By Alex Kozora
Your weekly scouting report on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ upcoming opponent. For Week 13, the New Orleans Saints.
– An offense that runs through Drew Brees, of course. A guy completing over 70% of his passes in 2014, holding the current lead for most completions (325) and the second most attempts (462). Although statistically, he isn’t coming off his best games.
From Weeks 9-11, he was held under 300 yards in each game, only completed one pass over 30 yards in that span, and was picked off three times. And even against the Baltimore Ravens on MNF last week, his 420 yard performance didn’t feel that special.
Still, he’s a guy who has a great feel for the pocket and one of the most accurate QBs in the league. Arm doesn’t restrict him either, even at 35.
He’s rarely sacked, dropped just 17 times in 2014. Fantastic number for a dude whose been asked to sling the rock as much as he has. He hasn’t thrown fewer than 30 attempts in over two years – November 18th, 2012. For comparison, Ben Roethlisberger has done it five times.
– The running game, as Mike Tomlin was quick to point out in his presser, is 8th in the league. Mark Ingram has been slowed the last several weeks but has given the position stability and the team what they expected when they drafted the Alabama alum in the first round. He isn’t particularly elusive and though he’s gotten more involved in the pass game over the last few weeks (60% of his seasonal receptions over the last three weeks), he isn’t a major threat there.
What Ingram is is a downhill runner who can deliver some big blows in the alley. Expect one or two big pops between him and Mike Mitchell/Troy Polamalu. Both will have to make sure their wrapping up. Laying a shoulder into him isn’t always good enough to bring Ingram down.
– Elsewhere, Pierre Thomas and Travaries Cadet are listed as running backs but act more like wide receivers in the confines of the Saints’ offense. Both have been targeted more than they have carries. Thomas 37, Cadet a whopping 43 looks compared to nine carries in the run game.
At one point in the Saints’ two minute drill near the end of the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, Cadet was targeted on four straight plays.
Thomas has just four fewer receptions than Markus Wheaton.
– The Saints’ line is strong in both phases and gives Brees plenty of time. Jahari Evans is still one of the best guards at his RG spot. Zach Strief returned last week and is an upgrade over Bryce Harris.
Center Jonathan Goodwin does lack some functional strength and can get pushed around. Ben Grubbs has regressed and sometimes stops moving laterally on zone blocks, allowing the DL to disengage and flow freely.
Terron Armstead is the freak kid out of Arkansas Pine-Bluff who blew the 4.6 40 at the Combine. He’s at left tackle and while he can get beat laterally, still learning his craft, is impressive downfield in his run blocking. We’ll highlight that in a moment.
But no glaring weaknesses though Brees’ quick release is a great way to mask issues along the line.
– Jimmy Graham doesn’t need much written about him. A freak and in case you forget, the dude has a vertical.
When a guy can high point a ball like that, there’s not a ton you can do to stop it.
Graham did have an off day against the Bengals. One explanation could be safety George Illoka lighting him up on the Saints’ first possession. Iloka would be flagged for a late hit, and while I don’t condone dirty play of that nature, giving Graham a good lick certainly won’t hurt.
However, the dude is a baller, and though his line against Cincy wasn’t pretty (3/29/0) he still made a couple of tough grabs over the middle.
Being physical against #80 isn’t a profound realization by any stretch though being able to point to the Illoka hit is a nice piece of evidence to carry around. One other idea to slow him down is to play a lot of trail technique with a two high shell. Let the LB play to the inside hip to discourage in breaking routes while the safety plays over the top.
That just means your front seven has to be stout against the run if you won’t bring that extra defender into the box.
– Josh Hill is a bit of an unsung hero for New Orleans. I imagine there’s some fans that have a soft spot for him. He’s done a little bit of everything. Most of it grunt work. Although he has found the end zone three times this year, Hill (#89) has just two catches since Halloween.
But he’s a multi-phase player on special teams, running down kicks/punts. His 227 special teams snaps are the second most in the league for a tight end. He’s got six tackles on special teams.
He’ll block, he’ll make the checkdown reception. He’s gotten work as the third down back. He probably gets Brees his NyQuil in those commercials.
Hill and Armstead had key blocks on Joe Morgan’s 67 yard end around last week. Watch both of these guys stick in space. Armstead flattens CJ Mosely over 10 yards downfield while Hill seals the DB to give Morgan the edge.
Doesn’t pop on the stat sheet but Hill is very valuable. And only 24. His contract expires after 2015. Name to keep in mind for down the road, Steelers’ fans.
– Brandin Cooks is a big loss at WR. Marques Colston has turned into a vertical threat. He has 12 catches of 20+ yards in 2014 that account for over half his yards (322/618). And it isn’t stemming from YAC, either. He’s 59th in that category with just over 200. They’re sending him vertical and he’s winning some jump balls.
– Kenny Stills went off for 9/98 in Cooks absence last week. On the season, he’s catching an impressive 76.5% of his targets. Of WRs with at least 40 targets, Stills catch percentage is second in the NFL…behind Cooks. Must be nice playing with Brees.
– As a whole, it’s the only offense in the NFL to have six players with at least 30 receptions. And it’s just one of two to have three running backs haul in at least 20. The Detroit Lions are the other.
– Schematically, it’s a predominantly inside zone team, especially with Ingram who doesn’t have the speed to reach the edge. So another big test for the Steelers’ run defense.
– They will use a decent amount of 13 personnel, something that’s given the Steelers fits throughout the year. In one instance against the Bengals, they were in 13 one play and then empty the next. Headache to try and substitute against.
– One major alert to keep an eye out for in the passing game. The Saints love to situationally use double-moves, an area where the Steelers have been burned. No question Sean Payton noticed William Gay – who, for the record, is normally good against defending double-moves – get beat by Nate Washington for an 80 yard score.
Three alerts for the Saints when they run this. 1st and 10, usually between the opponents 35-49. Chance for a score but still gives them enough room to air it out. Don’t have to worry about the back of the end zone squeezing the route or the throw.
When the Saints’ receivers are in a reduced split. Between the numbers. Makes the defense think it’ll be an out-breaking route, plus allowing room for the actual execution.
And finally, against a single high look. Won’t run this versus two high. Safety over the hash defends it too easily. Has to be versus single high – or at worst, a situation where the safeties are playing unusually shallow – where the receiver can win one-on-one.
It won’t always be a full double-move. Sometimes just a hard stem outside and then back inside. But the goal still the same; get the CB to open the gate (his hips) and then beat him vertically. Tons of examples from the past few weeks that I’ll show below.
The Saints also ran this from well within their own territory against the Ravens. Same other principles though – reduced splits vs single high. Steelers must be on high alert as not to give up the big play.
And if you could notice, the Saints will have a receiver run that deep cross to get the safety to bite. Another area of concern for the Steelers the last two seasons. Couple things that really scare me when it comes to evaluating how successful New Orleans’ offense can be against the home squad.
– The defensive line is going to miss NT Brodrick Bunkley more than I originally thought. Although he only played less than 40% of the snaps in 2014, they were quality snaps. Interior plugger who got a push and understood how to get leverage.
– They’re left with John Jenkins – a massive man at 359 pounds – but a young dude who is predictably inconsistent. All about his first step. If he gets off and low, he can dominate.
If he’s slow, he’ll get washed.
Think Maurkice Pouncey has the advantage in this one.
– Cam Jordan is playing a bit out of position as a 3-4 DE but still dominate. Five sacks is a nice number. And he’s playing a crazy high level of snaps – the second highest percentage in the league, only trailing the borderline immortal JJ Watt. They’re the only two lineman over the 90% threshold.
– Akeem Hicks is a DE from north of the border, playing his college ball at Regina, but his play didn’t really stand out to me.
– Expect Brandon Deadrick to be active this week to replace Bunkley.
– As Tomlin also mentioned, Junior Galette is a guy to fear as a pass rusher. They’ll switch sides with him so both tackles have to be prepared.
Galette is an edge rusher who has excellent bend. Ankle flexibility and does a nice job dipping his inside shoulder to create a small space for the tackle to punch. I’ll give Mike Adams a fair shake in this one, but he’ll probably get a good bit of help. Possibly a lot of 12 personnel with Matt Spaeth being his chaperone, allowing Miller to still break out in his route tree.
– The inside linebackers are very weak. Like, me trying to compete in the bench press weak. Curtis Lofton may have a lot of tackles but he isn’t impressive. David Hawthorne might be worse. Both guys seem to guess a good bit in the run game and are inconsistent in their run fills. A lot of big lanes get created because these guys are slow reading their keys, read the wrong keys, or get pushed and washed.
Here’s Lofton reading the counter action instead of the pulling LG/FB, is late scraping, and is blocked while the back goes for 21.
And similar here, with Lofton’s eyes not even on the runner.
With Le’Veon Bell’s ability to press the hole and fake linebackers out, he could be in store for another monster day. Perhaps, in total, an even bigger one than what he did to the Tennessee Titans? Crazy, but the Saints’ run defense is bad.
100+ yards total allowed in each of the last four games. Given up a 150+ yard rusher in the last two weeks. Justin Forsett ripped 182 Monday night. He hadn’t had that much in a game since his sophomore year at Cal.
At one point Monday night from the late first quarter to the early second, New Orleans allowed seven rushes for 98 yards and a touchdown. That includes four straight runs of 10+ yards. At the end, check out all the missed runs during that span.
On a short week, that has to be music to Bell’s ears.
On top of all that, the Saints seem to struggle against the Power O. Because those linebackers have trouble scraping and in general, getting off blocks, there’s a good bet a hole will develop. Bengals busted off a couple big runs. Expect David DeCastro to pull a ton like he did against the Titans.
– The cornerbacks are nondescript. I couldn’t evaluate Keenan Lewis against the Bengals. Only 11 snaps due to a knee that was eight sizes too big.
As an aside, I’m not really sure where he is health-wise, he did play every snap last week, but keep in mind higher elevations (like taking a plane to your destination) increases swelling. Just throwing it out there. I’m not a doctor but like Ike Taylor, I stayed at a Holiday Inn.
– The safeties are laughably bad. But it’s not their fault. It’s been a tough year. Jarius Byrd and Rafael Bush landed on IR. Veteran Jamarca Sanford stepped in but was promptly benched after taking a terrible angle against Forsett and allowing a 38 yard run.
The three safeties that saw playing time last week have spent two years or less in the league. Vaccaro is the eldest. Pierre Warren, a UDFA out of FCS Jacksonville State, should not be playing on any defense.
He logged 56 snaps last week.
Missed tackle, poor angles, the dude sticks out like a sore thumb. Tough to mask poor safety play. They’re the last line of defense.
With the front seven being poor against the run, the safeties are stressed and asked to make a lot of tackles. Volatile combination.
Couple of final notes.
– The Saints are allowing opposing offenses to convert over 47% of the time on 3rd down. Over the last month, the Steelers are converting over 52% of the time. Advantage Pittsburgh.
– New Orleans doesn’t force many turnovers. Only 11, 29th in the league. Of course, we said that about the New York Jets, too. Who, by the way, still have four of their seven turnovers because of the Steelers.
– It is a hybrid defense, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Edge rushers will stand and have their hand in the dirt.
– Not much to note. Thomas Morestead handles punts and kickoffs. Unusual for a punter but nothing that should cause you to wake up in a cold sweat.
– Shayne Graham has missed just one field goal in 18 tries.
– Marcus Ball is L1 in their kick coverage and he appears to be a little overzealous and will lose contain. Something to file in the back of your mind. Maybe the Steelers catch him crashing too hard and Markus Wheaton can rip off a big return down the right – from the offense’s perspective – sideline.
– Don’t overlook the fact backup QB Luke McCown is the holder. Hasn’t thrown a pass in 2014 but the team ran a fake late in 2013 against the Carolina Panthers. The Saints shifted from a FG formation to a more traditional, offensive formation, and McCown threw incomplete to Graham.
Graham doesn’t normally play on the field goal unit – then or now – so if he trots out, it’s a good sign for a fake. Have to monitor personnel coming onto the field. And in general, whenever the QB is out there, you have to keep a watchful eye for those things. I don’t know why more teams do it.