Give the Steelers credit. They won their battle against Jimmy Graham.
Few teams in the NFL have figured out how to erase the New Orleans tight end from a game, but Pittsburgh accomplished that by expending its resources on ensuring Graham never became a factor in the Saints’ 35-32 win Sunday at Heinz Field.
They were physical with him at the line of scrimmage and within the legal bump zone. When he escaped those areas, Graham often found himself being bracketed by a safety and a linebacker or cornerback.
Overall, Graham ran 18 pass routes. He drew double coverage on nine of those, was jammed out of the play twice at the line of scrimmage, and was covered individually by a cornerback six other times.
The approach worked in slowing Graham, but it often left the defense short a safety, meaning everyone else was left in single coverage. And Drew Brees took advantage.
While it resulted in an incompletion on a third-and-6 play with 5:16 remaining in the first quarter, the Steelers bracketed Graham with a cornerback and safety, allowing Kenny Stills to get wide open in the middle of the field.
Then, in the second quarter, with a linebacker and safety covering Graham, tight end Ben Watson was able to beat linebacker James Harrison for a wide-open touchdown after the safety incorrectly chose to defend Graham.
On another second-quarter play, Graham was covered by a cornerback, leaving linebacker Lawrence Timmons to match up with Marques Colston. The deep safety realized this and came down to help, which left Kenny Stills one-on-one with his man on the sideline. Brees spotted him and connected for a 44-yard gain.
It was likely a frustrating day for Graham, but by simply being on the field and drawing so much attention, he opened things up for the rest of the offense. He was a zero on the stat sheet, but he was much more than that on film.
3.5 out of 4
Brees had his most efficient performance of the season. He never became rattled when Graham wasn’t available, picked his spots, and seemingly always found the open man. Any lingering questions about Brees’ arm strength should now be put to rest. He had his best outing of the season in this regard, connecting on four of seven passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air. Some of that, beyond how Graham was covered, can be attributed to Brees’ being provided solid protection. He took an average of 2.76 seconds to throw Sunday, which might be the most time he’s been afforded this season. Brees’ best throw, which took a lot of intestinal fortitude because he was hit soon after he released the ball, was an 18-yard strike to Stills on the sideline during the fourth quarter that arrived just beyond the arms of Ike Taylor.
3 out of 4
Surprising that Stills registered only 25 snaps yet had such a big impact on the game. His best moment came on his 69-yard touchdown when he made Taylor lose his footing on a double move. Stills showed what he can do when given single coverage and the time to get open deep.
-- Not a bad game for Colston. He used his big frame to score an easy touchdown and had a couple other positive moments, but he dropped another pass, giving him seven this season. That number is simply too high for the nine-year veteran that he is.
-- Nick Toon ran some crisp routes as the “X” receiver, or the one split out the widest. His numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but he appears to be doing his job and is where he is supposed to be on the field. There’s a reason the coaching staff gave him 29 snaps, second-most behind Colston’s 39.
-- Graham deserves credit for his blocking. He had two nice moments when he protected Brees’ blindside by laying down safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Jason Worilds.
-- Joe Morgan also had some positive moments blocking in the screen game.
3 out of 4
Another good game by Mark Ingram, who rushed 23 times for 122 yards (his second-highest total of the season). He gained 36 of those yards on seven carries running behind the outside zone-blocking scheme. The big outing this week can be credited to the offensive line opening up holes for him to run through.
3 out of 4
Everything that happened Sunday — and on most Sundays — begins with the offensive line. Want to know why Brees was able to throw deep? The line held strong, allowing him to be pressured only five times and sacked once. That’s the difference — and those numbers are more impressive considering Pittsburgh tried to blitz nearly 20 times.
-- Terron Armstead (two), Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, and Jonathan Goodwin are each on the hook for a pressure. Goodwin also surrendered a sack.
-- Grubbs had some issues in run blocking, allowing two stuffs, including one for a loss of 4 yards.
-- There were, however, several good moments in run blocking. One of the best came on a 15-yard run by Ingram up the middle in which Evans, Goodwin, and Strief worked together to open up a hole.
3 out of 4
Junior Galette is making a strong case to be the defensive MVP of this team. No one is more active than him on a weekly basis, and that continued to be true during Sunday’s game. The pass rusher had at least five pressures, the most impressive of which occurred with 6:15 remaining in the first quarter when he bull-rushed Kelvin Beachum and then pulled down Ben Roethlisberger right after he threw a ball that fell incomplete.
-- Cam Jordan said last week that he was looking to be more productive. He answered the bell. The defensive end had four hurries, a sack and one of the more impressive interceptions of the season when he tipped a pass to himself. The Saints need this Jordan to show up each week if the defense hopes to get back on track.
-- Productive game for Tyrunn Walker, who had four hurries, one of which came when he bull rushed a guard into Roethlisberger to force an incompletion on third-and-6. He was pinned too often in the running game, but an overall solid performance.
-- John Jenkins. who was starting in place of Brodrick Bunkley (out for the season with an injured quad), was strong in the run game. If he can keep absorbing blockers, and then shedding them to make tackles, like he did Sunday, New Orleans should be fine at this position.
1.5 out of 4
It was a rough day for Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Lofton, who has been one of the better performers on defense, struggled against both the pass and run, despite recording one pressure as a blitzer. Hawthorne, meanwhile, was solid against the run and recorded five stuffs, but he could not keep up with Steelers running back LeVeon Bell in coverage.
2.5 out of 4
It appeared the plan early in the game was to have the No. 2 cornerback, which was mostly Patrick Robinson, match up with the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, Antonio Brown, with a safety helping over the top. On the other side of the field, Keenan Lewis was tasked with shutting down the No. 2 receiver. For the most part, the plan worked, as Brown caught eight passes for 97 yards. However, four those receptions and 31 yards came in the fourth quarter after the game was already out of hand.
-- There’s a reason cornerbacks aren’t wide receivers. That became plainly obvious Sunday as Robinson dropped three interceptions and Corey White another. That shouldn’t be taken as a knock. Robinson, who started opposite Lewis, had his best game of the season. Those dropped interceptions count as pass breakups. One came in the end zone on a pass to Brown, and Robinson later broke up another pass.
-- Roethlisberger had no business throwing the pass that was intercepted by Kenny Vaccaro, but credit the safety for reading the pass and putting himself in position to pick it off. Vaccaro also had a couple of nice open-field tackles.
-- Pierre Warren’s tackling needs work. However, he did a decent job in coverage.
2.5 out of 4
Thomas Morstead had a good day punting the ball. His last two punts, which were downed inside the 20-yard line, were as good as he’s been all season. Morstead’s six punts had an average of 4.58 seconds of hang time and averaged 48.5 yards. Pittsburgh returned two punts, one of which went 13 yards. New Orleans did not return a punt, though it appeared Jalen Saunders could have fielded one if he were more aggressive.