By David Todd
Winners of four of their last five, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on Sunday and got embarrassed. Much like the Cleveland game in week six where they also got blown out, the Steelers actually dominated early. They controlled the ball for just under twelve minutes in the first quarter primarily with the run game and kicked a field goal early in the second to go up 6-0. But their red zone ineffectiveness would again come back to haunt them. Ben Roethlisberger struggled much of the afternoon throwing two interceptions and repeatedly missing open receivers high. The Steelers defense completely collapsed after a solid start as the Saints scored touchdowns on five of six drives from the middle of the second quarter through the beginning of the fourth and 13 of the Saints 54 offensive plays went for 10 yards or more. Two touchdowns and two-point conversions in the last three minutes were window-dressing that gave the illusion of a competitive 35-32 matchup, but this one was over early in the fourth quarter. Not much of a way to celebrate the 1974 Steelers, many of whom were feted at halftime in recognition of the organization’s first Super Bowl title. Right now these Steelers are a bad defensive football team and an erratic offensive one, but at 7-5 they still control their playoff fate.
Brice McCain suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. Brett Keisel suffered a triceps injury in the third quarter and also did not return. Early reports suggest Keisel may have a torn triceps which would end his season and most-likely mark the end of his career. It’s worth noting the Steelers have lost two young defensive linemen, Josh Mauro and Nick Williams, off their practice squad in the past month.
Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor returned to action. Ryan Shazier, Marcus Gilbert and Steve McLendon were all inactive due to injury.
*The raw numbers are impressive as the Steelers put up 32 points and 538 yards, but 16 points and 166 yards came on the final two drives in the last six minutes. The Steelers did convert 3 of 4 red zone opportunities and all thee goal-to-go opportunities. They also put two two-point conversions on tape. Made ‘em both.
*Le’Veon Bell picked up where he left off after his 204-yard rushing performance against Tennessee in the Steelers last outing. Bell’s stats were inflated with big yardage in the last two drives, but he put up 71 rushing yards in the first quarter with three separate runs over 10 yards. He continues to show great vision, patience and power, punishing defenders at the end of runs. On the game Bell finished with a career-high 254 yards on 29 touches, 21-95 on the ground and 8-159 in the passing game, also a career-high. The 254 yards from scrimmage is the second-most in Steelers history behind Frenchy Fuqua’s 256 in 1970.
*Heath Miller had a big day as he was able to find the soft spots in the Saints pass coverage in the middle of the field. Heath finished with 8 catches on 14 targets for 82 yards, but easily could have doubled that production if his signal caller had had a better day.
*Roethlisberger had another bad outing and hasn’t played well in the Steelers last three games. He continually delivered balls high, missing open receivers all over the field, and threw two more interceptions. One was a poorly-thrown deep ball into double-coverage which never should have been thrown and the other was a pass batted at the line of scrimmage. After throwing only three interceptions in the first nine games, Roethlisberger has thrown five in the last three. Much like the Jets three weeks ago, the Saints were able to get pressure on Roethlisberger early and that seemed to throw him off his rhythm as he repeatedly delivered balls off his back foot. Ben’s lucky he didn’t finish with four or five interceptions as the Saints dropped a couple easy ones including a sure pick-six by Patrick Robinson late in the first quarter. I keep noting that this team is going to go where their quarterback takes them. They are 1-2 in their last three largely as a result of his play. Ben banged his hand up on a pass attempt late in the first quarter. While it clearly bothered him it didn’t seem to be the reason for his ineffectiveness.
*The Steelers offensive line was a key to their offensive success during their recent three game home win streak, but their erratic play of late is cause for concern. While the run blocking has been solid, the pass protection has been lacking. The Saints didn’t register a bunch of sacks, but they got a ton of pressure forcing Ben to check-down, scramble or throw the ball away often. Mike Adams in particular struggled.
*The Steelers “other” receivers need to step up. Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Hayward-Bey combined for 8 catches and 97 yards, but four of Wheaton’s five catches and one of Moore’s came in the last few minutes with the outcome decided. Bryant had one catch, DHB none. I don’t know if it is a trust issue for Ben with the new guys, but the Steelers are going to have to develop other weapons if they want to consistently perform at a high level.
*If feels ridiculous to criticize Bell when he was clearly the Steelers best player in this one, but he was unable to pull in a high pass on a third down in the second quarter that would have kept a drive alive and on a 48-yard catch and run late in the third quarter it looked like Bell could have been more patient setting up his two blockers downfield and possibly scored. He got forced out at the New Orleans 26 and the Steelers ended up settling for a field goal.
*Drew Brees and the Saints offense came into the game as the NFL’s best at converting third downs. The Steelers defense was up to the challenge early stopping them on each of their first three third down attempts, forcing punts. From that point the Saints converted 4 of 7.
*Much of the conversation in this one was how the Steelers would contain Jimmy Graham. The Steelers came out with six DBs in third down situations and that seemed to confuse the Saints early. They did contain Graham who wasn’t even targeted, but plenty of damage was done by the Saints other pass-catchers.
*No individual deserves recognition in this one, but Jason Worilds did make some plays including a sack and two tackles for loss and Cameron Heyward continues to be the team’s best defensive player.
*The Steelers continue to get victimized by explosive plays. The Saints only ran 54 offensive plays in this one, but 13 went for 10 or more yards.
*The Steelers secondary just isn’t good enough to stop the elite quarterbacks (and often not good enough to stop lesser quarterbacks either.) After a slow start Brees threw five touchdown passes. Kenny Stills repeatedly torched William Gay and Taylor. The secondary have been beaten for touchdown pass of 67, 80 and 69 yards in the last three games and in each case their was no safety help over the top.
*No turnovers. The Steelers lost the turnover battle 2-0. That’s 6-0 in their last two losses to the Jets and the Saints.
*Wheaton has proven to be a solid kick returner, something the Steelers lacked the first three months of the season. He returned three kicks for 87 yards, including a season-high 41-yarder.
*Their was a bad center-holder exchange on Shaun Suisham’s missed 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
*I didn’t see much good worth commenting on. The defensive scheme the Steelers used early with six DBs on third down did seem to confuse the Saints.
*Individual play calls are always questionable to criticize, but it seemed curious that the Steelers decided to throw the ball twice on 2nd & 3rd and 5 from the Saints 13 to start the second quarter. The Steelers had been chewing up the Saints on the ground and Bell had gained 5 yards on first down running the ball. The Steelers didn’t convert and settled for a field goal to go up 6-0.
*The Saints managed the clock well at the end of the first half, scoring a touchdown with 36 seconds left, but Mike Tomlin let the Saints operate while keeping all three of his timeouts in his pocket. The Steelers ended up settling for a 54-yard field goal attempt with five seconds, still holding two timeouts. Poor job by Tomlin. Again.
Big Officiating Calls
*The officials didn’t have a big impact in this one.
The Steelers will take on the (8-3-1) Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, December 7 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.