Countdown: Steelers vs. Saints

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Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) vs. New Orleans Saints (4-7)
Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014
Heinz Field
1 p.m.; FOX

SERIES HISTORY:  Tied, 7-7. The Steelers have a 3-2 record in games in Pittsburgh and the Saints are 5-4 in games in New Orleans.   

LAST MEETING: Saints 20, Steelers 10, Oct. 31, 2010, Louisiana Superdome: The Steelers held the Saints to 30 yards rushing, produced a pair of sacks and collected two takeaways (a fumble recovery and an interception), but the Pittsburgh offense was only able to generate 279 total net yards. The game turned decisively on a fourth-quarter fumble by TE Heath Miller that the Saints were able to turn into a 55-yard touchdown drive capped by an 8-yard reception by WR Lance Moore that upped their lead to 20-10 with 2:37 remaining.  

LAST WEEK: The Steelers enjoyed their bye in the wake of having rallied for 14 fourth quarter points in a 27-24 win at Tennessee. The Saints were outscored, 20-10, in the second half of a 34-27 loss to the Ravens on Monday night, New Orleans' third consecutive loss at home. The Saints allowed Baltimore to generate 215 rushing yards and average 6.7 yards per carry.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL: QB Drew Brees will spread it around the way he seemingly always has.

Brees connected with 10 different targets while completing 35 of 44 for 420 yards against the Ravens. His 3,491 passing yards on the season trail only Peyton Manning (3,558) and Andrew Luck (3,641), and Brees has been recognizable in amassing them. He takes shots deep when he can and takes the check-down throw when he must. There isn't a throw he isn't capable of making or a player he's afraid to target, or so it seems. He remains tough to sack because of his in-pocket mobility and willingness to get out on the edge and even run when that provides a safe and/or necessary option. But Brees continues to throw interceptions, 11 in all this season, three of which have been returned for touchdowns. He's also lost two fumbles. TE Jimmy Graham is the matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, and Brees' most called upon and most productive option (Graham leads the team with 65 catches, with 670 receiving yards and with nine receiving touchdowns).

The New Orleans running game has improved from 25th in 2013 to No. 8 in yards (124.8 per game) and No. 6 in average per carry (4.64) this season. RB Mark Ingram has a career-high 645 yards and had three consecutive 100-yard games from Oct. 26 through Nov. 9 (Green Bay, at Carolina, and San Francisco). But the running game, much like the offense in general, has been frustratingly unproductive at times. The Saints tried Ingram three times after achieving a first-and-goal at the Baltimore 1-yard line on their opening possession on Monday night (on first, second and fourth downs) and didn't get into the end zone.

New Orleans is No. 1 in the NFL in first downs (290) and third-down efficiency (50.7 percent), No. 2 in total offense (433.6 yards per game), and No. 3 in passing offense (308.8). But despite all of that the Saints are tied with the Steelers for eighth in points per game at 26.2.   

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL: They'll have a chance to test their ability to take what the defense is giving. New Orleans appears capable of loading up against the run or pass but vulnerable if it guesses wrong or doesn't know what's coming.

The Saints starting secondary vs. the Ravens game had Patrick Robinson at cornerback (his third start and first since Sept. 14) and Pierre Warren at free safety (Warren made his NFL debut after being plucked from the Vikings'  practice squad; he had spent time on the Saints' practice squad early in the season). New Orleans also lost NT Brodrick Bunkley (quadriceps) in the second quarter against Baltimore. The Ravens rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns, converted 9-of-13 on third down (69 percent) and gained 449 total net yards. The Saints have four safeties on injured reserve, including opening-day starter Jarius Byrd, an unrestricted free agent from Buffalo.

The Saints' defense can be aggressive as well as vulnerable. Leading, 17-14, early in the third quarter of the Baltimore game, New Orleans blitzed eight while defending a three-receivers set on third-and-12 from the New Orleans 35. The blitz never got home against the Ravens' max-protection blocking scheme and a quick slant converted the first down.

New Orleans is No. 23 in run defense (123.8 yards per game), No. 23 in pass defense (253.3), and No. 27 in total defense (377.1). The Saints also have managed just 11 takeaways (fourth-fewest in the NFL) along the way to a minus-9 in turnover ratio, which is fourth-worst in the league. Opponents score touchdowns 60 percent of the time when they reach the Saints' red zone (No. 22).

SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Steelers WR Markus Wheaton averaged 24.6 yards on five kickoff returns at Tennessee (the Steelers are averaging 20.0 yards per attempt on the season, No. 31 in the league). Saints K Shayne Graham is No. 6 all-time in field goal accuracy (minimum 100 field goals made) at 85.9 percent (17-for-18 this season).

THE X-FACTOR: Saints WR Joseph Morgan has one rush and two catches in three games this season, including a 67-yard carry and a 62-yard reception against the Ravens. New Orleans Coach Sean Payton really is capable of dialing up big plays from anywhere.

THEY SAID IT: "You just know how good of a player he is, so you know you have to step your game up because your offensive team counts on it. It's always an honor to be on the field with a guy like him." – QB Ben Roethlisberger on playing against Brees.

"Make no mistake about it; we have to play better football. They understand what is at stake. Our focus has to be internal." – Payton on the Saints at 4-7.

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