SCOUTING REPORT: The Saints’ struggling run defense next faces one of its toughest tests of the season in Steelers battering ram Le’Veon Bell
Run defense has been a problem for the Saints the past few weeks.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill was able to rip open the front seven at will two weeks ago, and it was more of the same last week as Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett gashed the defense. Now New Orleans needs to figure out a way to corral Pittsburgh Steelers running Le’Veon Bell.
It won’t be easy. The 6-foot-1, 244-pounder has been one of the better backs in the NFL this season. He ranks second in the league with 951 rushing yards and sixth among players at his position with 4.9 yards per carry.
In some aspects, this could be the toughest test the Saints run defense has faced since going against Dallas’ DeMarco Murray in Week 4. Murray finished with 149 rushing yards.
Bell averages 2.54 yards per carry after first contact — third-best among running backs, according to Pro Football Focus — and has induced 35 missed tackles this season. That’s bad news for a defense that has missed 97 tackles.
Bell is at his best when he goes to the left side of the field. Going left of the line, he has picked up 267 yards on 47 carries (5.7 per attempt), and he has 13 carries for 96 yards (7.4) when going to the left sideline.
He also has been effective going to the right, where he has 294 yards on 63 carries (4.7-yard average) and 11 carries for 98 yards (8.9) to the right sideline. Going up the middle, he has 196 yards on 61 carries (3.2).
For the Saints to have any success against the Steelers, they’re going to have to find a way to minimize Bell’s impact. Not only is he difficult to stop, but he also opens up play-action attempts for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
And it’s worth noting that Roethlisberger has completed 60 of 87 passes for 680 yards with eight touchdowns and just one interception following a play-action fake this season.
Know your opponent: Steelers LB James Harrison
Remember when James Harrison was retired and most of us thought he couldn’t play anymore? Recalibrate your expectations.
Out of retirement and back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harrison has been one of the most effective players on his team’s defense.
Despite playing about half of the team’s snaps each week, the 36-year-old has recorded four sacks, 13 quarterback hurries and seven hits over the past eight games. He also has been a force in the run defense, recording 16 stops.
In other words, he’s a problem the New Orleans offensive line is going to have to deal with.
The rest of the Steelers front also knows how to get the job done. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has been the most active pass rusher on this team and currently has four sacks and 25 hurries. Linebacker Jason Worilds is next with 3½ sacks, 18 hurries and 12 hits.
This isn’t the most daunting front in the NFL, but considering how the New Orleans offensive line has struggled lately, particularly Monday night against Baltimore, they’ll need to step it up against Pittsburgh. And that task starts with containing a player who wasn’t even supposed to be around.
OUT: RB Khiry Robinson (forearm), LB Kyle Knox (hand)
-- Robinson is set to miss his sixth consecutive game since hurting his forearm in an Oct. 19 loss at Detroit. Knox is set to miss his fourth game this year due to injury — the past two have been his hand.
PROBABLE: G Ben Grubbs (neck), C Jonathan Goodwin (toe), RB Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder), WR Robert Meachem (ankle), LB Curtis Lofton (ankle), CB Keenan Lewis (knee)
-- Meachem seems poised to return to the lineup after missing the past four games. He was a full participant at practice this week. In his absence, Nick Toon and Joseph Morgan saw an increase in usage in the offense.
OUT: DT Steve McClendon (shoulder), CB Cortez Allen (thumb)
QUESTIONABLE: T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), LB Ryan Shazier (ankle)
PROBABLE: CB Ike Taylor (forearm), S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring), WR Martavis Bryant (illness)
Three and out
1. MORE MORGAN: Wide receiver Joe Morgan broke out a bit last week with a pair of big plays. Can he keep the momentum going this week and figure more prominently into the game plan?
2. CORNERBACK ALIGNMENT: New Orleans shuffled the deck last week by having Patrick Robinson start opposite Keenan Lewis at cornerback. Will Robinson remain in that role, or will the Saints turn back to White?
3. BUNKLEY DOWN: Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley won’t be on the field this week after suffering a quad injury last week, sending him to injured reserve. It’s another hole the Saints have to patch.
Ramon Antonio Vargas: Steelers 31, Saints 20
If it’s going to get better for the Saints, that’ll happen after it gets worse. The Steelers’ fifth-ranked offense is too much of a mismatch for the Saints’ 27th-ranked defense. While I see a proud New Orleans team ready to put up a fight, I don’t see how it avoids losing for the 10th time in 12 road trips.
Nick Underhill: Steelers 27, Saints 24
Part of me wants to say there is no way the Saints lose four in a row. This team is too talented to continue dropping games like that. On the other hand, this team needs to prove it can figure out how to win games again before I’m willing to pick them to win.
Scott Rabalais: Steelers 30, Saints 21
The Steelers are perfectly capable of turning to rust on any given week, but better odds are on Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown lighting up the Saints’ makeshift secondary like a Christmas bonfire on the levee. It’s time for realism, not panic, and the Saints can still keep their eyes on the NFC South prize, though this time they come up short.