The New Orleans Saints bounced back from an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns in a big way. They beat a Pittsburgh Steelers team that many considered to be the best team in the NFL. Pittsburgh was at the top of ESPN's power rankings prior to this weekend.
Pittsburgh's offense looked like it was being quarterbacked by Dennis Dixon as opposed to Ben Roethlisberger. They looked out of sync for much of the game, due in part to a relentless New Orleans blitz. The offensive line seemed to struggle to make adjustments and the coaching staff was doing little to assist them.
New Orleans was spreading out the Steelers' offensive line, but then shooting blitzers through the gaps in the middle of the line. Yet, Pittsburgh continued to call five- and seven-step drops, rarely left a back in for blitz pickup, and didn't utilize many screens or misdirection plays.
When Pittsburgh did call a screen pass or draw play, the execution was sloppy at best. The play calling was very predictable and it seemed like the coaching staff was reluctant to open up the playbook.
Furthermore, Coach Tomlin used an ill-advised challenge to try to overturn a down-by-contact ruling on the field; and when it appeared he should have challenged a play on second and goal with just under 11:00 left in the second quarter when Rashard Mendenhall seemingly broke the plane of the goal line, he sat on the red flag. The Steelers settled for a field goal as a result.
The coaching staff also made two other crucial mental errors. The first was deciding to attempt a 51-yard field goal that Jeff Reed missed, giving the Saints excellent field position. Field position which translated into three points for New Orleans and a 3-3 halftime deadlock.
The second came in the third quarter when the Steelers tried to convert a fourth and four, but turned the ball over on downs, again leaving New Orleans with excellent field position. This time the Saints turned that field position into their first touchdown and a 13-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers offense responded very well with a sharp looking drive that was capped by a 38-yard touchdown run by Mendenhall. The defense followed up by forcing a Drew Brees fumble. Unfortunately, during a big gain following the New Orleans turnover, Heath Miller fumbled the ball while trying to gain extra yards.
The Steelers defense played very well for the majority of the game. To counter Pittsburgh's aggressive pass rush, the Saints were using six offensive linemen for many plays by having a tackle report as an eligible receiver.
This resulted in less blitzes than the Steelers would have normally run. However, Coach Lebeau ran some ingenious stunts on the line to get pressure with only four pass rushers.
Unfortunately, this strategy failed to yield positive results at one of the most crucial junctures of the game. After the fumble by Heath Miller, the Saints faced a huge third-and-eight.
Pittsburgh rushed only three and Lance Moore caught the ball underneath and gained just enough yards for the first down. The very next play was the Saints' second touchdown. If ever the Steelers should have pinned their ears back and dialed up one of Coach Lebeau's ingenious blitzes, it was on that third-down conversion.
That was the touchdown that all but sealed the win for New Orleans' 20-10 victory. However, Pittsburgh had a chance to make a drive down the field and pray to recover an onside kick. Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger made a terrible read that resulted in an interception that killed the last glimmer of hope for Pittsburgh.
James Harrison also helped the Saints' cause with a bone-headed personal foul for roughing the passer on a play that would have left New Orleans just outside of field goal range, needing to convert a third-and-one. Instead, they were given 15 yards and an automatic first down.
This was a very sloppy game for Pittsburgh. If there is a silver lining, however, it is that despite all the mistakes, they still had a chance to win the game. The coaching staff needs to find a better way to compensate for the offensive line's weaknesses. Up until this week, they had done a relatively effective job of using schemes to assist the offensive line.
The coaches also need to make better choices during crucial junctures. Challenge the right plays, but don't challenge the wrong plays. Don't risk giving a team good field position when Pittsburgh should punt to pin the opposition deep on their own side of the field. Not to mention they need to stay aggressive on both offense and defense.
Ben Roethlisberger made better decisions and had overall better ball security than he did last week against Miami. However, the coaching staff seems to have lost a lot of trust in him as a result of last week's performance. They need to trust Roethlisberger; he knows the offense and he can make plays.
The defense could be every bit as good as the defense from 2008. But, they need to stay aggressive. When they move to that soft zone coverage, they get burned.
Pittsburgh certainly exhibited room for improvement. However, the necessary improvements are not difficult to make. No one ever wants to lose a game, but sometimes losses can improve a team through important lessons. This is the time of the season to learn these lessons. It doesn't hurt that Pittsburgh is still tied for first in the division.