With the NFL season just a little over two weeks away, the New Orleans Saints still have many facets of their game to perfect before the season gets underway; and playing the “elite” offensive attack of the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers this Friday Night, will be an excellent opportunity for the coaching staff to get a definitive look at their defense.
While we all know that Preseason games are relatively meaningless in the overall scheme of things, they are still yet a great indicator to how a team is doing overall.
It’s also a time for a handful of undrafted free agent rookies to step up and show what they are made of, in a hard-pressed effort to make the final 53 man roster on September 3rd.
However, the 3rd Preseason game is usually considered to be the most important of the entire Preseason itself; and is often referred to as “dress rehearsal” for the upcoming season.
It’s the one game where the starters see the most amount of action, and Friday Night’s contest will certainly have a bit more of a regular season ‘feel’ to it than anything else that we’ll see until the kickoff against the Raiders on September 11th.
While many eyes will be fixated upon the offense and the well-publicized issues of the offensive line, it’s the Saints defense that will be getting a true “litmus test”.
Jun 14, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen instructs as linebacker Jame Laurinitis (53) and safety Alden Darby (42) look on during the first day of minicamp sessions at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Last season, the defense was nothing short of horrible; finishing ranked at #31 out of 32 NFL teams and was the most obvious weakness on a 7-9 team that missed the NFL Playoffs for a 2nd consecutive year.
Since that time, the Saints defense appears to have undergone a startling transformation in one off-season, and looks to be dramatically improved.
The unit’s metamorphosis has been been the talk of Training Camp as well as a hot topic among some in the national media as well.
Having looked good against New England and Houston, who’s offenses don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of men; the Saints defense will get a real taste of top-caliber competition from “Big Ben” and the Steelers.
Dec 6, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes against the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 45-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Ironically, the Steelers have struggled on offense themselves thus far in the Preseason, but in fairness it hasn’t been with any of their top stars in the starting lineup.
Against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago, back-up QB Landry Jones came out with confidence and helped the Steelers get out to an early lead.
However, it only went downhill from there — as receivers had problems holding onto the football causing turnover(s), passes were thrown inaccurately to receivers who weren’t open, and the special teams yielded a 97 yard kick return for a TD.
Last week against Philadelphia, Jones struggled with interceptions and committed four of them against the Eagles. His first interception was a “pick-six” that set the tone for them early offensively as he continually made bad decisions, eventually leading to them being shut out.
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Turnovers have killed the Steelers during the Preseason thus far, a recurring theme for the Saints offense as well.
Which only serves to make Friday Night’s match-up all the more interesting: as 2-time Super Bowl winner and 13th year NFL veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of Pittsburgh’s “elite” starting offense that includes RB Le’Veon Bell, RB DeAngelo Williams and WR Antonio Brown are expected to see action for the first time.
Some things of interest to watch regarding the way that the Saints defense can expect to be tested include:
The “powerhouse” Steelers running attack, which will feature the highly anticipated return of All-Pro RB Le’veon Bell, who will play in his first NFL football game on Friday since tearing his MCL and PCL nearly 10 months ago against the Cincinnati Bengals. Bell will be joined by a familiar face to the Saints: former Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams, whom the Steelers signed had signed in Free Agency last year prior to Bell’s injury. These two together are poised to be one of the most dynamic one-two punch combos in the league. These two being on the field cranks up the intensity for the Saints defensive line — to see if they hold up against “elite” competition after yielding an NFL high 4.9 yards per carry in 2015.
The Saints pass defense against one of the sport’s true crafty veterans in Roethlisberger, who is never mentioned in the same breath with other “elite” players at the QB position such as Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but yet consistently remains as one of the position’s most fiercest and well-respected competitors. Additionally along with how the Saints defend the pass will be to see how well they can pressure Roethlisberger — who took a physical beating at the end of last season and during the Playoffs. Roethlisberger appears to be healed, but at age 34 isn’t quite the nimble player that he was 10 years ago.
Nov 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is chased by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) during the second half at Heinz Field. The Saints won the game, 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
The eagerly anticipated one-on-one matchup — even if it’s only for a few series — of Steelers All-Pro WR Antonio Brown and Saints CB Delvin Breaux. The 28-year old Brown has developed into one of the true superstars in the entire NFL at the WR position; with a phenomenal 375 catches for 5,031 yards and 31 touchdowns over the last 3 seasons. It will be yet another opportunity for Breaux to prove that his name belongs in the conversation among the NFL’s “elite” at his own position, if he can limit Brown’s production in this contest.
Dec 6, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs to score on a seventy-one yard punt return for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 45-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Clearly the Saints defense will have an opportunity to show that what’s been said about them and what we’ve seen from them so far in limited glimpses thus far in the Preseason, is much more than hyperbole.
If this unit is truly improved, then the showdown with the Steelers on Friday Night will give them the chance to show everyone that they are for real.
The defense needs to take advantage of this game against the Steelers and use it as a stepping-stone to carrying over some much-needed confidence when they open up against an equally improved Oakland Raiders team, in Week #1 of the upcoming Regular Season…….