How are Saints doing it?

PITTSBURGH – The litany of excuses stretches from Johnstown to Youngstown, and blame has been cast on everyone from the owner down to the last special teams player. Can the Steelers end their slide today against the miracle Saints?

The defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-6 at the midpoint of the season and are down to their last strike. They're in the batter's box scanning the field for anyone resembling Bill Buckner. Today's 4:15 game at Heinz Field against the 6-2 New Orleans Saints is the final chance to salvage the season.

"It's time to go out and start performing," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Everybody needs to say it starts with me."

Roethlisberger has said it. So has Alan Faneca. So has James Farrior. Joey Porter went so far as to guarantee a win.

"We're involved in every game but you're not going win the game when you have four or five turnovers a game," Porter said. "Now, the Bears did it the one time with the Cardinals but that wasn't supposed to happen. That was just like a for-real miracle."

The Steelers need a "for-real miracle" themselves and it starts with the miracle team, the reincarnated Saints, who are the opposite of the Steelers in that they've gone from worst to first. And while the first-to-worst Steelers still register statistically (6th offense, 8th defense), the Saints are 27th rushing the ball and 17th stopping the run. They're lacking in fundamentals, yet are 6-2. How?

"They do a lot of short passing and their running game's real good," said nose tackle Casey Hampton.

"Their defense is good," said Roethlisberger. "Their linebackers are a solid group. They don't make a lot of mistakes. And their secondary, they've got a lot of veterans back there. They're smart guys who like to bump and run."

Let's start with the offense. The Saints have allowed an NFL-low eight sacks this season, and they've done it with a rookie from Division II Bloomsburg, Jahri Evans, playing right guard, Jon "Stink Bomb" Stinchcomb playing right tackle, Browns castoff Jeff Faine playing center; and, last week, seventh-round rookie Zach Strief playing left tackle. Their best linemen are left guard Jamar Nesbit and second-year left tackle Jammal Brown, when he's healthy.

So how has this unit become the modern-day Blocks of Granite?

"Three-step drop," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. "They're not having [Drew] Brees sit back there and wait for guys to get open. If they're not open he's checking it down, so all his stuff is really quick."

"When you have good receivers it makes it hard to get after people," said Hampton. "He's taking three steps, getting rid of it, and the receivers are making good runs after the catch. It's just a good scheme."

Brees has a passer rating of 95.2 and has thrown three touchdown passes in each of the last three games. His go-to receiver, Joe Horn, missed last week's game and is questionable today with a groin injury. It's allowed rookie seventh-rounder Marques Colston of Hofstra to emerge as the top threat. Colston has 44 catches for 700 yards and seven touchdowns and is looking to become the first rookie since 1960 [Bill Groman] to lead the league in receiving yards.

Is press coverage the solution to stopping the Saints' passing game?

"Yeah," said Keisel, "and up front we've got to get in his face, get our hands up because he's not exactly the tallest quarterback."

The Saints' running game has the marquee names in Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, but the two players combined for 27 yards on 26 carries last week against Tampa Bay. McAllister rushed for 123 yards in a Saints win over the Steelers in 2002, but has only 487 this season.

The Saints average only 3.3 yards per carry and give up a whopping 4.5 per carry with a defense led by defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and linebacker Mark Simoneau in the middle. "Stats are just stats. That's all they are," said Steelers center Chukky Okobi. "If you want to look at statistics, look at turnovers."

The Steelers, of course, have turned the ball over an NFL-high 24 times. The Saints have turned it over 13 times.

"On any given day you never know what can happen," Okobi said. "I think we can run the ball against almost anybody. As far as moving the ball against them, I think we can do that. Yeah, we definitely can do that. We've just got to finish."

And that would be a start.


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