Labriola On

Saints' run defense will be tougher than Patriots'

Jaylen Samuels made some personal history last Sunday at Heinz Field when he carried 19 times for 142 yards in a 17-10 victory over the Patriots. Because he made a name for himself at North Carolina State mostly for his receiving skills, his number of carries and yards rushing were both single-game highs for him. NFL, college, and even back to high school, Samuels never had as many as 19 carries in a game, nor did he ever rush for as many as 142 yards.

Because the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback, Samuels’ rushing total served a dual purpose for the Steelers, because in addition to helping the offense move the ball and get into scoring position, his rushing total helped the defense in that it allowed the Steelers to possess the ball and keep Brady on the sideline.

With this week’s opponent being the New Orleans Saints, another team quarterbacked by a future Hall of Fame player in Drew Brees, a repeat from Samuels and the Steelers rushing attack seems to be just as important this weekend as it was last weekend.

Only the degree of difficulty will increase significantly, because the Saints defense doesn’t figure to be nearly as accommodating to Samuels as the Patriots’ was.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that they are No. 1 in football vs. the run,” said Coach Mike Tomlin during the upcoming opponent breakdown during his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Part of that is being a 12-2 football team, I understand that, having leads and so forth. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they’re No. 2 in the league vs. the run in terms of yards allowed per carry. So they’re probably not seeing a lot of carries because of the nature of the game, or the circumstances they’re in, but you better acknowledge they’re just formidable in stopping the run, period.”

The Saints defense has allowed an average of 3.7 yards per carry, which is slightly more than Houston’s league-best 3.6 yards per carry. But with 54 touchdowns scored, the Saints are second in the NFL in that category only to Kansas City, with 63, and so Tomlin’s point about New Orleans often playing with a lead is well taken.

“I think their yards per carry speaks to the dominance of their run defense. They’re No. 2 in the league in terms of yards per carry, so forget the number of runs, forget the game circumstance, ahead, behind, the nature of that,” said Tomlin. “When people choose to run it, they’re No. 2 in the league in terms of yards per carry. So they’re run-game dominant.”

The Saints defense has been helped over the course of this season by an offense that has totaled 30 or more points in nine games this season, with the total rising to 40 or more points in six of those nine, but in their last three outings combined, the Saints have totaled just 50 points but still were 2-1 in those three.

Samuels was in the mix as a running back against the Patriots because James Conner missed a second straight game with an ankle injury, and he got the bulk of the carries because he was producing. When asked what about Samuels gave him confidence the rookie could handle such a workload, Tomlin smiled.

“Who said I had confidence?” said Tomlin. “He was our back, and he was prepared, and so we went into the stadium. Often when you walk into a stadium, particularly for young guys, it’s a first time for a lot of things. I’m sure as he continues to step into stadiums with a significant role for us, he’ll check some boxes and do some things he hasn’t done before. But that’s just a very natural thing in terms of a young player’s career.”

TOMLIN’S INJURY UPDATE
“On the injury front, Cam Heyward had a hyperextended knee; he was able to go back into the game. Bud Dupree had a knee contusion that really limited his effectiveness. We’ll watch him participate during the week and let his participation be our guide, but we fully expect him to be a participant this weekend. Terrell Edmunds is in the concussion protocol. I don’t have a lot of information there. Often, guys may show up on Monday morning with symptoms and we address it in an appropriate and professional manner. Pre-existing injuries: James Conner, with his ankle (injury), I saw him downstairs getting rehabbed just a few moments ago. Hopefully that sets the stage for a productive Wednesday, and we’ll go on from there. We’ll let the amount of work that he’s able to do and the effectiveness of that work be our guide, and we’ll make those decisions at the appropriate time as we push toward game time. As for Ben’s ribs, he’s no worse for wear, there were no negative consequences from this past week’s performance.”

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