By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Much has been made about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, but its biggest test could come in a matchup against the New Orleans Saints offense Sunday at 8:20 p.m. at the Louisiana Superdome.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,029 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also has been intercepted 10 times and sacked 11. Brees spreads the wealth to 14 different receivers, but New Orleans does not run the ball well and has just two rushing scores.
So, the Steelers’ secondary, as well as their linebackers, will have their hands full most of the night. Against Brees, passes are released quickly and often, and the Saints’ short passing game basically replaces their running game. That makes him a tough matchup for the Steelers.
“We need to pressure their quarterback and stop their running game, but that’s what we try to do every week,” Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. “The thing with Brees is that he has a quick release. So, we might not get the sack too much. But we need to provide pressure.
“That’s the key against this guy. He’s played at a high level for a long time, so we need to have our best game on defense. He has a quick release, and he’s very accurate. We have to pressure him and see what we can do to shake him off his game. But he’s beatable, because Cleveland did it.”
The Browns intercepted four passes against Brees and rattled him into a sloppy performance last week. Cleveland won the game, 30-17, but that was at home. this time, the Steelers must go to New Orleans to face a raucous crowd on Halloween. It should be loud and wild, which should make the Saints’ defense a challenging matchup for the Steelers’ offense.
“They have a fast defense and can get to the ball,” Steelers wideout Antwaan Randle El said, “and even though they’ve had some injuries they’ve been pretty effective. The blitzes and stuff that they do can confuse you if you’re not sound in what you need to do, so the defense has kept them in games.
“And going into that hostile environment, a silent count is going to be very important, so we just have to be ready to go since it’s going to be very loud. I imagine most of our calls will be off a silent count, because it’s going to be crazy. And since it’s Halloween, it’s going to be out of hand.”
Eight Saints have at least 16 receptions, and Marques Colston leads the way with 40 for 452 yards and just one score. Tight end Jeremy Shockey is next with 27 catches and two touchdowns, while wideout Lance Moore has 22 catches and four scores with a team-high 14.4 yards per catch.
Wideout Devery Henderson, tight end David Thomas, running backs Ladell Betts, and Pierre Thomas and wideout Robert Meachem are other top targets. Running back Reggie Bush is dangerous as well, but he’s injured and might not play. Still, Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu will have a lot of room to cover.
“It’s tough to play against a wide-open offense like that,” Polamalu said. “He uses all the eligible receivers on the field, and he’s very accurate. He throws short passes as well as long passes, and that’s tough on an opposing defense. And then he’s got a lot of talent on offense, so that helps as well.
“But we’ve done all right so far against some really good quarterbacks and offenses. I might not be moving around as much as last year, so I don’t play as many positions. We’ve tried to do some things creatively, in order to confuse, but this is working. So, we’re not going to change anything right now.”
Notes: The Steelers this afternoon activated defensive lineman Steve McLendon from their practice squad. To make room for McLendon, the Steelers have placed linebacker Thaddeus Gibson on waivers. Gibson was the Steelers 4th round pick in the 2010 draft.