Steelers ready for struggling defending champs
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer dlolley@observer-reporter.com

NEW ORLEANS - The New Orleans Saints are finding out something many of the current Steelers already know - it's not easy to be the king.

New Orleans, the defending Super Bowl champion, has stumbled to a 4-3 record, which includes an embarrassing 30-17 loss to Cleveland at home last week.

Saints coach Sean Payton now sees what the Steelers went through in both 2006 and 2009. Pittsburgh entered those seasons as defending champion only to miss the playoffs.

"I think having to deal with it twice is a good problem," Payton said. "But I think each week teams pay close attention to their preparation and their effort on game day knowing that they are playing the team that had just won the Super Bowl."

Next up for the Saints are the Steelers (5-1) as the past two Super Bowl champions clash tonight at the Louisiana Superdome.

"Repeating is not what's difficult; just winning is difficult," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "It doesn't matter whether you've done it the year before or not. There are 32 teams vying for the world championship and it's a difficult journey. The fact that you're defending champs probably is an issue for those on the outside, but just walking the journey itself is a difficult one."

Diagnosing the difference between last year's Saints and this year just takes a quick glance into the backfield.

Because of injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas - each declared out of tonight's game - the burden of carrying the Saints' offense has fallen solely on the right shoulder of quarterback Drew Brees.

After throwing only 11 interceptions last year, Brees already has 10 this season.

Brees is making more mistakes, but that doesn't mean the Steelers' 24th-ranked pass defense isn't concerned.

"I guess the only thing you can read into that is that it's almost impossible to run the ball against us," said Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden. "We pride ourselves in stopping the run first and foremost, all 11 guys out there. So, of course, we've seen a lot more passes than most teams because you can't run and you don't want to try to run."

Pittsburgh has given up only six touchdowns - four passing, two rushing - and leads the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 13.7 points per game.

"Yards are important, but just because they get down there doesn't mean they're scoring," McFadden said. "A team like San Diego, they're ranked No. 1 overall (in defense). The record doesn't show it, but they're ranked No. 1. I'll take where we're at and continue to do successful things on Sunday, than to not be successful on Sundays and be highly ranked."

Brees is tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown passes, but the lack of running game is making life difficult. New Orleans is averaging just under 93 yards rushing per game and has just two rushing touchdowns.

The Steelers, however, will be without starting defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. Keisel missed last week's win at Miami with a hamstring injury and is doubtful to play against the Saints, while Smith is out indefinitely with a torn triceps muscle suffered against the Dolphins.

Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood will start in their place.

The focus will be on both offensive units in what could be a shootout. The Steelers offense has looked sharp in the two games since Ben Roethlisberger's return.

Roethlisberger is looking forward to matching up against the defending Super Bowl champions in a dome.

"(There's) no elements," said Roethlisberger, who has thrown five touchdowns. "As a quarterback, you like that. I've never played down there, but I'm sure it's loud. It's Halloween, so I'm sure it will be exciting. ... There will be so many more things that they'll want to build this game around, quarterbacks, defenses, coaches. There are going to be so many things, but really it's just the Saints versus the Steelers."

[HIGH-LIGHT]Odds and end zones[/HIGH-LIGHT]

Tomlin and Saints' safety Darren Sharper were teammates at William & Mary. ... Roethlisberger needs 139 yards passing to join Terry Bradshaw as the only Steelers quarterbacks with 20,000 yards passing. ... The Steelers have won four consecutive road games. ... In an effort to bolster depth along the defensive line, the Steelers signed Steve McClendon and released rookie linebacker Thaddeus Gibson.