Pittsburgh Steelers take a stride forward in dominating the Saints

Pittsburgh Steelers take a stride forward in dominating the Saints

The Steelers combined clutch defense with a surprisingly improved offense to overpower New Orleans.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Pittsburgh Steelers

As the Pittsburgh Steelers filed into the locker room at halftime on Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium, their defense had just allowed the Saints to stage a 6-play, 71-yard TD drive that began with less than two minutes remaining in the half. With the score tied 10-10, Steelers Nation had every reason to fear the team they’ve watched struggle in recent weeks might once again fail to close the deal. To the amazement and delight of fans, the Black-and-gold not only held their ground but totally dominated the second half to secure an impressive 20-10 victory.

On both sides of the ball, the Steelers substantially exceeded expectations. Most notably, we witnessed what hopefully will be remembered as a breakout performance — not necessarily by Kenny Pickett — but by the Steelers’ collective, young-and-evolving offense. Pickett turned in a solid-if-unspectacular showing, avoiding crucial mistakes and clearly demonstrating he possesses the toughness and resilience to grow into the role anticipated when he was selected as the Steelers’ first-round draft choice last spring.

Besides passing for 199 yards and not throwing an interception, Pickett also finished the game as the Steelers’ second leading rusher (8 carries for 51 yards). Overall, the Steelers rushed for an impressive 217 yards, including 99 yards for Najee Harris on 20 carries (5.0-yard avg.) and 37 yards on 9 carries for Jaylen Warren (4.1-yard avg.). Warren also contributed substantially as a receiver (3 catches for 40 yards), showcasing his considerable potential on clutch plays that sustained scoring drives — including a huge, 26-yard catch/run on the Steelers’ game-clinching, fourth-quarter TD drive.

Overall, Harris and Warren delivered precisely the kind of 1-2 backfield punch that fans have foreseen since the preseason. As a measure of effectiveness for the Steelers’ running attack, the Saints’ leading tackler in the game was cornerback P.J. Williams. While tough running by Najee and Jaylen clearly played a role, the Steelers’ oft-maligned OL also turned in a solid performance which seems to bode well for the future. Pittsburgh had 162 yards passing in the game, with targets distributed principally to Diontae Johnson, Jaylen Warren, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens.

What stood out most of all was the Steelers nearly tripling New Orleans in first downs (28 to 10). This included 13 first downs running the ball while converting 9 of 17 third-down situations (plus their only fourth-down attempt). Taken as a whole, these stats represent an impressive achievement that many fans wouldn’t have imagined possible as recently as two weeks ago.

Defensively, with the exception of the Saints’ sole TD drive at the end of the first half, the Steelers were excellent. Obviously, the return of T.J. Watt and Damontae Kazee were key factors in this resurgence but — to a man — the entire defensive unit played well.

The secondary grabbed two clutch interceptions and Levi Wallace definitely had his best game of the season, wrestling away a key interception late in the fourth quarter. About halfway through the final quarter — and just in the nick of time — Wallace batted away an Andy Dalton pass that would have been a huge completion for the Saints. He also finished as the Steelers’ second leading tackler for the game.

The defense limited New Orleans mega-star RB Alvin Kamara — a player the Saints’ offense largely has been built around since 2017 — to 8 carries for a paltry 26 yards. For the entire game, New Orleans gained only 186 net yards.

With a hungry Cincinnati Bengals team waiting in the wings next weekend, it’s tempting but premature to consider this win as a springboard for salvaging the Steelers’ 2022 season. Realistically, it’s clear that the Saints’ issues as a team nowadays appear to run even deeper than Pittsburgh’s. Certainly, the Steelers’ 3-6 record is nothing for any team to crow about.

But on the positive side, Sunday’s win revealed some newfound qualities which the Steelers have been accused of lacking since Opening Day. Chief among these are the abilities of the offense to consistently move the sticks and score touchdowns, while the defense plays shutdown — most importantly, during the second half.

If they continue to play the kind of football that dominated the Saints, the Steelers’ remaining, 8-game schedule appears quite friendly for adding some wins to their season record. Five of these upcoming opponents (Indianapolis ColtsCarolina PanthersCleveland BrownsAtlanta Falcons and Las Vegas Raiders) appear not appreciably stronger at this stage of the season than New Orleans.

Given the emergence on Sunday of some respectable offense — along with their returning, defensive talent — it now seems more reasonable to expect the Black-and-gold to finish this season closer to the middle of the NFL pack rather than winding up as the bottom feeders they’ve often resembled during their first eight games. Should the Steelers build on this apparent progress and finish the season on an upward trend, the prospects for their 2023 NFL Draft and regular season would brighten considerably.

Given the team’s ongoing transition — which likely won’t proceed quite as flawlessly as many fans would prefer — finishing the current season on the upswing with a settled QB situation probably represents the most progress any Steelers fan could reasonably expect. At the very least, it’s promising to finally see the team’s performance arrow start to point upwards heading into the second half of a difficult season. While a playoff berth for Pittsburgh remains nothing more than a remote possibility, this team nevertheless could still be raising some eyebrows around the league by the end of this season.


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