NFL Fact or Fiction: Steelers Will Face Saints in Super Bowl XLVI
The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints will meet up for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Is this statement fact or fiction?
The Steelers (5-2) made it to Super Bowl XLV (2011) only to lose 31-26 to the Green Bay Packers. They're making a case to get back next year, however. Pittsburgh currently leads the AFC North Division and are coming off a big three-game winning streak.
Pittsburgh gets strong quarterback play from Ben Roethlisberger (veteran of two Super Bowls) and boasts a solid defense. However, a suspect offensive line is a cause for concern.
The Saints (5-2) lost in the first round of last season's playoffs to the Seattle Seahawks, but they did win Super Bowl XLIV 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts (2010).
New Orleans is currently on top of the NFC South Division, and retains that potent offense, which has made a few necessary tweaks since last season's inglorious finish.
Both team's strengths and weaknesses will be analyzed in the following slides.
Strength: Saints Have Strong Offense
The New Orleans Saints boast the premier NFL offense in terms of scoring (34.1 points per game) and are second in total yards (467.1 per game).
They flexed their prodigious muscles last Sunday, dropping 62 points on the hapless, Manning-less Indianapolis Colts.
Quarterback Drew Brees is having another stellar year, amassing 2,477 yards and 18 touchdowns against only eight picks. He has completed over 70 percent of his passes, which has seen him glide to a 104.6 passer rating.
Brees has some marquee weapons to choose from. Tight end Jimmy Graham (674 yards, five touchdowns) and wide receiver Marques Colston (374 yards, three touchdowns) provide size and speed in the passing attack.
Darren Sproles is a dual threat in both the running and passing games (618 total yards and four scores) while Pierre Thomas, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore round out a very solid receiving corps.
Strength: Saints Have Good Special Teams
The New Orleans Saints have a solid special teams unit.
Kicker John Kasay (16-of-18 in field goals) has played a vital role. Kasay was key in wins against the Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers.
Return specialist Darren Sproles provides a much-needed boost in the return game. Sproles has 26 punt- and kick-off returns for 497 yards and a touchdown. That's good for a 19.1 yard average per return.
Strength: Saints Have Good Offensive Line
Quarterback Drew Brees gets good pass protection from his offensive line.
Brees has been sacked only 13 times in seven games and has been hit 21 times, which is tied for best in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs. That's very impressive, as Brees throws the ball an average of 42.7 times a game.
Left guard Carl Nicks and right guard Jahri Evans pace an offensive line that has 367 career starts between them.
Weakness: Saints Don't Have Strong Defense
One glaring weakness for the otherwise-impeccable Saints is their defensive unit.
New Orleans has only an average NFL defense—never a good sign for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
They give up 22.6 points a game (16th), 349.3 yards a game (14th), 233.6 passing yards (17th) while giving up 12 passing touchdowns. While not abysmal, that kind of middling production is a worrisome trend.
As for run defense, the Saints are 15th while giving up 115.7 yards a game.
The Saints do have strong individual defenders like cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Malcolm Jenkins, but the unit has given up 30 or more points in three games, where missed tackles have been a consistent plague.
New Orleans does not pressure the quarterback well either, with just 15 sacks through seven games.
When the Saints scored a season-low 20 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the defense did not pick up the offense, giving up 26 points.
If the offense has an off night in the playoffs, the Saints could quickly go home as the defense is not dominant enough to shut down opponents and allow the "O" to grind out victories a la the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Weakness: Saints Have Bad Coverage Game
Punter Thomas Morestead (49.8 yards per punt) is a stud, but his coverage team does not do a good job stopping opposing kick returners.
The Saints are currently giving up 18.5 yards a return this season; far from optimal production.
A big reason the Saints lost to the Green Bay Packers was that their special teams gave up a 108-yard kickoff return to wide receiver Randall Cobb.
Strength: Steelers Have Great Quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger
The Pittsburgh Steelers are fortunate to have Ben Roethlisberger as their quarterback.
"Big Ben" has led his team to two Super Bowl championships and almost won another last year.
He is large (6'5", 241 pounds) and definitely in charge of the Steelers offense.
While Pittsburgh's offense concentrates on developing its ground game, Roethlisberger makes the Steelers' pass attack relevant. He has 1,937 yards for 12 touchdowns, good for a 95.3 passer rating.
Roethlisberger's vast playoff experience will come in handy come December and January.
Strength: Steelers Have a Dominant Defense
The Pittsburgh Steelers historically have been a strong defensive team with a penchant for hard hitting, and this season is no different.
The defense is ranked first in passing defense (171.9 yards a game) and third in yards a game (279). Pittsburgh is also third in scoring defense (17.4 points a game).
Linebacker James Harrison was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and a four time All-Pro selection.
Safety Troy Polamalu, a four-time All-Pro selection, is the heart and soul of the defense and was the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year.
These two, along with the other starters, will keep the Steelers in many games, even if the offense is down.
Strength: Steelers Mike Wallace Is a Top Receiver
Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace gives his team a legit deep threat.
The third-year player from Mississippi had 1,257 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010.
This year, Wallace is again off and running, with 36 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns.
Wallace's vertical threat opens up opportunities for Hines Ward and other receivers. His production also opens running lanes for running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Weakness: Steelers Have Bad Offensive Line
One glaring weakness for the Steelers is their offensive line play.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 20 times and hit on 33 occasions. One hit by a Tennessee Titans defender was so vicious that Big Ben was forced to leave the game with an injury to his left foot.
The line's rush protection has not been good, either, as Pittsburgh's rush offense has produced only 117.9 yards a game (14th).
If Roethlisberger gets injured, the Steelers know who to blame.
Weakness: Steelers Running Game Not Solid This Season
The Steelers running attack isn't as imposing as it was in previous years.
Part of the problem is the offensive line, which has struggled to produce big-enough gaps for Mendenhall to exploit. Yet perhaps more worrisome is the overall poor play by Mendenhall—historically a strong performer.
Mendenhall has a hard time finding consistency after producing 1,273 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010. So far, the Illinois product has 351 yards on 94 carries (a decent 3.7 yard average) for three scores. He has only had one game where he's rushed for more than 66 yards.
Backup Isaac Redman has 207 yards on 47 carries (a 4.4 yard average) and one touchdown. Those are decent numbers, but they certainly won't get Pittsburgh over the hump.
We saw in last season's playoffs how an ineffective running game can spell doom for an offense, even one that boasts a premier quarterback. Tom Brady's high-powered New England unit was completely stymied by the New York Jets in the January playoffs, where the Jets front seven dominated the trenches and snuffed out the run, thus rendering Brady ineffective.
Both Mendenhall and Redman need to pick up the rushing game if the Steelers are to sustain a run toward the Super Bowl.
The New Orleans Saints and the Pittsburgh Steelers will not meet in Super Bowl XLVI.
In 2010, the top four teams each had top 10 defenses. The Saints defensive issues will come back to bite them in the playoffs, just like last year like in their loss to the Seattle Seahawks (that run by Marshawn Lynch, who made Saints defenders look like rag dolls, has yet to leave people's memories).
That's not to mention that the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers would be standing in their way.
The Steelers do have some good strengths offensively and defensively. However, a bad offensive line could possibly injury quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If he is lost for the season, kiss the playoffs good bye.
If not, Pittsburgh would have to get by a revitalized New England Patriots team and an always formidable Baltimore Ravens.
While it's possible for either team to make the Super Bowl, do not expect this matchup.