The Apple Pre-Game Report

<b>Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints</b><p> When the Steelers failed to reach the Super Bowl last January, it denied Kordell Stewart the opportunity to play in front of his hometown friends and fans for the first time in his professional career. 7 months later, Louisiana-bred Stewart will again not be able to play an important game in the Big Easy after being demoted to the bench in favor of this week's Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy Maddox.

If you think I'm treating Maddox as the flavor of the month, I am. He's not the answer to every Steeler problem. Sure, he may run the 2-minute/spread offense efficiently and he may provide a much needed spark - but he can't create holes for the running game; he can't lead the special teams coverage units; and he can't stop Deshea Townsend from holding on every other punt return and kickoff.

While Stewart's familiarity with Jim Haslett goes back into the 20th century, Maddox is an enigma to the Saints head coach. In what could be a brilliantly shrewd move, Cowher throws Haslett's game plan out the window by starting Maddox.

The Steelers' offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey should be able to open the playbook to heretofore unseen chapters that were useless in the Kordell Stewart-led offense. And underutilized but sure-handed receiver Terance Mathis may see more than his share of passes this week.

If Maddox can stay efficient for an entire game and not turn the ball over, this offense should move well on a surprisingly porous Saints defense that ranks 23rd in total defense. The Steelers rank just behind New Orleans at 24.

That's a big "if" though, because no matter how well Maddox plays, the Steelers rushing attack must pull its share of the weight. Bettis has looked uncertain and Amos Zereoue looks slow. Chris Fuamatu-Mafala will not play due to injured ribs so rookie Verron Haynes will get his first reps of the season. This will be a big opportunity for Haynes to show his explosive ability. If he can run well, it might affect player movement over the off-season.

Regardless, the rushing game will fall onto the shoulders of Bettis. I still think he has it in him, but he needs the holes and the offensive line has not come through with any sort of consistent push. It will be interesting to see how well Russ Grimm has worked out the kinks this week.

Yes, the flavor of the month in Pittsburgh isn't "Kordell Stewart Vanilla" any longer. But no matter what the flavor, any ice cream will melt under excessive heat.

  1. Defense:
    Last week, Tim Lewis' defensive adjustments seemed to help fight the pass but left the base defense vulnerable to the run. Adding Deshea Townsend to the base took options away from Tim Couch, leading to coverage sacks and safe-dump passes. But, adding Deshea took Lee Flowers and his run support to the bench, contributing to a 4.8 yards per carry average for the relatively few (19.7) rushes per game against the defense so far this season. The Steelers are allowing 93.7 yards per game on the ground. As mentioned on this site, Casey Hampton has played outstandingly in his limited role and James Farrior quietly has proven he might just be the jewel many NY Jets fans thought. Joey Porter leads all NFL linebackers with 3 INT's, prompting some NFL scouts to think he is the best all-purpose middle linebacker in the game. If the Steeler front 7 improved this week like they did last week, they may have the run support issue in check and will be ready to turn the heat on Aaron Brooks.

    The Saints rank just ahead of Pittsburgh in team defense. They are allowing 348.8 yards total offense per game and 22.2 points per game. Further analysis proves that their defense can be exploited. The Saints are allowing 3.7 yards per rush and 94.3 yards per game on the ground. However, they have yet to face a high-caliber ground attack. This would be a good time for Pittsburgh to sort out some of its problems and get the running game back on track, but we'll have to wait and see on that. In pass defense, the Saints are allowing 254.5 yards through the air but they have only gotten to the quarterback 5 times.

    Advantage: Steelers. The Saints inability to sack the quarterback with any regularity will be a blessing for the immobile Tommy Maddox.

  2. Offense:
    The running game is in shambles. You can't tell me Jeff Hartings' knee is not bothering him because the pull and trap hasn't been working. There's also the perplexing fact that Bettis and Zereoue aren't hitting the holes, when they appear, with speed or confidence. I also noticed, more than a few times last week, where a cutback lane was available but went unused. Hines Ward has been Mr. Clutch, Mr. Catch, Mr. Block, Mr. Everything, but that's too much for one player on this team. Stewart seemed locked onto Ward too much. The heavily analyzed 4th quarter interception where Plaxico Burress was running wide open across the middle only highlights the ongoing problem. On the other hand Maddox seems more adept at spreading the ball to all of his receivers, especially Terance Mathis. Anybody still think keeping 4 Tight Ends was a good idea? Perhaps it will make a little more sense with Maddox throwing the ball.

    The Saints have a fearsome host of weapons at their disposal but won't be firing on all cylinders. Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn and rookie phenom Donte' Stallworth, both injured last week, may miss the game. Stallworth, who has a touchdown in each of his first four games as a pro, most likely will be out, although Haslett remains hopeful for a miracle. Horn is listed as questionable. Deuce McCallister is a big, bruising back but there are still questions about his durability. He is very difficult to bring down once he gets a head of steam. The offensive line is strong and although the Saints have a middling 111 yards rushing per game, that's at the rate of 4.4 yards per rush. The line features bad boy Pro Bowl lineman Kyle Turley, full-time professor of the Dewayne Rudd School of Decision-Making.

    Advantage: Tough decision, but I've got to go with the Saints. Even without Stallworth, the Saints offense is capable of putting heavy points on the board.

  3. Quarterbacks:
    Aaron Brooks, fresh out of the gate with a brand spanking new contract, has performed at a very high level although he will pull a Kordell Stewart (Yes we can officially coin that phrase now) at the most inopportune times. He also benefits from a capable running game and top receivers. His elusiveness is not on a par with Stewart, McNabb, Vick, and McNair. Brooks' passer rating is only 81.1 and he comes into the game throwing for an average of 234.4 yards per game. He's also thrown for 6 interceptions in 4 games, which is more than Kordell has thrown.

    Maddox enters the game with a 99.1 passer rating after only 7 minutes of game time. He's riding a wave of support from Steeler fans all over the country but will have to deal with what can be a loud crowd in the Superdome. Still, there will be no pressure on him to succeed. He could throw 3 - 4 interceptions in this game and still be absolved from any wrongdoing.

    Advantage: Steelers.

Outlook: I like the Steelers and here is why. Although, the Saints have a stronger offense, defense, and quarterback at this point in the season, Haslett knows nothing of Tommy Maddox and the expanded playbook he brings to the Pittsburgh attack. Steelers by 4.

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