PITTSBURGH (AP) This is one week where the Pittsburgh Steelers are truly convinced that numbers lie.
Glance at an NFL statistics sheet, and it appears the Steelers (5-1) simply won’t be able to keep up with the New Orleans Saints (4-3) during their Sunday night matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions.
The Saints, thanks to quarterback Drew Brees, are No. 1 with a 69.7 pass completion rate. The Steelers are fifth from the bottom among defenses, allowing opponents to complete 66.2 percent of their passes. During the fourth quarter, the Steelers rank a dreadful 31st as opponents complete nearly 70 percent of their passes.
Coach Mike Tomlin’s take on all this? So much for statistics.
“I’m less concerned about what stats may potentially tell us because we all know, in many instances, they lie,” Tomlin said.
What skews the Steelers’ numbers is that nobody runs the ball on them. They allow an average of 63.7 yards rushing, and no opposing back has gained more than 48 yards.
Can’t run, and the only alternative is to pass.
“Around here, it’s always been about stopping the run, in any defense we call,” safety Troy Polamalu said Wednesday. “If our defense starts getting that bad, I’m sure we’ll start calling more pass defense. But it’s working.”
Something is working. The Steelers are in the lead so often, their opponents have run only 27 plays – 16 rushes, 11 passes – while ahead.
“Teams are trying to get into their two-minute offenses to move the ball, so in some sense it is kind of skewed,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I think the biggest number is touchdown passes given up, and we haven’t given up that many (four). So I don’t think there’s anything we have to do different preparing for this game.”
Not that the Steelers think Brees is just another quarterback.
Clark ranks him just below Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the NFL hierarchy. And a Steelers defense that allowed 16 plays of 40 yards or longer last season must be concerned with Brees’ ability to throw the deep ball.
“When you play a wide-open offense like that, it’s always tough to play against,” Polamalu said. “He uses everybody, which is tough on the defense, and he’s got a lot of talent in the wide receivers he uses.”
Brees’ take on the Steelers’ defense? So much for statistics.
“You can’t just look at statistics and say, ‘Hey, you rank top five and they rank bottom five so this has got to be a gimme,’ Brees said. “So much of it is influenced obviously by their run defense being so good, and the fact that they get up in a lot of games. They get up and then the other team is playing from behind and so their only choice is to throw the football, so that might pad the stats against them when in reality, throughout three quarters of the game, you know, they’re very good.”
Cornerback Bryant McFadden spent last season with Arizona, shouldering blame for the Cardinals’ inability to shut down the passing game, yet his return to Pittsburgh has strengthened the Steelers’ pass defense. Keeping Polamalu healthy has helped, too; he was limited by injuries to three full games last season.
As a result, teams aren’t throwing the deep ball nearly as much as they did last season. Partly because of that, the Steelers have squandered only one lead during the fourth quarter of what became a loss. Last season, they did that five times.
“We make teams one-dimensional,” McFadden said. “That goes with being successful. Yards are important, but just because they get yards doesn’t mean they’re going to score. San Diego is ranked No. 1, but their record doesn’t show it. I’ll take where we’re at, and continuing to do successful things on Sunday.”
While the Steelers aren’t saying it, they’re not especially glad the Browns intercepted Brees four times while manhandling the Saints 30-17 on Sunday, dropping New Orleans to 4-3. The Steelers are expecting an angry, motivated team that will be desperate to avoid falling to .500 at midseason.
“Last year, a big reason for their success was they got a lot of big plays on offense and a lot of big plays on defense,” Polamalu said. “The teams that have had success against them this year haven’t been giving up the big plays. That’s been our philosophy since I’ve been here – play great defense, stop the run and don’t give up big plays in the secondary.”