Steelers Team Report
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INSIDE SLANT

Pittsburgh’s defense has stood tall through six games this season, four without their starting quarterback. It ranks No. 1 against the rush, No. 1 in points allowed and No. 4 overall.

But there is a nagging weakness on that defense that could burst at the seams Sunday night when Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints offense expose it. The Steelers’ pass defense ranks only No. 24 in the NFL and while many say there are logical reasons for that—no one can run against them, so they have no choice to pass, and passing offenses have put up some numbers during late garbage time—there’s also reason to be troubled if you are coach Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers have allowed an average of 235.7 yards passing a game and they have not exactly played against the cream of the quarterback crop in the NFL. Two weeks ago, rookie Colt McCoy made his first NFL start and in Heinz Field, yet dropped 218 yards on the Steelers. Last week, Miami’s Chad Henne looked like Dan Marino while passing for 257 yards against them.

None of the quarterbacks they’ve faced can compare to Brees, who set an NFL accuracy record last season when he completed 70.6 percent of his passes and directs the NFL’s fifth-best passing offense this season.

If the Steelers’ Achilles Heel is their pass defense, Brees would be the one to expose it.

“We know what he brings to the table,” said linebacker James Farrior. “Our pass defense has to be the best we’ve had this year. He has a quick release, very accurate.”

That pass defense did not get any better when it lost defensive end Aaron Smith for several weeks, at least, to a torn triceps tendon. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who led them in sacks last season, left last Sunday’s game in the first half with a hamstring injury and did not practice Wednesday. Defensive right end Brett Keisel did not play last Sunday with a hamstring injury and has not yet practiced.

Tomlin said he’s not concerned about his pass defense’s ranking because the numbers are skewed.

He said, “We’ve been up on some people and some people have gotten one-dimensional. We’ve been very strong against the run. I’m not overly concerned with stats.

“When people are behind and can’t run the football, they’re going to throw the football on you and will probably pick up yards. The thing that’s most exciting is we don’t allow people to score touchdowns. We lead the league in scoring defense. Even in red areas we make people kick field goals. That’s the formula for winning defense.”

Yet they lost their only game when that pass defense collapsed in the fourth quarter against Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed four passes that covered 40 yards in the closing minute to deliver a come-from-behind victory for the Ravens in Heinz Field.

“A lot of times it has to do with us making mistakes and letting receivers get open,” Farrior said. “That’s something we definitely can work on in practice.”

Series History: 14th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 7-6. In New Orleans, the teams have split eight games. They last met in 2006 in Pittsburgh with the Steelers winning, 38-31. They last met in the Superdome in 2002 when the Saints won, 32-29. Pittsburgh last won a game in New Orleans in 1990, 9-6, when Chuck Noll was the coach. The Steelers’ 13 games against the Saints are their fourth-fewest against any opponent.

NOTES, QUOTES

• Although he fumbled away the opening kickoff that allowed Miami to take a quick 3-0 lead, rookie [HIGH-LIGHT]Emmanuel Sanders earned the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week [/HIGH-LIGHT]for his other returns, including a final one in the closing minutes of 48 yards that set up a short drive for the Steelers to win the game with a field goal.

“The big thing is that he bounced back,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Young guys are going to make mistakes.”

• Tomlin complained that NFL officials are slow on the whistles these days.

“That’s one of my contentions; there’s been a de-emphasis on the whistle, as far as I’m concerned, in the National Football League and I don’t agree with it. We talk about player safety, yet we don’t blow whistles at the end of football plays. So that’s kind of a misnomer when you’re talking about the whistle. What we want to do is play till the action ceases.”

• LB James Harrison picked up an interception that game-day statisticians did not give him when he made a diving pickoff on Miami QB Chad Henne’s final pass last Sunday. It had been recorded as an incomplete pass even though the refs had ruled an interception.

By The Numbers: 24-4—Steelers record against NFC teams since 2003, including two Super Bowls.

Quote To Note: “I’m less concerned about Ray Anderson’s evaluation of James’s performance than I am just evaluating James’s performance myself.”—Coach Mike Tomlin after the NFL VP of football operations lauded the play of LB James Harrison in Miami.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

[HIGH-LIGHT]The Steelers on Wednesday worked out DL Jay Alford, cut recently by the Raiders. Alford was a third-round pick from Penn State of the New York Giants in 2007. Rookie OT Chris Scott, on PUP after he broke a foot in June working out, is in the second week of practice and has one more week after that before the Steelers must decide to waive him, put him on the roster or keep him on PUP.[/HIGH-LIGHT]

Player Notes

• CB Ike Taylor flip-flopped from side to side for the first time last week, covering Miami’s Brandon Marshall. Taylor is expected to stay on the right side vs. New Orleans.

• QB Ben Roethlisberger has a record of 62-26 (.705) as a starting quarterback, second in winning percentage among all active NFL quarterbacks and the only one other than Tom Brady (.767) to top .700.

• WR Hines Ward has 11,297 career yards receiving and needs 93 to move into fourth place among the NFL’s leading receivers who played their entire career with one team.

• LB Keyaron Fox, the special teams captain, again is Pittsburgh’s leader on the field with nine tackles in the kicking game, where he’s also recovered two fumbles that leads the team in any phase.

• LB Lawrence Timmons has been the team’s best defensive player through six games. He has a wide lead with 72 tackles to go with two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and even two tackles on special teams.

Game Plan: The Steelers have had to ride Ben Roethlisberger’s arm the past two games as their run game suddenly ground to a walk. They’d like to get it going in New Orleans but are prepared to match the Saints pass for pass. They know Drew Brees will go after their 24th-ranked pass defense and will try to put the heat on him to make him pay for it.

Matchups To Watch: Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Saints WR Marques Colston. Colston has 40 catches, 14 more than any Steelers receiver.

Steelers ILBs James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons vs. Saints TE Jeremy Shockey. The Steelers have had trouble with tight ends in the past.

Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey vs. Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma. The Steelers’ rookie has been able to get blocks into linebackers.

Injury Impact: DE Aaron Smith had surgery to repair a torn left triceps tendon and is out indefinitely. Ziggy Hood will start at left DE. OT Flozell Adams (ankle) did not practice Wednesday but is expected to start. Two starters with hamstring injuries, OLB LaMarr Woodley and DE Brett Keisel, did not practice Wednesday but coach Mike Tomlin remains hopeful he will have them in some sort of capacity Sunday. If Woodley does not start, Lawrence Timmons would move to LOLB and Larry Foote would start for Timmons at ILB.

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