The Pittsburgh Steelers took a 5-1 record to New Orleans last night and came out losers. Defending Super Bowl champions New Orleans Saints finally looked the part as they defeated the Steelers, 20-10. The Steelers looked flat on offense and the defense, for the most of the second half, was at the mercy of Drew Brees.
For many fans, last night's game can be perceived as the current trend of the season where up is down (ask Dallas and Minnesota) and down is up (ask Oakland and St. Louis). For others, the cold hard reality hit them like an egg thrown by a mischievous trick-or-treater. The cold hard facts (and other over-reactions) from last night's Steelers-Saints game:
1. The Steeler D Is Not As Good As Advertised
The Steeler defense lead the league in least points allowed and is among the leaders in rushing yards allowed. For the most of the first half, the Steelers held the Saints in check, allowing just one third down conversion in seven attempts. In the second half, the Saints converted six out of nine third downs.
Sure, the Steelers are missing two key players in Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel on the defensive line. Also, Drew Brees is an All-Pro quarterback leading a desperate team, but the defensive effort and result looked more like 2009 than 2008.
Also, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did not blitz as often as in the past, often only sending three men against Brees while dropping eight in coverage. Why? Why give someone of Brees's caliber more time to pick the Steelers apart (which he did in the second half)?
This was also seen in the final drive of the Ravens game this season, which also resulted in a Steeler loss. So, until the Steelers make a crucial stop in the fourth quarter against a formidable offense, we should all refrain from lauding them as a great defense because right now, they are not.
2. Aaron Smith, Not Troy Polamalu, Is the Most Important Ingredient in the Steeler Defense
In 2009, Troy Polamalu suffered multiple knee injuries, which led to him missing 11 games. While Polamalu's departure from the lineup was felt and noticed, defensive lineman Aaron Smith also missed more than 10 games with a shoulder injury.
His impact was not discussed as often as Polamalu's; after all, most people (including in the Steeler Nation) could not pick Aaron Smith out of a lineup while Polamalu arguably has become the most recognizable player in the NFL.
I am not saying that Smith is a better player than Polamalu (although the gap in my opinion is much closer than you might think). However, Smith is more important than Polamalu because he does all the dirty work necessary for a 3-4 defense to be successful. Polamalu is more of a wild card, a player whose talents are so unexplainable at times that he can erase the team's deficiencies in the secondary.
Last night was the first full game without Smith, who might be out the rest of the season. Ziggy Hood started in Smith's place last night and in the past, Nick Eason also filled in. While Ziggy Hood has promise, he is not Aaron Smith. Neither is Nick Eason, a hard worker but a backup nonetheless.
In the past when Smith missed time, the Steelers struggled mightily. Will the Steelers struggle again without Smith? If last night serves as an indicator, the answer is yes. The Steelers might be able to beat lesser teams, but against teams with solid quarterback and offensive line play, expect the Steelers to struggle.
3. Ben Roethlisberger Still Needs To Knock Off the Rust
Most of Steeler Nation was excited about Big Ben's return and rightfully so. He did pass for five touchdowns in his first two games back against two respectable defenses in the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins. However, against the Saints, Roethlisberger looked frustrated and impatient.
It did not help matters for Big Ben that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up one exotic blitz after another—blitzes Roethlisberger might have seen on film but did not see live in color until Sunday night.
However, Roethlisberger looked horribly frustrated and had a pedestrian day passing the ball. Big Ben has always done well against the blitz, but last night was a different story. I will chalk it up to rust, but if Big Ben struggles against other blitzing defenses (like the Ravens and the Jets, who the Steelers meet in December), that answer will change quickly.
4. Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians Is Still a Problem
Going back to 2008, many critics (including myself) blasted Arians for not running the ball enough, lack of creativity and giving Ben Roethlisberger too many responsibilities. Even after winning the Super Bowl, criticism of Arians remained, often stated in the response of, "the Steelers winning the Super Bowl in spite of Arians's ineptitude."
In 2009, Arians was one of the key reasons why the Steelers offense was inconsistent. His employment status came under heavy fire, but coach Mike Tomlin brought Arians back in a surprise move. In 2010 during Roethlisberger's absence, Arians brought back Steeler football, running the ball often with Rashard Mendenhall and controlling the clock to help the defense. In the last two games with Roethlisberger, things have changed.
Against Miami and New Orleans, the offense looked alarmingly like the 2009 version of the Steelers—scrapping the run too early, struggling in the red zone and goal line to score touchdowns, putting too much pressure on Roethlisberger to deliver and last but not least, not winning the clock control battle to help the Steeler defense.
Mike Tomlin must nip this problem in the bud. While Arians has made some changes, others need to be made. For one thing, Arians should phase out David Johnson as a blocking back because Johnson is not reliable enough to be the lead blocker in goal line situations.
Last night, on the second quarter drive that ended on the Saints' 1-yard line, Johnson could not hold his blocks to allow Rashard Mendenhall to score. This is a problem that must get fixed immediately if the Steelers have any aspirations of playing in the playoffs.
Another problem is Mike Wallace and the deep ball. Whenever a team has a weapon like Wallace, it should be used against any defense at least two times a game. Against the Dolphins, it was attempted against deep coverage, and it resulted in a touchdown. Against the Saints, it was not attempted at all. Wallace is arguably the fastest receiver in the NFL, and he should be utilized more often, especially if the opposing defense stacks up on the run.
5. Emmanuel Sanders Developing a Fumbling Problem?
I hope not, but last night now makes it two games in a row which the rookie returner put the ball on the ground. Luckily Isaac Redman recovered the ball last night, and the Steelers kept possession. Sanders has done well when given the opportunity.
Last week, despite the opening fumble, Sanders was still named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Last night, he did get the Steelers offense good field position on multiple occasions. However, if he fumbles again, look for rookie Antonio Brown to make a return to the active game roster.
Were the Saints desperate for a win last night? Of course they were. However, that does not excuse the result of a team that has championship aspirations. The offense, hopefully, will get better as Ben Roethlisberger gets more reps. The Steelers are still a good team with high motivations to get 2009 out of their heads. However, the Steelers are in the beginning of the toughest stretch of their schedule.
The Steelers were not on the road for three consecutive road games (at Miami, last night at New Orleans, at Cincinnati next Monday) but also must play three consecutive night games (last night against New Orleans, at Cincinnati next Monday and home on Sunday night against New England).
The schedule does not let up with a surprising Oakland, a tough Buffalo team and a rematch against Baltimore. The Steelers played a schedule like this in 2008 with Super Bowl results. Here is hoping they repeat history, 2008 that is, not 2009.