Sunday’s showdown in the Superdome brings us two quarterbacks who rarely face each other and two offenses that can set the turf ablaze.
But it might not be an all-out track meet, as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ and New Orleans Saints’ offenses are each working through hiccups without key weapons.
1. Steelers all-in on spread without Conner
In recent years, Pittsburgh’s offense has basically comprised two unique identities.
There’s the smashmouth approach featuring heavier personnel and gap-scheme runs, letting Le’Veon Bell or James Conner grind defenses down. And there’s the spread, where Ben Roethlisberger goes into field-general mode and throws on almost every snap. Pittsburgh leans on either approach as a foundation for multi-week stretches, but there isn’t much marriage between them.
The former waned without Bell — Roethlisberger has seven games with 45-plus pass attempts this year (nobody else has more than four) — and basically evaporated without Conner. Absent Conner the last two weeks, 83.2 percent of the Steelers’ snaps featured at least three wideouts.
Roethlisberger’s attempts haven’t spiked dramatically, in part because the Patriots practically begged for more runs last week. The vast majority of Jaylen Samuels’ production came from shotgun against six- and even five-man boxes, as New England used two high safeties almost all game. (This is why Bill Belichick brushed off run-defense concerns afterward.)
Without a traditional back for Pittsburgh’s core power and counter runs, coordinator Randy Fichtner went extreme against New England with 14 snaps featuring five wideouts, a package the rest of the NFL has used on 60 combined snaps all season. Roethlisberger (10 of 13, 90 yards, TD, 120.7 rating) was efficient, distributing on quick timing from an empty set.
The Steelers should again feature the package — made possible by the return of Eli Rogers — against the Saints, who prefer a three-safety dime defense. That would leave two wideouts matched by safeties or linebackers, a tough ask even when playing zone. New Orleans might have to bring a fourth corner on the field.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh should see more light boxes, but will it take advantage? The Saints’ run defense remains one of the NFL’s stoutest, and the Steelers can be quick to abandon the ground. Most of their shotgun runs include a pass option, part of the reason the balance gets skewed. Throwing too often risks turning New Orleans’ talented pass rush loose, but Pittsburgh might not care.
2. What Ginn could do for the Saints
After scoring 130 points in Weeks 10-12, the Saints managed just 50 from Weeks 13-15.
Execution has been a culprit — especially Monday in Carolina, when penalties repeatedly thwarted big gains — but tactics have factored, too. Sean Payton and Drew Brees are clinical underneath and between the numbers, but defenses have squeezed tighter of late without fearing deep throws.
Ted Ginn Jr. is no star, but he brings unique speed that warps coverages. Whether he’ll play Sunday is unclear, but his return will be welcomed. In an offense that uses far more base personnel than most, a vertical threat at one of the wideout spots unlocks all kinds of other options.
With or without Ginn, expect Joe Haden to shadow Michael Thomas most of the day, though not likely in the slot. Haden has quietly had an excellent season, but he might need bracket help to contain Thomas.
Up front, Pittsburgh could have the edge with an interior pass rush that pushes the pocket as well as any in football. The shorter Brees relies on pocket depth more than most QBs — a major reason the Saints have always invested heavily on the interior — and Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were terrific against the Patriots.
3. Mind games between Rivers and Ravens
Watching Philip Rivers, one of the league’s best presnap QBs, try to solve Baltimore’s voluminous defense should be a treat.
Rivers trusts himself to decipher blitz looks and counter with proper protections, and he’ll hang in the pocket late to deliver despite pressure. That could lead to game-changing plays in both directions.
L.A. must hope Keenan Allen (hip) can play. His ability to separate underneath would provide a quick outlet against Baltimore’s zone blitzes, a safer proposition than 50-50 balls to the big Williams receivers.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on how the Chargers combat the Ravens’ amoeba fronts. Rivers loves to audible to WR tunnel screens against blitz looks, and Baltimore will often show seven or even eight potential rushers on the line. However, knowing Rivers’ tendencies, the Ravens could bluff this look to force the screen and then drop out to contain it.
Terrell Suggs is also one of the NFL’s best at sniffing out screens. Rivers must be careful after Von Miller got him twice in Week 11, the Chargers’ only loss since September.
4. Seahawks’ offense perfect for attacking K.C.
The Chiefs’ defense is known to be suspect, but it’s actually rather decent against the pass. Where the unit falls apart is against the run.
That’s usually not a big issue. Poor run defense is one of the least punishing weaknesses in today’s NFL, especially for a team that scores so many points and plays with the lead so often. But compensating for that flaw on Sunday, against the league’s most run-heavy team (by far), presents a new challenge.
Allen Bailey and especially Chris Jones are excellent interior pass rushers, but their aggressive, upfield style is harmful in run defense. Despite some splash plays, both players get washed out of run lanes too easily by playing high and without discipline. Stabilizing the group somewhat is rookie third-round nose tackle Derrick Nnadi, a squatty plugger who is excellent at shedding blocks, but he rarely plays in nickel or dime.
That’s where Kansas City is most susceptible, and where Seattle thrives. The Seahawks run on 48 percent of snaps using 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) — no other team is above 41 percent — and average 5.1 yards per carry. The Chiefs are allowing 5.3 yards per carry against 11 personnel, among the NFL’s worst marks.
5. Can D-line keep carrying Eagles?
Philadelphia won last week because its front thoroughly dominated the Rams’ offensive line, hiding the Eagles’ patchwork secondary.
That formula could be enough against the Texans as well. Houston’s O-line has played much better since its brutal start, but the talent disparity compared to Fletcher Cox & Co. is staggering. Cox has been borderline unblockable, Michael Bennett wreaks havoc both leading and looping on stunts, and Chris Long can still turn the corner at age 33.
Deshaun Watson flashes brilliance every week, but he also tends to lock onto DeAndre Hopkins and abandon reading his progressions when pressure shows early. That leads to some off-schedule big plays, but it also leaves open receivers untargeted too often.
Game script will be critical. Bill O’Brien has been disciplined in leaning on a so-so run game to maintain balance, but the Texans haven’t trailed often or by big margins. Philly’s rushers will tee off if Watson has to drop back 40-plus times, so Houston must avoid a major deficit.
—Field Level Media