Photo by: USA Today
The Saints are finally back home after their three-game road trip and look to close out the NFC’s #1 seed today with a victory over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. Not an easy win by any stretch of the imagination. The Steelers are currently 8-5-1 looking to lock up their division and make it to the playoffs themselves. They sit fourth in the league in total yards per game and third in passing yards. With weapons like Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, that should surprise no one. The Saints defense has struggled in pass defense in the past, but has tightened up as of late allowing only 177.3 passing yards a game over their three-game road trip so recent trends show the Saints could be up to the task of limiting Big Ben and his receivers, though they haven’t faced this level of competition. But that can’t be the only path to success. So here are my five keys to victory for the Saints today as they attempt to lock down dome field advantage through the playoffs.
1. Win the pass rush battle
This, to me, is one of the most compelling elements of this game. The Saints come in third in the league in sacks with 45, facing an offensive line that’s only allowed 20 on Big Ben. Meanwhile, the Steelers are sitting at second in the league with 46 sacks taking on the Saints offensive line that’s allowed only16 sacks on the season. With the expected return of Terron Armstead, the New Orleans offensive line should expect to improve over recent week’s production. Though Drew Brees has been sacked 16 times in 2018, seven of those sacks came during the four games Armstead missed. The previous nine came over the course of 10 games. If the Saints offensive line can keep Brees clean while the Saints defense finds ways to get to Ben, it would go a long way in disrupting the Steelers’s passing attack. Since the addition of Eli Apple, Dennis Allen has been far more comfortable dialing up blitzes to get pressure on opposing QBs. Hence why the Saints, with two games left, have already surpassed their sack numbers from the last four years.
2. Convert on third down
In an accompanying article in my “Look at the Details” series, I’ll be highlighting the Saints’s struggles on third down as of late. The Saints on the season are second in the league in three-and-outs per drive (.133) according to Football Outsiders but have seen more of those drives in last four weeks than usual. I’m looking for the Saints to find a way to improve on that and get back to their long double-digit drive in their opening possession to set the tone of controlling the clock throughout the contest. Ball control is key to limiting the production of Pittsburgh’s passing game and help keep both the yardage and points totals to a low.
3. Y’all got some more of that run game?
I keep putting this on here because it continues to be true. We saw it full-force last week against the Panthers and in the second half against the Bucs.The Saints benefit greatly from a run game that’s getting yardage and beating up a defense. The Pittsburgh run defense is stout, allowing only 96.9 yards rushing on the season, but in their last three games away from Heinz field that average has leapt to 119.3. If the Saints can rattle off another 150+ rushing yard day as they have in three of their last five, it puts the Saints in prime position to open up the passing attack and letting Brees do his thing with the play-action tosses.
4. Stretch the defense
Which leads me to this point. Something that the Saints haven’t been able to do for a majority of the year is stretch the field and press defenses into positions in which they have to take a “pick your poison” approach. At least not recently. Because the Saints haven’t been able to get consistent production out of a second wide receiver this year, defenses just choose to key in on Michael Thomas and try to take him out of the game. Which rarely works, but when it does; it really does. With another expected return in Ted Ginn Jr. the Saints should find some success, even if his snaps are limited. (I expect less than 20.) Coupling Ginn’s return with an effective run game helps all the more because it means Ginn can be place on the field to take advantage of what the run game sets up as opposed to having to come on the field to try to create, which could tip the hat too much. I’m hoping for a solid day in his return, if he’s active, because it means Brees is being given the freedom by the league’s 13th ranked pass defense to pick them apart. Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood will still have to get involved and find ways to be factors as well. Kirkwood continues to be a go-to option on third down while Smith will need to get back to his deep threat playmaking abilities quickly.
5. Don’t allow a repeat performance by Jaylen Samuels
This basically means “keep the Steeler’s one-dimensional” but the big thing here is confidence. Samuels, who replaced James Conner who’s dealing with a high ankle sprain, ran for 142 yards last week against the New England Patriots who sport a not-so-great run defense allowing 116.2 yards per game. He also added two catches for 30 yards but no scores. Either way, his confidence is going to be up and that, for the rookie out of NC State, could lead to another big game. The Saints defense will need to break that confidence and put him in a position in which he’ll second-guess and having trouble with quick decision making. From that point, the Saints can continue to limit any ground production and hopefully force him into some bad decisions that could potentially lead to turnovers. The Saints have forced six turnovers by recovering fumbles in the last four game, they could add to that total by taking advantage of any discomfort shown by the young running back.