PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t perfect. Not even close. The finish was soft, and there were some situations when fundamentals were sorely lacking.
Still, it might have been the New Orleans Saints’ best win of the season.
You could argue the Green Bay win was more impressive or that the Saints played better in a number of other games — both in wins and losses — but Sunday’s 35-32 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field was desperately needed.
Coming into Sunday, the Saints had lost three consecutive games at home, losing sight of the basic fundamentals necessary to succeed. They were very much a team on the brink, only being kept alive by the wildly underachieving NFC South.
Things had grown so bad that three separate reports emerged before the game stating New Orleans was interested in signing running back Ray Rice, that an unmanageable rift between head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had emerged and that the Saints regretted not drafting a quarterback to serve under Drew Brees, who has disappointed and was struggling with declining arm strength.
The vultures were circling over New Orleans’ carcass.
Then the game started, and slowly the Saints silenced that perceived dysfunction and moved on to addressing the criticisms they’ve faced this season. Yes, this team has answered the bell at various times this season, only to regress into deeper despair. But on the road, against a team like the Steelers, this time it feels like the Saints might have finally located a building block.
“First off, it was a playoff-caliber team; they’ve beat a lot of good teams this year,” pass-rusher Junior Galette said. “It didn’t matter who it was, but the fact that it was the Steelers — I saw a stat that said we haven’t beaten them at their house since ’87. We just needed a win coming off a three-game losing streak in the Dome. It was good, man. Now we got the fans back on our side.”
Looking at the statistics, it’s hard to classify this one as an overwhelming triumph. Pittsburgh gained 538 yards, scored 30 points and held New Orleans to 393 yards.
On paper, it looks like the Steelers dominated the game and the Saints somehow managed to steal a few opportunities and outlasted them to the bell. But, as Payton said after the win, “If you were at the game, you would look at it” as a strong performance by New Orleans.
There was almost a sense of desperation by the defense. The Saints struggled to contain running back Le’Veon Bell at first, allowing him to gain 71 yards in the first quarter, but they locked down and began forcing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into poor decisions.
Bell only gained 24 more yards on the ground (though he had 159 in the passing game), and Roethlisberger (32-of-58, 435 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), who appeared to injure his hand in the first half, fell into a funk that created a number of opportunities for the defense to make plays. The bulk of those were not converted, including at least three opportunities for interceptions by cornerback Patrick Robinson, but the team did manage to make him pay twice.
The first interception came late in the second quarter, when Kenny Vaccaro managed to put himself in position to pick off a deep pass intended for receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in the end zone. New Orleans took over at the 20-yard line and proceeded to turn the interception into an Erik Lorig touchdown catch that put the Saints up 14-6.
The next interception came on Pittsburgh’s first possession of the third quarter, when defensive end Cam Jordan came off the edge, batted a Roethlisberger pass in the air and then pulled it in before being brought down at the 15-yard line. Two plays later, Brees found Nick Toon near the sideline; he spun out of two tackles and into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, making it 21-6.
Entering the game, New Orleans had scored only 38 points off takeaways. The change in fortune was welcomed by the offense.
“Anytime you can get a short field (after a turnover), those are huge,” Brees said. “We’ve had some this year where it’s in our own end zone, so we get the ball at the 20 and so you still have to march 80 yards, and yet there’s this feeling of an opportunity. Obviously the one where we get the ball inside their 20-yard line and plays later we’re in the end zone — that’s a quick strike. That’s a big factor in a game.”
The performance marked the seventh time Brees (19-of-27, 257 yards) has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception, the most in NFL history. More important is that New Orleans finally seemed to figure out how to connect on deep passes — something that has plagued it this season.
On Sunday, Brees connected on six passes of 15 or more yards. Four of those went to Kenny Stills (five catches, 162 yards). The highlight of the day was when he got open down the right sideline in the third quarter on a double move for a 69-yard touchdown that gave the Saints a 28-13 lead.
Part of the reason this was possible was that Pittsburgh expended so much energy trying to erase tight end Jimmy Graham from the game. The Steelers were successful at that, holding the tight end without a catch or even a target, but it opened up the deep portion of the field for players like Stills.
“They were trying to double-team Jimmy on third down,” said Stills, who had receptions of 69 and 44 yards on third down. “I don’t know about first and second, but for sure on third that’s one of our premier passing downs. They were trying to double-team him, and it left everyone else with one-on-one coverage.”
It was almost an improbable win. No one would have believed the Saints could go on the road and win a game without Graham recording a catch. Most didn’t believe the Saints could win this game regardless.
“We need to get stronger,” Vaccaro said, referencing the 19 points New Orleans surrendered in the fourth quarter. “They drove the ball a little bit that last quarter. We did everything the same. It was just guys doing their job.”
But now guys are doing their job, and the Saints believe they can get back on track.
After their recent rough stretch, that’s more important than anything — even if the Saints didn’t perfectly land the finish.