PITTSBURGH — The Saints offense is an equal opportunity provider when it comes to who it will target whenever it nears an opponent’s goal line.
Of that there can be no doubt after two Saints players (tight end Ben Watson and fullback Erik Lorig) scored their first touchdowns this season and a third (wideout Nick Toon) punched in his first NFL TD in New Orleans’ 35-32 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday.
The scores gave the Saints (5-7) a 21-6 lead early in the third quarter that Pittsburgh (7-5) didn’t have enough time to overcome. They also served as a public reminder that, when an offense that entered its game Sunday ranked second in the NFL, any member of the unit is capable of inflicting six points of damage against any opponent.
“You never know when you’re going to be called upon ... in this offense,” said Lorig, a five-year veteran who missed his first six games with the Saints this season because of an ankle injury he suffered during an intrasquad scrimmage in West Virginia on Aug. 2. “You can show up at any time.”
It’s more likely players such as Watson, Lorig and Toon will have their moment in the spotlight when a defense dedicates itself to taking away from New Orleans an offensive star like All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. That’s what happened Sunday when Graham didn’t register a single target against the Steelers.
“I knew they were going to have something for me,” said Graham, who nonetheless leads the Saints in catches (65), receiving yards (670) and touchdown grabs (nine). “And they did.”
Yet New Orleans won’t hesitate to seek out players occupying spots lower on the team’s pecking order when someone like Graham isn’t a viable option on the field. In a 30-27 defeat at New England on Oct. 13, 2013, the Saints weren’t able to complete a pass to Graham on six well-covered targets, so they dialed up plays that resulted in the first career touchdowns for Travaris Cadet, Khiry Robinson and Kenny Stills.
Cadet’s and Robinson’s scores were from 3 yards out, and Stills’ was from 34 yards out.
The circumstances weren’t identical, but the Saints employed a similar philosophy Sunday.
Trailing 6-0 and lining up 15 yards away from the Steelers’ end zone, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a short pass to Watson after the tight end got free along the left sideline. Watson finished the play with what was only his 14th catch of the season and his first score since a Nov. 21, 2013, win at Atlanta.
Then, after Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro intercepted a pass in the end zone, New Orleans soon drove to Pittsburgh’s 4. It chose to attack the goal line with a short pass to Lorig.
Lorig, at that juncture, had only six catches for 24 yards this year, and he had two carries for 3 yards and a lost fumble. But Lorig hauled in Brees’ pass and cleared the goal line to help put the Saints ahead 14-6.
“It’s a game of ups and downs,” said Lorig, referring to being out of action from early August to late October and then scoring in the Saints’ first win at Pittsburgh since 1987. “You do your best ... to stay stable and make it back to where you were.”
However, it may have been Toon’s TD from 11 yards out with fewer than 12 minutes to go in the third quarter was even more satisfying than the first two for the Saints. Toon only had seven catches for 42 yards in the 11 games he’d appeared in since the Saints selected him out of Wisconsin in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.
He’d missed his rookie year with preseason foot injury, and he subsequently struggled to crack the lineup. He was active Sunday largely because veteran receiver Robert Meachem was dealing with a hurt ankle and rookie wideout Brandin Cooks was out for the remainder of the year with a broken thumb he suffered in the Saints’ loss at home to Cincinnati on Nov. 16.
The Saints, though, went to him all the same two plays after defensive end Cameron Jordan’s first career interception set them up deep in Pittsburgh’s territory. Toon reeled in a short pass to the right and fought through three would-be tacklers to break the scoring plane.
It was a long time coming for Toon. And he had to wait a little longer for it because the play was reviewed to see if he had been brought down between the 1 and the goal line.
“It adds to the anticipation,” Toon joked about his delayed gratification. “It makes it that much better.”
But officials confirmed the score. That gave the Saints an advantage that was too steep for the Steelers to revert. And that also made a big day that much better for Toon, Lorig and Watson.