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New Orleans Saints key ingredients for a victory vs. Steelers, presented by Papa John's

Offense looks to get back in gear for Saints against Pittsburgh


One win.

That's what the New Orleans Saints (12-2) need, in the final two regular-season games, to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the playoffs, and all credit for their positioning belongs to them. New Orleans finished off a three-game road trip – its final road games of the regular season – with a 2-1 record to improve to 7-1 on the road this season.

Now, they're back in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with two chances to achieve another major goal. It won't be easy, against Pittsburgh (8-5-1) on Sunday afternoon, but here are a few areas on which to focus as the Saints attempt to secure the top seed.

  1. I'd be lying if I said there's no concern over the Saints offense. Not over-the-top panic, mind you. But the unit that averaged 37.2 points per game over the first 11 games has totaled 50 points – 16.7 per game – over the last three. Drew Brees has thrown an interception in each of the last four games (with six touchdowns and 175.5 yards per game), opponents are daring any receiver not named Michael Thomas to make a play, and the offensive line absorbed a couple of injuries (to center Max Unger and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, against Carolina). The running game re-emerged with 155 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries against Carolina, after posting 165 yards on 49 carries in the previous two games, and it'll need to make a dent against Pittsburgh, which allows 97 rushing yards per game. But New Orleans has to get is passing game back in sync. It's possible that Sunday will be the last dress rehearsal before the playoffs (if the Saints win and clinch the top seed, there's not much reason to risk injury to key contributors in the finale). If it is, a crisp offensive performance will be welcome.
  2. The reason the Saints have been able to get away with a few subpar offensive performances? A defense that has grown stingier by the week. It's not just that the Saints still have the best run defense (79.1 yards per game), it's that the pass defense appears to have caught up. In the last six games, the Saints have 28 sacks, eight interceptions (against seven touchdown passes, one of them by a running back), and have allowed 196.7 passing yards per game. The coverage needs to be at its best Sunday. Pittsburgh is third in the league in passing yards per game (311.9) and it has a pair of receivers – Antonio Brown (90 catches, 1,112 yards and 13 touchdowns) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (95-1,274-6) – who can individually, or in tandem, wreck a day. Saints cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple have been outstanding of late, and they'll need to be that Sunday. Keep in mind, too: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only has been sacked 20 times this season, so the pass rush will have its work cut out, also.
  3. Saints offensive tackles will have to do work Sunday. The line may be in for a bit of shuffling, depending on the injury status of Unger and with Bushrod ruled out. If Unger is out, Cameron Tom steps in at center. With Bushrod out, then Terron Armstead may be ready to return at left tackle, or Andrus Peat again might have to kick out from left guard, and maybe Will Clapp plays that position. Also, depending on who's available, Unger could line up at center, Tom at left guard and Peat at left tackle. Whatever the combination, Steelers linebackers T.J. Watt (11 sacks) and Bud Dupree (5.5) are issues. Watt likely will come from the left side, matched against Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (apparently, Pro Bowl voters don't like right tackles because he was deserving), and Dupree will come off the other edge, against Armstead or Peat. Brees only has been sacked 15 times but his recent spate of turnovers (five in the last four games, including a lost fumble) has to have the Steelers believing they, too, can force one.
  4. Had to do a double-take, but it's true – Steelers kicker Chris Boswell has missed 12 kicks this season (seven field goals, five extra points). One field-goal attempt was blocked, all the other kicks were just missed. Also, on kickoffs, opponents have 31 kickoff returns against the Steelers. Alvin Kamara snapped off a 50-yard kickoff return against the Panthers, so he'll be on alert because he may get a couple of chances, and the Saints definitely will look to rattle Boswell with the field-goal rush.

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