attractive fantasy is a defense that should be started every week, but Roethlisberger, Ward and Wallace also make for worthy selections. Mendenhall's a good pick as well, even though his numbers have dropped off in recent weeks.
Don't be fooled by the Saints' pedigree anymore. This year's version isn't remotely the same as the one that jumped out to a 13-0 record en route to its first-ever world championship in 2009, as the offense hasn't consistently shown its trademark explosion and the defense isn't the opportunistic bunch it was last season. Conversely, the Steelers have displayed few weaknesses in constructing their glossy record and are clearly the one of these two teams that's got it together in all phases. New Orleans may have to play an error- free game to come out on top here. Considering how many the Saints made last week and Pittsburgh's ability to bring about mistakes on the opposition, that may be asking too much.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Saints 20
10/29 10:01:00 ET