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Five Questions With…SteelersGab

The Saints return home after a tough three weeks on the road. While the Saints did stumble a bit, they’re still in prime position to clinch Dome field advantage for the NFC playoffs. But first, a tough test from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are still fighting for the division after a hot Baltimore team won again Saturday.

NFL Gridiron Gab editor and Steelers fan Matt Loede and I sat down to discuss today’s potential Super Bowl matchup.

Is the lack of numbers recently for Drew Brees a concern?

I’m actually not overly concerned with the Saints’ offensive decline the last three games for a couple of reasons.

First, the offensive line has been banged up. Terron Armstead returns from a pectoral injury that has kept him away the last five weeks. Max Unger, Andrus Peat and Ryan Ramzyck have all been limited by injuries the last couple of weeks. Jermon Bushrod is out today  with a hamstring injury. A healthy O-line is imperative if the Saints’ offense is to return to the form it played during the win streak this season.

Sean Payton’s play calling has also had an effect on Drew Brees and the offense. As he has done in previous playoff seasons, Payton dials back the playbook towards the end of the season. The misdirection and mismatches the Saints create has not been there really since the Thanksgiving game vs Atlanta. Taysom Hill has not been getting the snaps in a Wildcat offense like he was earlier in the season either. The return of Ted Ginn Jr will also help open up Michael Thomas and the passing attack.

So, I don’t think we need to press the panic button. I’m excited to see the Saints offense open up again come playoff time.

Where do the Saints special teams rank this season?

The Saints special teams have been spectacular for the most part this season.

Will Lutz is having a career year, having missed only one field goal and one extra point so far this season. The protection has been solid to allow Lutz to kick with relatively little pressure.

The return game has not been particularly outstanding but it also hasn’t made many mistakes either. Taysom Hill has handled return duties for the most part this season, with Tommylee Lewis relieving Hill after being out a couple of weeks due to injury. Alvin Kamara is always an option should we need another speedster in the return game.

Speaking of Hill, he’s been outstanding all season. His size and speed make him an idle gunner in punt coverage. But he’s also shown he can play up on the line. His block against the Bucs completely changed the direction of that game.

My one major concern is punt protection.
Thomas Morestead is having another solid year, but he has taken some hard hits to the legs the last few weeks. The Saints can not afford to lose a weapon like Morestead to injury.

Can the defense continue to play well enough if the offense keeps having struggles?

Absolutely. While the Saints’ offense gets a lot of the credit for the hot start to the season, the defense has come together to quietly become one of the better units in the league.

I believe the defensive line doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. This unit has improved greatly with the addition of a young, athletic rookie in Marcus Davenport and a healthy Sheldon Rankins playing at a high level. This has freed up Cam Jordan to have perhaps the best season of his career.

The Saints the last three weeks have proven that the top defensive rushing ranking was not just a product of teams becoming one dimensional to catch up to the Saints potent offense. Over the course of the season, the Saints have turned running backs like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott into non-factors.

The Saints have proved they can win ugly games too. And that’s what championship level teams do.

How do the Saints plan on stopping the Steelers pass rush?

Games against the Steelers are always won in the trenches and this game will be no different.

The Steelers boast talented All-Pros DE Cameron Hayward and OLB TJ Watt in a 3-4 system which has produced 46 sacks this season. Watt brings speed along the edge, while Hayward likes to over power interior linemen by twisting in combination with his tackles. Andrus Peat, Max Unger, and Larry Warford will have to have to be on the lookout for this all game. Teams have had success historically by getting pressure in front of Brees due to his height.

Offensively, I would expect to see a bit more screens and short yardage dump offs than we have the last couple of weeks to keep their line off balance. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will have to figure out where the pressure is coming from early and adjust protection accordingly on passing downs. Also, I would expect to see more FB Zach Line involved this week.

Oh..and run, run, run.

Who specifically will have to cover Antonio Brown and how do you think that will go?

Antonio Brown is statistically having a down year for him because defenses are targeting him more. Last week he only had four catches for 49 yards. Is this a sign of Brown slowing down?

No. Not at all. Defenses have been playing a bracket defense on Brown all season, with a corner back covering him and a safety helping up top. Yet, he’s still caught an NFL high 13 TD catches. I would expect Eli Apple to have the primary assignment on Brown today. While Apple is hardly a shutdown corner, he has been steadily improving since the trade from the New York Giants.

With that being said, Brown’s elite talent has opened up the field for JuJu Smith-Shuster, who’s in the midst of one of the best first two years of a career all time. The deep ball and big play specialist will likely have Mashon Lattimore draping him most of the evening.

I expect the Steelers to expose this and be patient with short throws to set up deeper pass plays. I expect the Saints to shut down one, but not both of perhaps the best receiving tandem in the NFL.

Prediction Saints 31 Steelers 24

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