Eight days after the New Orleans Saints played their most complete game of the season in a 24-0 victory over the Raiders, they arguably played their worst game of the season in a 27-13 loss to the Ravens.
Inconsistency has been an unexpected but all-too-present accompaniment this season, and it's something that the Saints (3-6) would love to shake off Sunday, when they play the Steelers (2-6) at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh. Here are several ways the team might be able to combat it against the Steelers:
1. PICK UP THE PRESSURE: New Orleans did not handle the Ravens' defensive pressure well Monday night; Andy Dalton was sacked four times, hit seven times and had at least three passes tipped, one of which led to an interception. Pittsburgh, obviously, saw all of that and likely will incorporate some of those packages into the gameplan, along with their own. The Saints can expect to see it until they show they consistently can stop it, and that challenge becomes more daunting with center Erik McCoy (calf) and left guard Andrus Peat (triceps) missing the game due to injuries. The good news is that the Steelers average just 1.9 sacks per game, ninth fewest in the league. The bad news is Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt, a three-time All-Pro and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, when he had 22.5 sacks, will return to the lineup for the first time since the season opener. He had a sack, an interception, two passes defense, three tackles for loss in that game. New Orleans will keep an eye on him.
2. GET ON SCHEDULE: The Saints mightily can help themselves on offense if they can stay out of unfavorable down and distance situations. Against the Ravens, they faced five downs of third-and-6 or more and converted just once. They also failed to convert on a third-and-3 and a third-and-4. Working into more favorable distances will help with the play-calling, because there's little to no deception that can be used when passing pretty much is the only option. They must run more effectively (15 carries for 48 yards on Monday night) against a Steelers defense that's allowing 117.9 per game, but just 99 per game at home. Taysom Hill had just one carry, for six yards, against the Ravens. Expect that number to increase and, as always, the more touches for Alvin Kamara, the better.
3. GET RIGHT: The inconsistency of the defense has been the biggest surprise this season, because that unit was supposed to lead this year's team. There were some winning-level performances submitted early even though the Saints didn't win the games against Tampa Bay and Carolina. But to follow up a shutout against the Raiders with a game where the unit couldn't stop the run (188 rushing yards by the Ravens) and couldn't consistently get a stop on third down (9 for 15 by the Ravens) was disappointing. The Steelers start a rookie quarterback, Kenny Pickett, and that often has been a recipe for success for the Saints defensively. Pickett should be easier to sack than Baltimore's Lamar Jackson simply because everyone is easier to sack than Jackson, and linebacker Demario Davis (career high six sacks) may be able to add to his total, as well as defensive end Cameron Jordan (five sacks). But that isn't likely to happen if the Saints can't do something about the next key.
4. ONE DIMENSIONAL: On paper, this could/should be an opponent that New Orleans' run defense will show well. The Steelers are at 95 rushing yards per game, sixth fewest in the league, and that's even after a 144-yard outburst in their last game. The Saints likely will want to take their chances with the ball in Pickett's hands, but even then, it won't hurt to have a solid showing from cornerbacks Alontae Taylor and Paulson Adebo. Pickett has eight interceptions, and has lost a fumble, in eight games so the opportunity may present itself to get one or two turnovers.
5. BE SPECIAL: New Orleans could use an impact play from its special team units. Anything. A long return, a blocked kick, a field-position changing punt, a perfect day on field goals. Anything would help.