October 31, 2010

Saints win Halloween slugfest in Dome, 20-10 over Steelers

The Saints defense has been doing its job all season long.  On Halloween night with a national audience on NBC Sunday Night Football, the Saints offense rose up against the league's best defense.  As Voodoo Fest wrapped up in New Orleans, the Saints and Steelers slugged out a hard-hitting battle in the Superdome.



The Steelers, the best defense in the league in points allowed, fought the Saints hard and got to Brees multiple times.  Dick Lebeau's defense was "fast and physical," the words of the Saints' hard-hit but victorious quarterback after the game. 

The Saints ran out of cornerbacks twice during this game.  After losing starting rookie Patrick Robinson to an ankle injury early in the game, the Saints were down to just one - veteran Leigh Torrence who has been on and off the roster so far this season.  Torrence was knocked out of the game twice following hard hits, but came up with big hits of his own and delivered a knockout punch at the end of the game. 

Torrence collected his first NFL interception on a pass to the sideline by a Roethlisberger, an ill-advised throw he made while jumping back and being harassed by DE Will Smith.  Torrence leapt and out-muscled WR Mike Wallace for the ball, ripping it away from his grasp and returning the ball 21 yards to the Steeler 31. 

Torrence sealed a 10-point advantage for the Saints inside the two minute warning.  Brees kneeled away the final 1:40 of the game, to a costumed sellout crowd's delight.

But Torrence's big play wasn't the only big play by the Saints defense, who played a marvelous game.  Minutes prior, with the Saints up 13-10, another key backup player Marvin Mitchell put his right arm onto the ball in TE Heath Miller's arms, popping it out and right into the hands of FS Darren Sharper, who collected his first turnover of the season.  Sharper's return to the Saint 45 lead to the Saints' lead-stretching touchdown drive.

Brees took over following Sharper's fumble recovery and was perfect, hitting all six pass attempts and absorbing an obvious roughing the pass call against head-hunting Steelers LB James Harrison.  Brees' final pass over the middle found a leaping Lance Moore in the middle of a host of Steelers, and the electric receiver hauled it in for a commanding 20-10 lead.

The game started slowly, both team exchanging punts through the first half, which ended with the game tied  3-3.  But those were hard-fought points.

The Steelers' three came after Sean Payton shrewdly challenged a third down touchdown reception by Antwan Randle El, who caught the ball at the Saint 3 and dove for the goal line, where Torrence was there getting low and delivering a momentum-reversing hit.  Reply review put the ball at the inch line, so Payton's challenge only resulted what would usually be only a small victory. 

But Payton's challenge would pay off.  The Saints stuffed RB Isaac Redman and RB Reshard Mendenhall on three straight plays, a huge goal line stand that set the tone for the rest of the night. 

The Steelers had the momentum through most of the second quarter, having not allowed Brees and the offense past their own 46 yard line.  With 2:29 left in the half, the Saints were battered by a ten yard loss on a sack Harrison, who blasted Brees.  On the next play, Brees fired deep for Devery Henderson and was picked by New Orleans native CB Ike Taylor.

Setting up at the Saints' 36, Roethlisberger looked to grow his team's lead.  He moved the Steelers to the Saint 23 and then fired into the end zone for Hines Ward, where Torrence was there again to deliver a vicious hit to Ward's back to break up the pass.  Officials made a good call to flag Ward for offensive pass interference on the play, as Ward pushed off on covering safety Pierson Prioleau. 

Roethlisberger then fired incomplete three times, including one batted down by DE Will Smith who was in the middle of the action all night long, another big defensive stand for the Gregg Williams' unit.  Jeff Reed's 51-yard field goal attempt slipped outside the left goal post.

Brees pounced on the good field position with 1:11 left in the half.  He hit Shockey for nine yards and Henderson for 13 before an iffy holding call against RT Jonathan Stinchcomb nullified a 12-yard completion to the Steeler 25.  But on 2nd and 20, Brees went right back at Colston, finding him behind his coverage and up the right sideline for a 27 yard gain.  After a missed opportunity on a pass to Shockey, Ladell Betts ran for seven yards up the middle and the Saints called their final timeout.  Betts then dropped a pass over the middle with 16 seconds left that might have killed the half, a fortunate gaffe for his usually reliable hands. 

With 12 seconds left, the Saints lined up for a field goal but then broke formation, with placeholder mobile Chase Daniel, the backup quarterback, dropping into shotgun as the Saints spread the formation.  The Steelers adjusted, but their head coach called a timeout.  The Saints lined up again and kicked the 31-yard field goal, Hartley connecting to tie the game and send the teams to the locker room tied at three.

The Saints took a 6-3 lead on their opening possession of the second half, but those points were not easy either.  The Saints started with a good return by Courtney Roby to the Saint 44, an 18-yard gain on a pass to Lance Moore, an 11-yard run by Julius Jones, and a pass interference call in the end zone drawn by Moore.

Then the Steelers defense returned the favor with a huge goal line stand of their own.  On first and goal at the one yard line, Brees overthrew a flat-footed, 6'7" tackle-eligible Zach Strief, open in the end zone.  The Steelers then stuffed the Saints for a loss on two rush attempts.  Hartley's 23-yard field goal was good for the 6-3 lead, but the Steelers defense had prevented more damage. 

On the following kickoff, the Saints almost jumped on a loose fumble coughed up by kick returner Emmanuel Sanders, but Redman fell on the loose ball after at least three Saints missed attempts to cover it up.  Hartley was one of those Saints, and he was rocked by a heavy hit by two Steelers.  He managed to return despite getting off the field slowly.

The teams then exchanged punts before Brees got his offense in gear, hitting six of six passing attempts including a back-shoulder, front pylon strike to Colston who dove across the goal line from 16-yards out.  The Saints tried some trickery on the play with a double-reverse play, designed for Colston to attempt his first NFL pass to a deep-running Robert Meachem, the only receiver out in the pattern.  The Steelers defense didn't bite, and Colston instead pulled up and slid forward for a one-yard gain. 

That 13-3 lead would be short-lived, as Roethlisberger fired three straight completions for 9, 12, and 9 yards before Reshard Mendenhall broke free and scored on a run from 38 yards out, beating Darren Sharper to the edge. 

Up 13-10, Brees would hit Meachem for a 50-yard gain on the next drive but CB Bryant McFadden rushed the quarterback untouched and slammed Brees to the turf, forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered at their own 27.  Three plays later, Sharper would recover Miller's fumble.

After a hugely disappointing performance against Rob Ryan's 3-4 Cleveland defense, Brees came up huge against the vaunted Steeler attack.  He was sacked twice, was picked and lost a fumble, but in the second half Brees completed 18 of 22 passes for 191 yards and two scores.  Brees hit nine different receivers on the day, and got big performances from three of his receivers, with Lance Moore (6/54 TD), Robert Meachem (6/76) and Colston (6/75 TD) enjoying big games.  Colston had an early drop but won individual matchups in the second half to get open. 

Brees finished a 34/44, completing a fantastic 77% of his passes 305 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, a 101.0 quarterback rating. 

The Saints won with a pathetic rush attack against the Steelers defense, with newcomer veteran Julius Jones leading the way with seven carries for 16 yards.  The Saints managed just 32 yards on 18 attempts, but credit Payton for dialing up 12 of those attempts in the second half.  The Saints last week abandoned the run game against the Browns, rushing only five times in the second half.

Leigh Torrence, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma led the way for a big day on the Saints defense.  Free safeties Usama Young and starter Malcolm Jenkins played a lot of cornerback.  The good news is that both Young and Jenkins started their careers at cornerback.  The bad news was that both of them started their careers at cornerback, and were moved to safety as a result of their struggles. 

A gutsy performance by Torrence, the Stanford alum who has been with the Saints through thick and thin since 2008, was pivotal tonight.  He wound up starting at cornerback with Robinson out, but still played his regular special teams duties. Torrence's tackling skills are above average and he helped the Saints defense counterpunch, despite being briefly knocked out of the game twice, once on defense and once on special teams.  

Despite progress made towards their injuries during the week, the Saints were without Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, four crucial players in the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV run last season.  Losing Randall Gay to concussion problems and the ankle injury of undetermined severity to Robinson have left the Saints at cornerback with Torrence and converted safeties at the position.  Robinson had x-ray exams during the game that showed no broken bones.

The crowd of 70,011 broke the Guinness World Record for largest costume party, with a judge from the organization onsite who determined that at least 17,777 fans were "in costume" for the Halloween night event.

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