The World Champion New Orleans Saints are coming off of a surprising loss against the Browns while the Steelers road trip continues after a win against the Dolphins. This is the 2nd game of 3 game road trip for the Steelers and will be played in a supercharged Superdome on Halloween night in front of a national television audience. Below are what we deem to be 7 keys to the game for the Steelers to beat the Saints in week 8 down in the Big Easy and move to 6-1 on the season.
Good Look Under The Hood - Yes it is an obvious factor in this game. Yes the media and and every blogger has talked about it. Yes it is that important. With Aaron Smith now out several weeks, it is time for Ziggy Hood to prove he is the guy they drafted number one last year. Hood had tremendous hype during training camp, but reportedly has been slowed by an ankle injury to start the season. He is now close to 100% and must now show he is capable of being an every down left end in a 3-4 defense. The smarts of Smith in run and pass recognition and his ability to fight off blocks is what has kept him around so long. Hood must show the same smarts and ability as he will be in for a test as he battles Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. He must be able to get outside pressure on quarterback Drew Brees along with shutting down the point of attack on downs the Saints decide to run to his side.
Getting Right Side, Right - Last week the Steelers did not run well at all against the Dolphins. They like to run to the right side and that side saw four different players last week where you normally just see two. Flozell Adams left early with an ankle sprain and was replaced by the average Jonathan Scott while Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster both saw time at the right guard spot. While neither Legursky or Foster were horrible, neither dominated and Legursky threw in two holding calls on the day. This week it looks like Adams will be back from his ankle sprain and Trai Essex looks like he will get a shot to win back his job as he too is returning from a severely sprained ankle. Essex has sat out the last four game and now appears to be 100% and well rested. If the Steelers run for 100 plus yards, they have a great chance of winning the same goes for keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright as well in the passing game.
Can You Spare A Nickel? - With 2 defensive ends down the Steelers have two ends in the form of Hood and Nick Eason and three tackles in Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon. Throw in the fact that the Saints will likely line up 3 wides a bunch and try to run an up tempo game, means the Steelers could use a ton of nickel formations with an extra corner, William Gay in the game. This is not really a bad thing when you are down healthy linemen, especially if they keep the Saints predictable by stopping them on first downs. I suspect the Saints will try to attack Gay quite a bit on Sunday night. Look for bodies to be rotated on the defensive line once again.
Keeping Juan Inside - Hopefully left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is good to go with his hamstring. Sure Lawrence Timmons can play outside in his absence, but Timmons is much more dangerous inside than he is outside. Forcing him to play outside on non nickel downs is like playing with one less man on defense. Yes, he has become that good inside now. While rookie Jason Worilds showed some pass rush ability in the nickel last week, he is no where close to being able to fill in for Woodley every down on the outside. Woodley and Timmons must be on the field together, each in their respectful spots.
1st Down Plays Do Count - I think this game has the makings for an up and down the field type game. The team that can gain more on first downs will certainly be able to keep the opposing teams defense on their heels all day. The Steelers need to mix it up on 1st down now that Roethlisberger has a few games under his belt. The continued use of play action and quick screens could be more effective this week than it was last week against the Dolphins. If the Steelers average less than 3 yards a play on first downs, they will likely lose.
Attack The Secondary - The Saints are really banged up in their secondary and can not be looking forward to running with Mike Wallace or being bumped around by Hines Ward. Antwaan Randle El is not the guy he once was, but can still get open. Emmanuel Sanders is also starting to see an increase in playing time as he seems to have a good grasp of things. 300 yards through the air is very possible against the Saints secondary if the line gives Big Ben enough time. You could easily see 900 yards total offense put up between these two teams.
Steelers Saints Game Prediction - The Saints are thin at running back and banged up in the secondary while the Steelers are banged up on the defensive line. Both teams can be really dangerous on offense and through the air. The Saints certainly miss what Reggie Bush adds to the offense and Brees has played very un-Brees like thus far in 2010. I think you could see some high scoring in this game and quite a few big plays. I think the Steelers are the deeper of the two teams still and are better coached as well. Steelers get a late defensive or special teams touchdown to win this one.
Final Score: Steelers 34 Saints 31