By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers will emerge from their ‘bye’ during week 12 in the 2014 NFL regular season with a 7-4 record to face the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on Sunday. The Saints are coming off of a 27-34 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. With the AFC North up for grabs, Pittsburgh will be driven to keep the Saints one-dimensional on offense, placing the majority of the pressure on veteran quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints struggled to get a running game going against Baltimore. Mark Ingram had 11 carries for 27 yards and Joe Morgan only had a single carry, but it went for 67 yards. New Orleans has seen Ingram become their top rusher this season with 138 carries for 618 yards and six touchdowns. Khiry Robinson was on a good track until he suffered an injured forearm midway into the season, forcing the Saints to rely more and more on Brees and the receivers to gain offensive yards and scores. New Orleans rush-pass percentage to gain first-downs is 76-161 and they have 1247 rushing yards compared to 2998 passing yards.
Brees continues to be a valuable leader, but has taken a lot of pressure for the struggles New Orleans has faced this season. Falling to 4-7, Brees and the Saints offense entered Monday night’s game second in total yardage on offense in the league, eighth in points, but continue to have mental errors kill games. Brees threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens, but his 11 interceptions have him seated only above three other NFL quarterbacks this season. Brees has taken a lot of sacks in 2014 as well, losing critical yards. His interception thrown to Baltimore’s Will Hill came at a point where the Monday night game was tied at 17.
Jimmy Graham continues to lead the Saints receivers in yardage and touchdowns. Rookie Brandin Cooks has proven to be elusive despite his average height and has factored into the New Orleans offense more than Marques Colston and Kenny Stills. The Steelers will need to play tight defense in the open field, taking advantages of individual matchups, or suffer as Brees throws deep to the target of his choice.
The Steelers defense must take advantage of a heavy pass rush against a New Orleans offensive line that has had to dig deep to keep Brees upright due to a lagging rushing game the past two weeks. Lawrence Timmons could have a big game, keeping Brees honest and in the pocket. Brees can scamper, so the Steelers defensive ends and outside linebackers will be called on to contain him and whomever is given an opportunity on the Saints roster to carry the ball. If Steve McLendon is still having shoulder issues, watch for Pittsburgh to bring in Daniel McCullers to seal up the center of the defensive line.
Where New Orleans is really struggling is on defense. Against the Ravens, the Saints allowed free-agent acquisition Justin Forsett, who ranks third in rushing yards (903) in the league to pound the ball down their throats. In the last two weeks, both the Cincinnati Bengals and Ravens combined for 402 rushing yards and both came away with wins. Keenan Lewis and Stanley Jean-Baptiste at cornerback were overmatched.
Pittsburgh is looking for a way to not only get their star running back Le’Veon Bell – who has rushed for 951 yards and two touchdowns this season – on track against New Orleans, but also to introduce Dri Archer and Josh Harris to the offensive backfield. New Orleans has yet to come up with the answers to stop teams with powerful rushers, and the Steelers will attempt to make that an advantage in their favor.
With Ben Roethlisberger completing 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,270 yards and 24 touchdowns, the Steelers would benefit from spreading the offense in order to keep the Saints’ defense honest. The offensive line showed in Week 11 that they can run-block, but Roethlisberger will need good pass protection in order to find Antonio Brown and Heath Miller. Brown leads the team with 88 receptions for 1,161 yards and nine touchdowns. Miller has added 43 receptions for 501 yards and two touchdowns. Week 13 would be an excellent opportunity for Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant to make more of a statement at the receiver position if they can get New Orleans’ corners and safeties to bite on double moves or play soft on routes.
Pittsburgh has the advantage in week 13, but they can’t afford any more breakdowns or last-ditch efforts such as the week 11 game against the Tennessee Titans. If the Steelers can control the clock and manage their game plan, they should be able to give New Orleans their third loss in three weeks at the hands of an AFC North team.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on