When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: Fox
The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints are in the hunt for division titles, but for different reasons. Despite a couple of bad losses, the 7-4 Steelers have managed to keep pace in an AFC North, where every team is at least three games over .500.
The 4-7 Saints, despite their best efforts to play golf in January, are tied for first in the NFC South, which has delivered the kind of parity that the NFL doesn't want.
ESPN Saints reporter Michael Triplett and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.
Brown: Mike, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made the Saints' offense sound all but unstoppable earlier this week. With the weapons they have, starting with Drew Brees at quarterback, why does this team have only four wins in late November?
Triplett: The biggest problem has been the Saints' defense, which ranks 27th in the NFL in yards allowed, 29th in takeaways and dead last in third-down percentage. But Brees deserves plenty of blame, too, for way too many costly turnovers in big moments. Essentially, he's been under pressure to do it all this year, and he hasn't handled that well enough, forcing the ball too many times on third downs or under pressure.
Brees has still been sharp in a lot of areas (on pace for over 5,000 yards and a league-best 70.3 completion percentage). But he's thrown 11 interceptions and lost two fumbles -- many of them in huge moments. Last week was a perfect example. He threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens, but the Saints couldn't overcome the pick-six he threw in the third quarter.
The Saints do have the NFL's second-ranked offense, though. And they're deep and diverse with guys like tight end Jimmy Graham and a run game that started great before stalling the past two weeks. What should they expect from Pittsburgh's defense? Where are they strongest, and where are they most vulnerable?
Brown: The Steelers are getting healthy at the right time on defense and they should at least get strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor back for the Saints game. The return of two key players in their secondary, however, may not matter much if the Steelers don't get more out of what has been an inconsistent pass rush.
The Steelers did anything but bother or fluster Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger in their last game. That is one reason why they had to rally from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat one of the worst teams in the NFL. If Brees gets as comfortable in the pocket as Mettenberger did, the Saints are going to put up a lot of points.
The Steelers were able to generate consistent pressure against Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Baltimore's Joe Flacco the last two times they played at Heinz Field. They are home again and the defense should have a little extra juice Sunday given some of the players who are returning and the fact that the Steelers are coming off a bye week.
Jimmy Graham's numbers are down a bit this season, but he is still an elite player and the Steelers have struggled against tight ends. Assuming the they pay extra attention to Graham, what other receiver or receivers could step up and hurt the Steelers?
Triplett: The Saints' receivers have been inconsistent this year, and they lost their most dynamic weapon two weeks ago when rookie Brandin Cooks suffered a broken thumb. But then the receivers stepped up big last week, with Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and speedy backup Joe Morgan all making big plays. Morgan had a 67-yard run and a 62-yard catch in the first quarter, even though he was only a small part of the game plan.
For most of this season, the Saints have been content to establish the run with Mark Ingram and settle for shorter passes/screens, etc. I'm sure they'll do some of that to keep their defense off the field at Pittsburgh. But they vowed to be more aggressive after they were way too "flat" and passive against the Bengals two weeks ago. So I'm sure they'll keep taking their shots Sunday, as well.
It sure feels like the Saints' only chance is to win a shootout. I'm not sure they can stop Ben Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell. Is Roethlisberger playing as well as he ever has?
Brown: Statistically, there isn't any question that Roethlisberger is in the midst of his best season. The 11th-year veteran is on pace to establish career highs in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes for a season. I'm not sure, though, that this is the best Roethlisberger has played; he hasn't been as consistent as he would probably like. He didn't play well at Jacksonville and Cleveland earlier this season. Nor did he play well at the New York Jets after absolutely strafing the Colts and Ravens in back-to-back weeks at Heinz Field, and he was just OK at Tennessee on Nov. 17. Seeing a pattern here? Roethlisberger has been lights-out at home this season and rather ordinary on the road.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they don't need to delve further into why Roethlisberger has 18 touchdown passes at Heinz Field and just six away from it until after this game. If he plays as well at home as he has in earlier games, Roethlisberger and Brees could stage quite a shootout. Former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis was a big loss when he signed with the Saints in 2013. How has he played, and do you expect him to shadow Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown?
Triplett: Lewis has arguably been the Saints' second-most-valuable player behind Brees this year. Up until three weeks ago, he was the one constant in a shaky secondary. He routinely matches up against the opponents' No. 1 receiver and holds his own (see quiet performances from Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, among others). Fox analyst John Lynch said he'd put Lewis with Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson as the best corners in the league right now. That was the same case last year, when I thought Lewis was a blatant Pro Bowl snub.
However, Lewis suffered a knee injury in Week 10, and he hasn't quite gotten back to 100 percent (though he was closer this past week). Obviously it would be huge for Lewis to help neutralize a guy playing as well as Brown is right now. Even if he does, the Steelers will pick on up-and-down corners like Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Brian Dixon with some other frightening big-play threats.
To make matters worse, the Saints have suddenly become terrible against the run. Tell me more about Bell. He must be licking his chops after what fellow AFC North backs Justin Forsett and Jeremy Hill did against the Saints the last two weeks.
Brown: Man, he has been a revelation in his second season. I thought Bell would build on what he did as a rookie and give the Steelers a nice all-around running back. I did not see the 2013 second-round draft pick emerging as one of the best running backs in the NFL, but there is no question Bell has done just that. The Steelers love him because there is nothing he can't do. Bell is an excellent receiver and he earned Roethlisberger's trust last year in picking up blitzes, something that is not easy for a rookie to do.
Bell has really impressed me as a runner with his uncanny patience and ability to run with power and make people miss. His emergence as a premier runner, ironically enough, led to the exit of LeGarrette Blount, his good friend, from Pittsburgh. When the Steelers signed Blount in March, they envisioned more of a timeshare in the backfield as far as how carries were divvied up between Bell and Blount.
Bell became so valuable to the Steelers that they didn't want him coming off the field in goal-line or short-yardage situations. Blount's shrinking role eventually led him to leave the field before the end of a game, and for the Steelers to waive him.
But the division and playoff races that are tighter than a waistline after two turkey dinners isn't the only reason why quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers are in a "must-win" situation Sunday when they host the New Orleans Saints.
"Anyone who's played this game will tell you this time of year it's must-win because if you get hot at the right time that's when teams make runs and championships can be had," Roethlisberger said Wednesday. "It's all about playing your football this time of year."
Roethlisberger is approaching the Steelers' final five games, starting Sunday against the Saints, as the team did in 2005.
The Steelers had to win their final four regular season games to get into the playoffs. They did that and won four more games in the postseason to capture the organization's fifth Super Bowl title and first one since 1979.
"We've got to put together a stretch of football like we've never played before," Roethlisberger said. "That's what we're preparing to do."
Roethlisberger is among the veteran players who have been spreading that message of urgency with the Steelers (7-4) tied with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in the AFC North, just behind the Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1).
"We want to be hot at the right moment and that's why we're treating this game as a must-win," Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said. "Our division is so close. You don't know how everything's going to turn out so all we can do is control what we can control. This is the first stretch of the playoffs for us. This is a playoff game for us. That's how we're going to treat it."
Shazier practiced fully for the first time since sustaining a high ankle sprain at the beginning of the month.
The injury cost the first-round pick the last two games after he missed four contests earlier this season because of a sprained knee.
"I feel like it's getting a lot better," Shazier said of his injured ankle. "It's a little sore but I'm just going to listen to whatever the trainers and doctors tell me and be ready."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Shazier has to show this week that he is healthy and sharp from a mental standpoint after missing so much practice time this season.
"It's definitely coming back to me," Shazier said of the defense, "and the more I'm out there things are becoming a lot easier."
Cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) practiced fully for the second day this week, keeping him on track to return Sunday. Cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) and safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) also practiced.
Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) were limited in drills while wide receiver Martavis Bryant didn't practice because of an illness.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel and tight end Heath Miller were all given veteran's days off.
Polamalu has missed the last two games because of a sprained knee but the eight-time Pro Bowler is expected to play.
“It’s at Heinz Field, man,” Brown said. “I’m excited to get back out there and play in front of our fans.”
The fifth-year veteran is averaging 123 receiving yards in games at Heinz Field this season compared to 91.2 receiving yards in six road games. Brown has also caught six of his nine touchdown passes at home and even thrown a touchdown pass at Heinz Field.
The NFL’s second-leading receiver will look to extend his home success -- four of Brown’s five 100-yard games this season have also come at Heinz Field -- against a familiar foe.
Keenan Lewis, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers, returns to Pittsburgh when the New Orleans Saints visit Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET game.
Lewis has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback since signing with the Saints in March 2013. Adding to the intrigue of his first game against his old team is that the Steelers expect Lewis to shadow Brown -- something he did often from 2010-12 in practice.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him again and getting the opportunity to compete against him,” said Brown, who has studied tape of Lewis even though he already knows him well from their time together in Pittsburgh. “He's playing on the line and has been really good down the field, combative with his hands.”
Lewis has been one of the few bright spots on a Saints defense that has struggled this season, even though he is still working his way back from a knee injury.
“Keenan Lewis is a cornerstone of their cornerback position,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “His play has been highlighted by his ability to travel with top receivers. I am sure he and Antonio Brown look forward to a big-time battle this week.”
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger is producing his best statistical season -- perhaps an MVP season -- and is on pace for nearly 4,800 passing yards and 35 touchdowns by late December.
The way Roethlisberger sees it, winning an MVP would be an "awesome individual honor," but he wouldn't trade it for either of his two Super Bowls -- or three, if he has his way.
"If you asked any player that's won MVP awards and never won a Super Bowl, I'm sure they'd trade that in in a heartbeat," Roethlisberger told ESPN on Wednesday as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. "[An MVP] is a great thing. It would still be a reflection of how our offense has played. To me, that Super Bowl is the ultimate goal."
Roethlisberger, who has completed 68.3 percent of his passes this season, hasn't always aligned big statistical years with the Steelers' highest win totals.
In 2009, Roethlisberger threw for 4,328 yards and 26 touchdowns, and the Steelers finished 9-7. Pittsburgh posted back-to-back 8-8 seasons as Roethlisberger combined for 7,526 yards and 54 touchdowns in 2012 and 2013. His biggest scoring year, 2007, coincided with the Steelers' 10-6 record -- and Tom Brady's 50-touchdown year and undefeated regular season. No one else was winning MVP that year.
“Charles Woodson's an inspiration to me,” Taylor said of the Oakland Raiders safety. “I always say there’s a few guys on a team that you can’t (count) as far as age factor and I truly believe that about Charles Woodson. He’s still playing at a high level.”
That Taylor called the 38-year-old Woodson an “inspiration” confirmed that retirement is anything but on Taylor’s mind even though he is in his 12th NFL season and in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.
It is something they at least have to consider.
Cortez Allen, the supposed successor to Taylor as the Steelers’ No. 1 cornerback, has been a disaster and turned into a reclamation project. Antwon Blake has emerged as a young cornerback with promise after replacing Allen as the Steelers’ nickel back.
But beyond that the Steelers don’t have a lot of young talent at cornerback unless they found something in B.W. Webb, who they claimed off waivers in early September but has only played special teams in the limited snaps he has received.
Taylor is set to return from a broken forearm he sustained in late September, and the injury cost the 6-2, 195-pounder eight games.
But it also saved some tread on his legs while also proving again that Taylor is the consummate professional.
His injury was so gruesome that it initially looked like a season-ending one. That Taylor will make it back this week, barring a setback, with five games left in the season is a testament to his work ethic.
And the work he puts in year-round makes it completely plausible that Taylor might be able to slow down the aging process when it comes to his football career.
Plus, a the Steelers had couple of 36-year-olds return this season in defensive end Brett Keisel and outside linebacker James Harrison, and both have been critical additions to a defense ravaged by injuries.
Why can’t Taylor play at a level similar to what Keisel and Harrison have given the Steelers as a 35-year-old next season?
“Ike and I have had a running joke a number of years but there’s a lot of truth to it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “In our football game, particularly at this level, I tell him every day that he’s got to fight to prove his love for this game and his capability. He’s been doing it for a long time and he doesn’t run away from it.”
Far from it. Taylor, who has played 16 games in nine of his 12 seasons with the Steelers, embraces the challenge -- just as Woodson, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has done throughout his decorated career.
“I try to compare myself not to what he’s done in the NFL because he’s a Hall of Famer,” Taylor said, “but just similarities as far as being healthy, making plays and proving every year his love for the game.”
One thing that couldn't have escaped the panoramic view he took of the league is how this has been a big year for rookie wide receivers.
But as much acclaim as the rookie wide receivers have generated, this has really been the year of the Class of 2010 wide receivers.
Consider that an incredible five players in the NFL’s top 10 in receiving yards were drafted in 2010, including the top two, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and the Steelers' Antonio Brown.
The Steelers, in fact, drafted two of the wide receivers among the top 10 for receiving yards, getting Emmanuel Sanders in the third round and Brown in the sixth round in 2010.
Sanders has had a breakout season after joining the Broncos as a free agent, already establishing career highs in catches (76), receiving yards (1,079) and touchdown receptions (eight).
No one is happier for Sanders, who never quite panned out in Pittsburgh, than Brown.
“I’m excited for him and it’s great to see him doing well,” said Brown, who still keeps in touch with Sanders. “He’s doing a really good job and it’s always great when you’re on the winning side of things and playing with Peyton Manning.”
Sanders has thrived while catching passes from Manning, and he also stayed relatively healthy. As a result, the two wide receivers who grew up together in Pittsburgh could meet again at the Pro Bowl.
Brown smiled when that possibility was posed to him earlier this week.
The fact that he and Sanders are both in the top four in the NFL in catches and receiving yards makes it seem a long time ago that the two often battled for one game day roster spot.
That happened in 2010, when Tomlin often pitted the two in competition with one another and framed it as “two dogs for one bone.”
“I think it just encouraged two rookies when they came into the league to stay hungry and always better themselves,” Brown said.
They have done just that.
In the process, Brown and Sanders have shown that while the rookie wide receivers have more than lived up to the hype, it is another group of wideouts that is reigning supreme right now, with Detroit’s Golden Tate and Dallas’ Dez Bryant also excelling from the Class of 2010.
The Steelers dropped two spots and lost ground to a pair of division rivals despite having a bye in Week 12.
The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens each moved ahead of the Steelers after their respective wins this week. The Bengals jumped from No. 13 to No. 10 after their second straight win. The Ravens moved from No. 14 to No. 11 after beating the New Orleans Saints for their second consecutive victory.
The Steelers are No. 14 -- they had been No. 12 last week -- and the Cleveland Browns are No. 16 after rallying past the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
All four teams in the AFC North are at least three games over .500, and the conference is as bunched together as its most competitive division.
Eleven of the 16 teams in the AFC have winning records less than a week before Thanksgiving. This is the first time in NFL history that a conference has had 11 teams with a winning record through the first 11 games in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“It is interesting but it’s of no concern to me or us as we prepare for New Orleans,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of how tight the AFC North is as well as the playoff race in general. “All we have to focus on is the stadium that we’re in. If we do what we need to do on a week-in-and-week-out basis then it’s not going to be required that we look around. We play some significant people moving forward.”
Indeed, three of the Steelers’ five final games are against AFC teams that are prominent in the playoff picture, including two against the Bengals.
They visit Cincinnati on Dec. 7 and hosted the Bengals in the regular-season finale on Dec. 28. The Steelers host the Kansas City Chiefs a week before their rematch with the Bengals.
The situation will sort itself out the next five games, but studying the schedules of the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers shows that Baltimore has a clear advantage, and the toughest roads belong to the Bengals and Browns.
Not all agree it's that tough for the Bengals, though. The website numberfire.com lists the Ravens with the best chance of making the playoffs, though the Bengals are not far behind. Numberfire lists the Ravens with a 59-percent chance, the Bengals at 56 percent, the Steelers at 50 percent and the Browns at just 23 percent.
None of the four has an easy finish, though at this point of the season nothing is easy.
Here’s a look:
The Baltimore Ravens play San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston and finish at home against Cleveland. Those teams are a combined 26-29 (.472). ... Three games are at home, three against winning teams. ... Baltimore is the only North team whose remaining opponents are below .500. ... After winning on the road impressively in New Orleans, the Ravens have to feel they control their fate if they keep winning. ... The flip side: The opponent won-lost is skewed by one-win Jacksonville. But Baltimore plays just two teams that have won at least seven games, fewest of the North teams, and it has three of their last five at home.
The Cincinnati Bengals play at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Denver and end against Pittsburgh. ... Yes, it’s as tough as it sounds. ... The combined record of those teams: 31-24 (.564). ... Three of five are at home, four of five against winning teams. ... How about that final four for a gantlet? Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh again. ... Splitting those four game might mean the Bengals miss the playoffs. ... Three are within the division, and Denver is among the AFC’s best. ... This finish is the most difficult in the division.
The Cleveland Browns play at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore. ... That combined record is 30-24-1. ... The Browns also play four winning teams, with three of the final five on the road. ... That the Browns are even in the discussion is good news for Cleveland, but now the Browns would like to finish the task they’ve started. ...It’s not easy, especially since the Colts are one of the non-division games. That’s an exceptionally tough late draw. ... The Browns would love to be alive for the season finale in Baltimore, but to do so they have to take care of business in three of the next four games. Buffalo is close to a must win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers play New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta and finish at home against Kansas City and Cincinnati. ... The combined record: 29-24-2. ... Three are at home, three against winning teams. ... Finishing at home the final two weeks helps, but Pittsburgh’s hopes might come down to how they fare against Cincinnati. ... Do the Bengals split, or does one team escape with two wins? If the Steelers can sweep, that might propel them. ... The negative about the final two home games: They figure to be against two teams fighting for their playoff lives as well.
Le'Veon Bell, who is second in the NFL with 951 rushing yards, is actually younger than his two understudies.
Bell is 22 while rookies Dri Archer and Josh Harris are each 23 years old.
“We’ve got a young position group but you look around football and young backs impact games in a significant way and a positive way week in and week out,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
That trend is why Tomlin said he is “not reluctant at all” to lean more on Archer, who has eight NFL carries, and Harris, who has yet to play in an NFL game, as the Steelers move forward without LeGarrette Blount.
“Just because Dri has a limited number of carries and Josh has none doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors to our efforts not only this week but moving forward. And I know both guys work with that in mind and I don’t think either guy is lacking confidence,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think the group that works with them is lacking confidence in either guy.”
Bell certainly isn’t, even though the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer has yet to make a significant impact despite possessing world-class speed. Archer has rushed for 41 yards on eight carries and caught five passes for 4 yards.
“A lot of smaller guys just want to depend on their speed all of the time and run outside; he’s a guy that likes running in between the tackles,” Bell said of Archer. “I won’t say he’s a guy who will get 30 carries a game -- his frame won’t hold that -- but he’s definitely a running back. He’s a slasher, a one-cut go guy and uses his speed when he needs to.”
Bell also offered a scouting report on Harris, whom the Steelers promoted from the practice squad last Tuesday after waiving Blount.
“Josh is going to surprise a lot of people because he’s a thicker-type of guy and a lot of people don’t really understand how fast he is and he’s a guy that’s still learning,” Bell said. “He’s going to be ready when his time [comes].”
Both players were full participants in practice Monday. Their anticipated return couldn't come at a better time for the Steelers because the Saints average 309 passing yards per game, third-most in the NFL.
Polamalu missed the previous two games because of a sprained knee. Taylor has been out since breaking his forearm in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina. Taylor had been practicing on a limited basis before receiving medical clearance Monday to return in full.
"We anticipate having him in some form or fashion [against the Saints]," Tomlin said of Taylor at his weekly news conference on Tuesday.