The past two Super Bowl champions will meet in New Orleans on Sunday. The 5-1 Steelers lead the AFC North and the 4-3 Saints are in third place in the NFC South.
The Steelers are 3-0 on the road after defeating the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. It is the second time in three seasons that the Steelers have started 5-1, matching the record set in 2008 when they went on to win Super Bowl XLIII.
The Saints are on a skid after a crushing defeat to the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns were able to take advantage of turnovers, intercepting Saints QB Drew Brees four times and returning two for touchdowns. In addition, the Browns used some trick plays to get the advantage and the lead, which they never lost throughout the game.
Sunday, the Steelers will be up against a wounded animal that will be determined not to lose two in a row at home.
One thing the Saints hope to improve is their running game. Without run support, the Saints offense has been one dimensional. Against the Cleveland Browns, Brees threw the ball 56 times, completing 37 for two touchdowns and four interceptions.
They were hoping for the return of their versatile running back Reggie Bush, who succumbed to a broken fibula early this season. Bush is listed as doubtful. Running back Pierre Thomas is behind schedule on his return with the ankle sprain. There seems to be some issue in Saints camp as to the exact location of the sprain.
For now, Saints running back Chris Ivory will continue to take the lead in the running game. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and has accumulated 325 yards rushing since Game 3 against the 49ers. His best day was 158 yards rushing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Steelers are currently first in rush defense and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, but they will now have to defend without DE Aaron Smith. The unsung anchor for the run defense, Smith suffered a partially torn tricep, his third season-ending injury in three years.
Thinning out an already aged defensive line, DE Brett Keisel will still be out with a hamstring. This makes the line vulnerable to the run.
These are two of 11 men who make up the defense. Although Smith is a big part of the run defense, and along with Keisel has been a big part of the pass defense, the Steelers did draft a guy in the first round of the 2009 draft to be the heir apparent to Smith, Evander “Ziggy” Hood.
Hood is the first defensive end drafted first by the Steelers in 21 years, and it's time for him to step it up. Although plagued with ankle issues, he has still practiced at the left end position.
He and Nick Eason, who has subbed for Keisel, will be the book ends to defend both the rush and the pass, the latter by pushing the pocket and allowing the linebackers to roam free to apply pressure on the quarterback.
This will be especially critical since the Saints will probably depend on the pass again this week. This will be a true test of the Steelers secondary as it has showed its weakness in the past couple of weeks.
The secondary has allowed both Miami’s quarterback Chad Henne and Cleveland’s rookie quarterback Colt McCoy to feel too comfortable in the pocket throughout the majority of the game. McCoy, who had two interceptions, was able to complete 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown, while Henne completed 23 of 36 passes for 257 yards and one touchdown. If a third-year quarterback and a rookie could be that comfortable, what can we expect from Drew Brees?
Brees has weapons: Wide receivers Devery Henderson, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and TE Jeremy Shockey. The Steelers have been spending much of the game sitting back in pass coverage rather than blitzing.
I know that the Steeler defense was different back in 2001 and 2002, but I am reminded of what former Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna did December 30, 2001, exposing the Steeler secondary and defeating the Steelers, 26-23 by completing 35 of 68 passes for 411 yards and two touchdowns.
The following year, Tom Brady and the Patriots and Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders did the same thing, throwing a high percentage to running the ball. Brady completed 29 of 43 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns, and Gannon completed 43 of 64 passes for one touchdown pass.
In addition to the hurt Smith and Keisel, we have to include linebacker LaMarr Woodley with a hamstring injury. It is expected that linebacker Larry Foote will sub for Woodley as the inside linebacker and move Lawrence Timmons to the outside. Playing Pro Bowl caliber ball, Timmons played outside last week against the Dolphins and was credited with a sack and tackled running back Ronnie Brown for no gain on a 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
Rookie linebacker Jason Worilds has subbed for Woodley in pass situations and was credited with a hit on Chad Henne last Sunday, forcing an incomplete pass in a fourth down situation with 1:33 left in the fourth quarter, putting the ball back in the hands of the Steeler offense to run out the clock and win the game.
The Steelers look good at linebacker. The issue will be how the defensive line holds up. Nose tackle Casey Hampton will probably be playing more since sub nose tackle Chris Hoke will likely be covering more at defense end. It is possible the Steelers will bring up linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, who has been considered a work in progress but has experience as a defensive end in college.
Offensively, the Steelers have to work on the running game to support the pass. The Steeler receivers have more yards receiving than any of our running backs rushing. In the last two games, the Steeler running game has amassed 128 yards on 49 attempts and one rushing touchdown.
It seems that without offensive tackle Flozell Adams, the line has been breaking down and not supplying the blocking support needed for Mendenhall. In addition, Isaac Redman needs to have more carries. In the last two games, he has nine carries for 40 yards.
If Mendenhall goes down with an injury, there is no other back to take his place. Mewelde Moore is a third-down back with nice hands in the passing game, but he is not an every down back. Redman needs to be acclimated to get him more accustomed to the speed of the game, as a precautionary measure.
This is the second leg of a three-game road trip that will truly test the metal of this team. The Steelers will be wearing their white jerseys this time, and that should be of some relief.