The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the stretch run of the season today with five more games left on deck, and they find themselves right in the thick of the AFC playoff chase—that thick spot being the six different teams who have a 7-4 record. Throw in the AFC North division leaders at 7-3-1 and you start to get the idea that every game from here on out is critical.
It would seem that the Steelers have what is arguably their easiest remaining game on deck with the New Orleans Saints traveling to Heinz Field. While the idea that the Saints are much better at home than on the road might not be entirely true, or at least exaggerated, it’s certainly been the case that the Steelers have been better at home than away.
That hasn’t necessarily applied as much to the offensive side of the ball as it has to the defensive side of the ball. In fact, three of the Steelers’ four non-offensive touchdowns have come on the road this season.
On the other hand, the defense has been moderately more successful in terms of bringing more consistent pressure in the pocket, and recordings sacks at a slightly more efficient rate. They have also accounted for more turnovers on home turf than on enemy soil.
The Steelers figure to get a significant boost from some returning injured players, though they will still be waiting on others. The secondary, of course, will benefit more than any other area of the defense.
Pittsburgh will be getting back safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury. His replacement in the lineup has caused problems for the defense in terms of biting on play action and throwing Mike Mitchell off-balance, so getting the Pro Bowler back will be a significant upgrade.
Also finally returning after missing the past eight games is cornerback Ike Taylor, who has been practicing on a limited basis for about a month but has only this past week been cleared for full contact with his now healed forearm.
That means Brice McCain can move back to the slot on a full-time basis rather than being asked to play outside. It also means that William Gay won’t have to be asked to be the team’s top cornerback. Beyond that, it simply provides some size in the secondary that opposing quarterbacks will have to consider, as the three cornerbacks the Steelers have been using were all well under six feet.
While Drew Brees is the headliner, of course, the Saints also have a surprisingly potent ground attack, and the Steelers will miss Steve McLendon. It’s unclear whether or not they will continue to start Daniel McCullers, as they did in the last game, or turn back to Cam Thomas, as might be suggested by the second half of said game.
It’s unclear whether or not rookie Ryan Shazier will be active for this game; if he is, however, he can certainly be expected to be on a snap count, with Sean Spence and/or Vince Williams playing most of the snaps. They all must be prepared to stop the run, and to cover Jimmy Graham.