(AP) — Considering they followed up both of their championships in the past five years by missing the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to the supposed Super Bowl hangover.
The New Orleans Saints might be the latest team to feel its effects.
Turnovers have plagued Drew Brees and the Saints’ suddenly stalled offense, a slump that could be tough to shake Sunday night against the visiting Steelers in a showdown of the past two Super Bowl champions.
Pittsburgh (5-1) finished 8-8 in 2006, a season after winning Super Bowl XL, and didn’t make the playoffs again the year after its victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
The Steelers again look capable of a return to championship form, but the Saints (4-3) are the latest example of a title team to struggle the following season. New Orleans has committed 14 turnovers in its last five games, and lost for the third time in that stretch Sunday against Cleveland as Brees was intercepted four times in a 30-17 defeat at the Superdome.
“We’re all in the midst of trying to put our finger on what exactly is going on,” Brees said after throwing his 10th pick in the five-game stretch – one fewer than he had last season. “We know the type of team we have. We know the type of work ethic we have. The effort is there. Guys want to win. Guys want to be great.”
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered through the worst season of his career after his first Super Bowl title, can relate to the Saints’ struggles.
“You’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” said Roethlisberger, who’s thrown five TDs and posted a 122.4 passer rating since returning from his four-game suspension. “A lot of the hard part about it is your off time is so short. … There’s a lot of expectations on you. You kind of put the pressure on yourself just as much as anyone else does.”
The Steelers have the NFL’s top scoring defense at 13.7 points per game and second-best turnover ratio at plus-eight, but may have been more fortunate than anything last week in Miami.
Down 22-20 late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger fumbled as he neared the goal line on a quarterback draw. Though the head linesman signaled a touchdown, a replay review overturned the call – yet the Steelers maintained position since the officials couldn’t determine who recovered the ball.
Jeff Reed booted an 18-yard field goal and Pittsburgh left with a 23-22 win.
The victory may have been costly, though. End Aaron Smith, the most significant cog up front in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, tore his left triceps in the first half.
Smith is likely out until at least late December, if not for the season. It’s the third significant injury for Smith in four years, and a look at the team with and without him speaks volumes. In the last 15 games Smith has missed – postseason included – the Steelers are 7-8 and have allowed averages of 22.5 points and 114.1 rushing yards.
With him, they’re 23-7, yielding one fewer touchdown per game and 71.4 yards on the ground.
“There are no excuses,” Tomlin said. “Do I expect the guys that take his place to play like Aaron? Or to make similar plays? Maybe not, but they’d better be above the line.”
Ziggy Hood will replace Smith on a defense that could also be without end Brett Keisel and linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who are nursing hamstring injuries.
Those potential absences would give the pass-happy Saints a good opportunity to gain some yards on the ground, but it’s unclear if Reggie Bush (leg) or Pierre Thomas (ankle) will be back. With or without them, Brees will likely attack a Pittsburgh defense that has yielded 273.5 passing yards over the past two weeks.
Roethlisberger, on the other hand, might have his hands full with a Saints pass defense that’s third in the league at 179.7 yards allowed per game.
Yet New Orleans has only one interception in its past five games, a number it hopes to see rise in its second game since safety Darren Sharper’s return. Sharper tied for the NFL lead with nine picks last season, three of which he brought back for touchdowns.
The Steelers haven’t visited New Orleans since a 32-29 loss in 2002. Brees passed for 398 yards when the teams met at Heinz Field on Nov. 12, 2006, but Roethlisberger threw three TDs in Pittsburgh’s 38-31 win.