What a game. What a win. The New Orleans Saints improved to 13-2 with their 31-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The game was certainly a crazy one, possibly the most thrilling of the season. It was a constant roller coaster from beginning to finish, with the Saints finishing on top. After coming out with a touchdown drive to start the second half to take a 10 point lead, it looked like New Orleans could be on their way to building a comfortable lead and cruising to a victory like they have in many home games this year. That was not the case, though, as Ben Roethlisburger and the Steelers had other plans. With both sides of the ball for the black and gold going cold for the rest of the 3rd quarter and the first half of the 4th, Pittsburgh not only erased their deficit, but took and held the lead until the very end of the game. Thankfully, both the offense and defense stepped up when it counted and the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC, ensuring that the road to Super Bowl LIII goes through New Orleans.
It was not Brees’ best game in terms completion percentage (69.2%) or quarterback rating (103.2), but he absolutely took the game in to his own hands and led his team to the win. Despite starting at Pittsburgh’s 46 yard line, the go-ahead touchdown drive was anything but easy. The Saints had to overcome an offensive holding penalty, which eventually led to a 3rd and 20. Keith Kirkwood dropped an easy pass on 2nd down that would have made it 3rd and short, but Brees stayed poised and found Ted Ginn on the very next play for a 25 yard completion to keep the drive/game alive. Drew was surgical when it mattered most.
After staying relatively quiet the past few weeks without having any game-breaking runs or any of his patented escapes from sure tackles, Kamara looked like the wizard we have come to love. He scored the Saints first touchdown on their second drive while shrugging multiple defenders off and literally back-pedaling in to the endzone. He later made two huge plays on each of New Orleans’ scoring drives to end the first half and start the second. With just 15 seconds left on the clock and the ball at their own 44 and no timeouts, the Saints needed a big completion and a clock stoppage to have a shot at stealing some points before halftime. Kamara delivered. He took a short throw from Brees and weaved his way through defenders for a 31 yard gain before getting out of bounds with time left on the clock. Wil Lutz then drilled a 43 yard field goal and it was a 17-14 lead for the black and gold at halftime. Then, on the second play of the 3rd quarter, he once again took a short pass and turned on the jets for a 42 yard gain, which led to his second touchdown run of the day. If that is the Alvin Kamara opposing teams have to deal with in the playoffs, good luck.
No one was more excited about the return of Ted Ginn than Michael Thomas. Having only gone over 100 yards receiving once in Ginn’s ten game absence, Thomas benefited from the opposing defense having to respect the speedster’s ability to stretch the field. It was just another edition of the “Can’t Guard Mike” show, as he hauled in 11 of his 13 targets for 109 yards and the game-winning touchdown. It was not just a routine touchdown catch, either. With all of his momentum taking him out of the endzone and back towards the 1 yard line, Thomas somehow secured the ball quick enough for it to be still across the plane of the goal line before falling away. The touchdown gave the Saints their 31-28 lead, allowing the defense to go and seal the game.
It was not his most dominant game up front, but Rankins still found a way to make a game-changing play. We have all often wondered why Dennis Allen chooses to drop his best defensive linemen in to coverage on occasion. Well, the final defensive play to end both the Carolina and Pittsburgh games has shown why. Against the Panthers, Cam Jordan dropped back and was in position to make Cam Newton’s attempt much tougher. This week, it was Sheldon Rankins who dropped back. Juju Smith-Schuster made an 8 yard reception on 1st down that was going to have the Steelers right around the back end of Chris Boswell’s field goal range. Rankins, who, by the way, is nearly 300 pounds, made one of the most athletic plays for the year on the Saints defense. He wrapped up Smith-Schuster and took him to the ground, while keeping the wide receiver’s body off of the ground and simultaneously punched the ball free. Demario Davis recovered and the Saints went marching in to the #1 seed.
It has been a relatively disappointing season for Coleman in terms of his impact since joining the Saints in the offseason. There were high hopes that he would make a lot of big plays from his safety position and essentially, be a more effective Kenny Vaccaro. He has been far from bad, but has had a minimal impact until this game. Late in the third quarter, the Steelers were driving and looking to extend their 28-24 lead. Already with the ball inside the New Orleans 40 yard line, it was starting to look like a 7 point deficit would be the best that the Saints could hope to result from the drive. Instead, Coleman came through. On a 3rd and short, New Orleans had Stevan Ridley stopped short of the first down, but Coleman was able to punch the ball out of his hands right before his knee touched the ground. Alex Okafor was able to come up with the recovery in the bottom of the pile and Pittsburgh came up empty.
It was another day of shuffling and adjusting due to injuries, but the offensive line struggled, once again. Jermon Bushrod was inactive with a hamstring injury, which did not seem to be as big of a deal with the return of Terron Armstead. Fresh off being announced to his first Pro-Bowl, Armstead was returning from a pectoral injury that had him sidelined since the Eagles game in mid-November. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated that injury early in the game. He came back in for a few plays, but then went back out, later saying he felt as if he could not perform well enough to help his team. That kicked Andrus Peat out to left tackle and inserted Will Clapp in at left guard. All of this led to Drew Brees being sacked twice and under quite a bit of pressure throughout the game. That was not the killer, though. It was a few holding penalties. On the Saints second to last offensive drive, a 17 yard reception by Michael Thomas that would have gotten them in to the red-zone was negated due to a holding call on Peat. The 10 yard penalty turned in to a long down and distance that New Orleans was unable to overcome, leading to a 50 yard field goal attempt from Lutz. That attempt was blocked, due to another failure on the line. LJ Fort and TJ Watt collapsed on Will Clapp and were in the backfield in no time. Fort was able to block Lutz’s attempt, snapping the kicker’s streak of 26 straight makes and leaving the Saints still down four. On their final drive that eventually won the game, New Orleans had to overcome another holding penalty and convert on a 3rd and 20 to keep the drive alive. This time it was Ryan Ramczyk who was flagged. Thankfully, Brees and the offense was able to overcome everything, but these are the things that will need to be cleaned up for when things get tight in the playoffs.
Communication in the secondary was as bad as we have seen all year. Whether it was passing off receivers in coverage from one player to another or just knowing who had who in terms of assignments, it was poor all around. The struggles plagued them throughout the game, but most importantly, on a few scoring plays. At the end of the first half, Pittsburgh was able to find the end zone on a 3rd and goal after Jaylen Samuels was left alone out of the backfield. They, then, went for the 2-point conversion and easily cashed in when Eli Rogers was left wide open due to poor alignment from the secondary. Later, Antonio Brown, of all people, was left open in the back of the end zone when Marshon Lattimore passed him off to PJ Williams, who went with the same receiver as Lattimore. Again, the Saints were able to find a way to win, despite these mistakes, but simple communication is one thing that will absolutely have to be cleaned up heading in to the playoffs.
It was just one mistake that was rectified on the next play, but Kirkwood’s drop on 2nd and 20 on the game-winning drive has to be mentioned. He was wide open and flat out dropped what would likely have been one of the easiest catches of his NFL career. Ted Ginn made his 25 yard reception on the very next play, so it was not costly, but if Kirkwood wants to continue earning the trust of Sean Payton and Drew Brees, he can not have things like this happen.
There was a lot of praise to be had and many critiques to be made, but what a fun game it was. Sure, double digit victory would have been less stressful, but what a fun way to watch the Saints clinch the top seed in the NFC and homefield Domefield advantage. Of the mistakes that were made, I am confident that they are things that can be easily addressed and quickly fixed. It was quite nice to see the offense get back to their old selves, too. Whether it is the indoor/outdoor thing that the media loves to hammer on, it does not matter anymore, because the New Orleans Saints don’t have to play outside of a dome for the rest of the season. Terron Armstead’s health will be the key thing to watch as the next two weeks will be relatively quiet for the Saints, so keep your fingers crossed that his re-aggravation of his injury is not too severe and he will be ready to go in the Divisional playoff game.
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