The 2-6 Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a bye week, hopefully well timed to trend positively as they host the 3-6 New Orleans Saints for week 10. The big and refreshing news for Pittsburgh is edge rusher T.J. Watt’s return from injury, very encouraging as the defense looks to get back to being the team’s strength after struggling overall with the reigning MVP’s absence. The bad news coming on Saturday is safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was ruled out, so the much needed desire to see Pittsburgh’s defense at close to full strength will be put on hold for at least another week.
Let’s get into the matchup, starting with the quarterbacks, and here are the passing leaders through week nine:
Both starting quarterbacks land below the mean, highlighting the timeshares at the position for both squads for various reasons. Saints quarterback Andy Dalton has played and started in six games starting in week four, replacing Jameis Winston who battled injuries and ultimately lost the starting job. Dalton has 190 attempts for 1385 yards, which each ranking 25th of the 39 players on the graph. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett now has now played in five games, also making his season debut in week four, and two of those were only a half (so ultimately four games played). This reiterates the patience needed for the rookie as he hopefully trends positively as he learns and gains experience for the remainder of the season. Thus far, Pickett has 165 attempts (30th) for 962 yards (32nd).
Let’s get more context with intended and completed air yards for 2022 so far:
When looking at the top right of the graph, we see the starting quarterbacks for both teams to open the season, particularly Winston at the peak of both metrics in the first three games of the season. Dalton lands closer to the middle of the pack, but also above the mean in both. His completed air yards number of six is solid, ranking 13th, along with his 7.97 intended air yards that’s just above average at 17th. Pickett is below the mean in both, with a very low 4.46 completed air yards number that is fifth worst in the league, along with a 7.21 intended air yards number that ranks 27th. This sheds additional context to my Steelers Passing Locations articles, seeing how his high success in the short game but poor downfield results stack up on average to the rest of the NFL. His air yards differential ranks 31st, compared to Dalton at 16th.
Next, I was curious to see what the time to throw numbers across the NFL looked like so far, along with Next Gen Stats Aggressiveness metric, which is the percentage of pass attempts into tight coverage (where the defender is within one yard or less) at the time of completion or incompletion:
When sorting by quickest time to throw and least tight window throws, Pickett is above the mean in both datapoints. His time to throw number ranks 16th in the league, along with 13.3% aggressiveness that ranks 14th. The process in these terms is healthy, but as we all know the results have been painful, tying for the second most interceptions (eight) in the NFL. Considering the New Orleans defense only has two interceptions on the year (second least), perhaps this is good news for Pickett to improve in this regard on Sunday.
One last thing for the quarterbacks, I wanted to further highlight this with passer ratings and completion percentages:
Here we get some additional justification to the Saints sticking with Dalton as the starter, currently with the 10th rank in passer rating that includes a +5 TD/INT ratio (10 TD’s, five INT’s), along with a 65.3% completion rate that ranks 16th. Pickett’s completed 67.9% of his passes for the eighth rank in the NFL, but has the worst passer rating of 66.8 in the league by far (nearly ten points lower than any other QB). This is largely due to his NFL worst -6 TD/INT ratio (only two TD’s and eight INT’s). His number is three points lower than any other player, and one of only four players with a negative ratio, including Winston (-1).
New Orleans also has a great swiss army knife player in Taysom Hill, whom many label as a tight end. He actually has the most snaps at quarterback (57) where he has run for five touchdowns, mostly from the red zone but also a triple explosive touchdown on a third and one, also throwing for a touchdown, along with a touchdown catch on a slot screen. Hill has aligned 25 times out wide, 24 as a tight end, and 16 times in the slot. Very unique player that presents a huge challenge for the Pittsburgh defense.
Now let’s look at the running backs, first with rushing leaders for the season:
Steelers running back Najee Harris slightly leads the outlook with 108 attempts (17th) but only 361 yards (30th), for a 3.3 average that ranks 45th out of the 47 running backs with at least 50 attempts. The numbers give context to how bad the run game has been in comparison to the rest of the NFL, and undoubtedly one of the key factors to the offensive struggles in 2022. Hopefully he can trend positively and add quality over quantity, especially if running back Jaylen Warren gets more time as many expect with his encouraging play. He currently has 29 attempts for 153 yards, with an outlook high 5.3 average. Though the opportunities have been limited (not on the graph), you have to try if you’re Pittsburgh in my opinion.
Saints running back Alvin Kamara lands toward the middle of the chart, with 104 attempts (four less than Harris) and 443 yards that rank 21st and 22nd respectively. He accomplished this in one less game as well, for a 4.3 average (29th) which is a full yard above Harris. Fellow running back Mark Ingram just made the graph with 51 attempts, 196 yards, and a 3.8 average (40th). Harris, Kamara, and Ingram each have a touchdown to their name, and one factor I’m hoping for in the game is a turnover via forced fumble by Pittsburgh’s defense, considering both Saints running backs have two fumbles to date, though Ingram has been ruled out for the matchup.
For more context, here are the results for Next Gen Stats rushing yards over expected, along with percentage over expected:
Wow. Harris is dead last in rush yards over expected at -92.8, along with the second lowest 28.6% over expected. Kamara is also below the mean in yards over expected, ranking 29th with a 3.2 number and just above the mean in percentage above expectation at 41.3% (26th). Ingram lands next in percentage (27th), along with the 36th rank in rush yards over expected at -18. The Saints are currently ninth in the NFL in rushing yards as a team, and Pittsburgh’s defense will definitely have their hands full in this regard.
One thing I noticed about the Saints running game is hitting the hole quickly. To highlight this, here are the top ten running backs in average time to the line of scrimmage:
Here we can see both Saints rushers make the list, with the fourth and 10th ranks. For comparison, Harris lands at 20th, highlighting the different running styles. Stacking this with Next Gen’s efficiency metric (north-south runners), Harris ranks third lowest. So, Harris has been running sideline to sideline at the third highest rate, while the Saints have had more success with decisive straight ahead running on average.
Speaking of success, one calling card for Kamara is his receiving prowess. Here are the top players at the running back position in this regard, along with Harris for context:
Kamara ranks third in receiving yards to date with 323, including an explosive 54-yard gain on a screen against Seattle and another explosive 36-yard touchdown on a Texas route. A whopping 305 of his yards were after the catch (94.4%), so the Steelers better be ready to diagnose, get off blocks, and tackle to hopefully limit this threat. We also see another facet of Harris’ game that has been extremely disappointing this season considering his strong rookie campaign last year, currently tied for 35th in receiving yards! Kamara and Harris each have two receiving touchdowns, but the latter has no explosive plays on the ground or through the air, and hopefully this changes against New Orleans.
Perfect time to move to the wide receivers, and here are the receiving leaders with a minimum of 25 targets:
Right away we can see Saints rookie wide receiver Chris Olave is the only player that is above the mean in both, currently ranking eighth in the NFL (out of 82 qualifying players) with 618 yards on 68 targets (10th) along with two touchdowns. He plays around the formation but has primarily aligned out wide (72.8%). Pittsburgh will be without Fitzpatrick, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and newly acquired William Jackson III, and it will be interesting to see how the position group of Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace, and perhaps James Pierre fare in coverage, with the latter deserving more opportunity in my opinion with quality play as of late.
Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson leads the outlook with 76 targets which is tied for sixth in the league, but only 372 yards (42nd), which is the lowest of any player with at least 60 targets. So, on eight fewer targets, Olave bests Johnson by over 250 yards! And I beg for this every week, but hopefully this is the week he ends his touchdown drought against a solid Saints secondary. Cornerback Marcus Lattimore has been ruled out along with Marcus Maye’s questionable status though, and it will be interesting to see how Johnson and the position room fare. Optimistically, the bye week gave Pittsburgh time to install some new things, and I hope Johnson was a name atop the list to maximize more, starting with more alignment flexibility in my opinion (89.3% out wide thus far).
It’s extremely important to point out the injuries New Orleans has dealt with at the position, namely Michael Thomas (three games, 16 receptions, and an outlook high three touchdowns at the position) along with Jarvis Landry (four games, 15 receptions, no touchdowns). The former is likely out for the season, and the latter will seemingly be available with no injury designation on Friday’s injury report.
The remaining receivers are all below the mean in both, with Pittsburgh wide receiver George Pickens next in line. He has 43 targets for 338 yards and a touchdown, and has also been rigidly aligned out wide 88.6 percent of the time. New Orleans wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith is fourth in the outlook with 264 yards, just making the cut with 25 targets and a touchdown, aligning in the slot 67.9% of the time. Fellow wide receiver Marquez Callaway has 29 targets for 152 yards, which is tied for second least in this group and has played the vast majority of his snaps out wide (93.4) along with a touchdown as well.
Next let’s look at the receiver’s cushion (distance in yards between the receiver and nearest defender at the snap) and separation (distance in yards between the receiver and nearest defender at the time of catch of incompletion) through week nine:
The Steelers receivers continue to get the very little cushion at the line, considering the lack of downfield threat and running game to date. Pickens has been given the third least cushion, an increase after facing the Eagles in week eight when he had no receptions on only three targets. Pittsburgh will obviously need to lean on him more with the departure of Chase Claypool. It will be interesting to see if the rookie’s alignments/routes change much with more experience (fingers crossed), and if the opposition defends him similarly with the changes to the position room in the matchup and moving forward. Johnson has been given the 12th least cushion, and we can see the correlation of the two as he and Pickens have struggled to separate in comparison to the rest of the league (48th and 66th).
New Orleans wide receivers each land below the mean in both datapoints, meaning they have been given ample space off the line and separate at a below average level across the league. Defenses have been respecting Olave’s speed with the sixth most cushion in the NFL, and has an outlook high 2.86 yards of separation, but only ranks 44th in the league. He is also tenth in percent of teams air yards, along with forth in intended air yards, so hopefully Pittsburgh’s secondary can turn their focus to and limit him. Callaway and Smith have been given ample cushion as well, with the latter faring better as a separator (54th).
Last thing for the wide receivers, here are the YAC numbers along with catch percentages through nine games:
Right away we see the primary receivers for the matchup all below the mean in YAC, but yet another week where the opposition wins out across the board. Smith leads the pack at four yards (46th), maximizing his ample cushion the most on his 17 receptions, with an above average and outlook high 68% catch rate that ranks 30th. Olave and Callaway are very similar in YAC to this point, with very low ranks of 73rd and 75th, with the former having a 59.7 catch percentage (60th) on his 43 receptions, compared to the latter’s fifth worst 51.7 catch rate in the league on 15 receptions.
One of Pittsburgh’s many issues this season includes YAC, and the visual highlights Johnson (1.8) and Pickens (2.1) with the second and third lowest marks halfway through the year. The former has been slowly improving through the season, so fingers crossed that continues. One thing’s for sure, it has been extremely painful to watch, and really hoping as the team turns over a new leaf, the expected role increase for wide receiver Steven Sims can provide some much needed juice in this area. Catch percentages have left much to be desired as well, with Pickens at 60.5% which crazily second in the outlook (57th league-wide), and Johnson’s 56.6% ranking 69th.
Next, let’s look at the tight ends, beginning with the receiving stats leaders:
Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth is one of 12 tight ends to land above the mean in both targets (48, T-9th) and receiving yards (367, 7th) out of 28 players on the graph. He has 32 catches (13th) through week nine for a 66.7% catch rate that ranks 19th. Looking for this to improve following the Eagles game (57.1% catch rate), which was trending very positively in his previous three games. Another area I’m hoping will continue to improve is his YAC, after having a better game in that regard last game but ranking 19th on the season (4.4). Also hoping he and Pickett can continue building chemistry over the middle, where passes have been lacking in quantity and quality, and been awhile since his lone touchdown of the season (week two).
Saints tight end Juwan Johnson leads the team with 36 targets (16th) and 258 yards which ranks 17th. He has 23 receptions (18th) for a 63.9 catch percentage that ranks 23rd along with a matching rank in YAC. Juwan Johnson has excelled is in the red zone, where two of his three touchdowns came, showing his leaping ability on one and the other coming on a solid back shoulder grab. Hopefully Pittsburgh’s defense is ready for this element of his game.
Here is a view of percent of team air yards along with separation for the tight ends:
Right away we can see Juwan Johnson has the least amount of separation on the season by a wide margin, highlighting an opportunity for his targets to be defensed. Hopefully this can come to fruition, with a hopeful takeaway for the Steelers. His TAY is also below the mean, but closer to the middle of the pack ranking 15th. Freiermuth is ninth in TAY currently, and the visual highlights his well below average separation (23rd), a big factor to some of his lower marks mentioned earlier. Fingers crossed the comment on the wide receivers carries over, with route concepts continuing to build post-bye for a hopeful positive trend.
The offensive lines are always key to any matchup, and let’s see how the two teams have fared thus far with PFF grades:
Saints tackle Ryan Ramczyk lands at the top right of the chart, with the strongest grade as a run blocker by far (77.9) along with a respectable 76.2 in the pass game which ranks third in the outlook. Ramczyk also is ninth in ESPN’s weekly win rates as a run blocker, and he will surely be a big challenge for the Steelers defense. He is tied for an outlook high three sacks allowed, a big takeaway for the marquee matchup in Watt’s return on Sunday. Center Erik McCoy is second in the outlook as a run blocker (68.3), and just below the mean as a pass blocker (59). ESPN has him sixth at the position in run block win rate, along with an even better fourth rank as a pass blocker, suggesting his PFF grade may be a bit low. He has been ruled out for the game, a huge loss in my opinion, and while I never wish injury on anyone, hope Pittsburgh can capitalize. Guard Cesar Ruiz lands just above the mean in the outlook as a pass blocker (62.3), along with a 57.6 run block grade.
Left tackle James Hurst leads the outlook with an 80.5 pass block grade, along with a well below average 54.6 run block grade. He has filled in for the injured rookie Trevor Penning, who was designated to return this week. It will be very interesting to see when he is able to make his NFL debut. Guard Andrus Peat is the only New Orleans starter that is below the mean in both data points, third on the team with a 57.4 run block grade but a particularly low 28.6 pass block grade. He has been ruled out for the game on Sunday as well. Calvin Throckmorton has filled in at both guard spots due to injury, but has low grades in both the run and pass, with a 43.1 run block and a second worst 31.4 pass block grade. Hope and expect the Steelers d-line to win the trenches against this dinged group.
The Steelers o-line has definitely struggled this season, but have three players above the mean in the outlook, which highlights the widespread results for New Orleans. Guard James Daniels has a 76.6 pass block grade which is second in the outlook, trending downward as of late, along with a 63.8 run block grade. Fellow guard Kevin Dotson has a 68.3 pass block grade and a 65.5 run block grade. He popped up on the Friday injury report as questionable with an abdomen injury, so it will be interesting to monitor his availability on the o-line that has been incredibly healthy too date (knocks on wood). Dotson is tied for a matchup high three sacks allowed, and must clean up on the penalty front moving forward, with an outlook high eight that also ties for second most in the NFL.
Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor is third in the outlook as a run blocker (65.9) and a 62.4 pass block grade. He has allowed the most pressures (21) and 18 hurries, with the latter being seven more than any other player in the matchup. Center Mason Cole has a 64.7 run block grade but struggled as the season’s worn on as a pass blocker (58.3). Tackle Dan Moore has a 62.8 grade as a pass blocker, but a very low 50.5 run block grade that is over ten points lower than any other Steeler. He is tied for the most sacks allowed (three), the most quarterback hits (six), reminding us of the beating Pickett took last game (sacked six times), with Moore allowing three quarterback hits and a sack. I bet Pickett welcomed the bye week, hopefully well timed to heal as he tries to steer the offense in the right direction.
Looking at team stats, I wanted to provide a turnover and takeaway visual that provides some slight optimism:
Right away we can see the Saints at the lower left of the chart, tying for the most turnovers (17) and only seven takeaways (second least) for the worst differential of -10. On offense, they are tied for the most interceptions (10), but important to note half of those came from Winston in three games. New Orleans is also tied for the most fumbles (seven), so hopefully the data holds true for a defensive spark in this matchup. Pittsburgh has the slight edge to date, tying the Saints with ten interceptions but only four fumbles for 14 total turnovers (fourth most). The Saints defense has a strong five fumble recoveries (T-9th), but only two interceptions that give them only seven takeaways, which is second least in the NFL. In comparison, Pittsburgh’s defense has two fumble recoveries and eight interceptions, for ten takeaways (T-17th). Here’s to hoping this holds true, considering Watt’s presence.
Explosive plays have been an element of weakness for the Steelers on both sides of the ball, with only 21 on offense which ties for 30th, along with 43 on defense which ranks 31st. To compound this further, the Saints defense has allowed only 23 explosive plays which ties for fourth best, along with their offense having 33 which ties for 13th through week nine. The differentials are staggering: NO +10, PIT -22.
With the struggles on offense well documented, including passing yards and scoring, I wanted to look at the defensive side of the ball in those regards. The Saints defense ranks 14th in pass yards allowed, which does not bode well for Pittsburgh if the data holds true. One level of optimism is New Orleans has allowed the fourth most points, which would certainly be a welcomed sight for a team that has failed to eclipse 20 points. Pittsburgh’s defense on the other hand ranks 29th in pass yards allowed and 21st in points allowed, so hopefully we’re in for an improvement to keep the game close.
Let’s look at the defenses from a player stats perspective to close. Steelers linebacker Myles Jack leads the team with 72 combined tackles, two for a loss, a quarterback hit, and two passes defensed. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (out) leads the team with three interceptions including a touchdown, is second with 45 combined tackles and six passes defensed, and a quarterback hit. Paging him for a takeaway in this game. Linebacker Devin Bush is third with 44 combined tackles, along with a tackle for loss, quarterback hit, and pass defensed. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith leads the team with 6.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, along with a pass defensed. Defensive lineman Cam Heyward is second on the team with three sacks and five tackles for loss, tied for second with seven quarterback hits, along with a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and pass defensed.
Fellow defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi also has seven quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, a half sack, and 19 combined tackles. Sutton leads the team with eight passes defensed, along with two interceptions, 21 combined tackles and a tackle for loss. Cornerback Arthur Maulet has a sack, forced fumble, pass defensed, tackle for loss, and quarterback hit along with 27 combined tackles. Pierre has shown encouraging things in coverage as of late in his limited opportunities, and has a fumble recovery, two pass deflections, and 16 combined tackles.
New Orleans linebacker Pete Werner leads the team with 74 combined tackles and two forced fumbles, along with three tackles for loss and three passes defensed. He has been ruled out for the contest, another big loss for New Orleans that will likely be a key factor in the game. Fellow linebacker Demario Davis leads the team with six sacks, tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, second with 50 combined tackles and seven quarterback hits, along with two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu has the teams only two interceptions, is third with 43 combined tackles, along with three passes defensed, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hit. Edge rusher Cam Jordan leads the team with nine quarterback hits, is tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, second on the team with five sacks, along with 37 combined tackles. Defensive tackle David Onyemata is third on the team with six quarterback hits, along with 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and 14 combined tackles. Edge rusher Marcus Davenport (questionable) has five quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, a half sack, and 19 combined tackles. Cornerback Alontae Taylor impressively leads the team with five passes defensed in only five games played. Lots of challenges to say the least as Pittsburgh tries to get back in the win column.
How do you think the game will play out on Sunday? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!