It wasn't over until the final minute, and Drew Brees and the Saints gave the defending champs all they could handle.
But Willie Parker triggered a Pittsburgh attack that roughed up the Saints defense, and the Saints offense made a handful of critical errors surrounded by Steeler-confounding brilliance.
QB Ben Roethlisberger was off target and pressured throughout the day, but found Hines Ward and Heath Miller for two quick scores in the first quarter. The Steelers took the opening kickoff down the field with a catch and run by Ward, who was lost by past starter Jason Craft and then outran Curtis DeLoatch for a touchdown. Then, backup tight end Billy Miller fumbled Brees' first completion, and the cashed it in eight plays later with a short pass to TE Heath Miller. Up 14-0 midway in the first quarter, the Steelers were riding high a wave of momentum.
But Drew Brees hadn't had his say yet. The confident young veteran cooly moved his team down the field and hit WR Terrance Copper, starting for the injured Joe Horn, for a diving low touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. Brees had hit Copper deep over the middle for a 22 yard gain earlier in the drive, and the former Cowboy who followed head coach Sean Payton to New Orleans was on his way to get 92 of Brees' 398 yards passing.
The Saints defense forced a punt in the second quarter, then Brees went back to work in near-freezing Pittsburgh, hitting rookie WR Marques Colston for gains of 22, 10, and 15 yards. Brees passed six straight times in that drive, including a fourth-and-two conversion to Colston and throwing three straight times with down-to-goal, before John Carney hit a 20-yard field goal to pull the Saints to 14-10.
The Saints defense, missing Fred Thomas but triggered by big performances by Charles Grant (4 tackles, batted down pass) and LB Scott Shanle (8 tackles, sack, hurry), forced a three and out and the Saints took the field again. Aided by a 28-yard gain to Colston and a questionable roughing the passer call on Aaron Smith, Reggie Bush finished off the drive by taking the reverse pitch from Colston, picking up a couple blocks on the edge then covering the final few yards of ground in the air. Cover-page photographs caught Bush leaping and crossing the goal line inverted, skying above Steelers defenders, rolling the fall and putting the Saints ahead with a fist pump just before the two minute warning.
The Steelers took another minute off the clock but couldn't punch it into the end zone after a 46-yard catch and run by Santonio Holmes. The field goal tied the game back up at 17 with a minute left to go. Brees moved the Saints back down the field with ease, hitting Aaron Stecker, Colston and Colston again before Deuce McAllister punched it in from four yards out to put the Saints up 24-17 at the half.
The Saints came out productive again, with first downs by Reggie Bush on the ground and Copper in the air. But an unnecessary roughness penalty on Jahri Evans, for leveling a Steelers defender a moment too late after the play, set up a Saints punt. The Steelers responded with a drive to the Saint 18 but missed a field goal.
Brees came back by hitting Colston again for 12, but Reggie Bush fumbled on the next play, after a six yard gain. Payton challenged the play, but it was clear that Bush fumbled after being hit low. QB Ben Roethlisberger hit Cedrick Wilson on the next play when the receiver slipped by Jason Craft and Josh Bullocks, who each let Wilson by.
New Orleans followed up one drive ended by mistake with another. Brees hit Bush for 13 and Copper for 32 on the drive, but stalled and Carney lined up for a 32-yard field goal that sailed wide left. The game remained tied at 24-24 entering the fourth quarter.
Then, Willie Parker woke up. The former undrafted free agent had only 43 yards on the ground before the final plays of the third quarter, when he gained 85 yards on four carries including a 72-yarder where Mike McKenzie chased him down for a fingertip tackle that only delayed Parker's touchdown. Parker scored on a four-yard sweep on the first play of the fourth quarter, giving the home team and the defending champions a lead they wouldn't give up.
The Saints tried to respond to Parker but Brees, who threw the ball 47 times on Sunday, couldn't convert a 3rd and 6 when Marques Colston was knocked off balance by an evading referee. Set up at their own 20, the Steelers needed three plays to extend their lead: an incomplete pass, a 76-yard dash by Parker and a four-yard score by Parker, whose 213 yards were gained almost entirely in the second half against a gassed Saints defense playing in subfreezing wind chill.
But the most interesting play of the game was yet to come. Down by two touchdowns, again, Brees led the Saints back into the game with a flick of his non-throwing hand. Scrambling to his right, Brees directed Aaron Stecker, running man-on-man, deep downfield where he hit the Saints' third string runningback for a 48 yard bomb down to the Pittsburgh 21. Stecker didn't have a carry but caught three passes for 78 yards, often lining up as a wide receiver. Brees then hit Marques Colston for 13 yards, and picked up half the distance on a defensive offsides penalty. Brees tossed incomplete to TE Mark Campbell in the corner of the end zone.
Then, on second and four, Brees went under center with Deuce McAllister in the singleback set. The snap somehow exited underneath center Jeff Faine past Brees' feet, one-hopping its way fortunately to McAllister. While Brees looked down in the pile of the offensive line, ostensibly for the ball, Deuce ran off left tackle into the end zone, diving through two of the few players who knew where the ball was for a touchdown.
Down by only a touchdown, the Saints defense needed one good stop to get the ball back to the offense with only minutes left. They delivered, allowing Hines Ward a 17-yard completion but bottling up Parker on three carries. Then on 3rd and 7, DE Charles Grant made a fantastic play, swimming past two blockers to trip up Najeh Davenport for a short gain on after a dumpoff pass. The Steelers punted, giving the Saints the ball with 4:31 left.
Brees started off by handing it to McAllister, who picked up a first down on two carries. Mark Campbell caught a five yard pass on third down for one conversion, then Brees had a nifty, weaving six yard scramble for another conversion. With under a minute left, the Saints were at the Steeler 45 with a timeout left. And they might have continued down the field, but the same man who kicked off scoring for the Saints on the day ended it. Terrance Copper caught a 20-yard post but coughed up the ball when he was hit low by Steelers S Tyrone Carter. Copper crawled for the ball but Ryan Clark of the Steelers cradled it while Copper clawed for it and Carter laid injured on the turf.
But Carter was ok, and the Steelers had the ball and only one kneel by Roethlisberger to escape with the victory.
QB Drew Brees was almost unstoppable on the day, completing 31 of 47 passes for 398 yards and a touchdown while using his legs to pick up some crucial late yardage. It was the second time in three weeks that Brees had a passing yardage performance that was the second best single-game performance in team history. His 31 completions is tied for third best in team history, while his season-to-date completion percentage is tops in team history. Brees is on pace for 4629 yards, which would smash the current team season record by over 600 yards.
6'4 5/8" WR Marques Colston had 10 for 169 yards and was almost uncoverable by the smaller Steeler defenders. Colston has 292 yards in the past two games. RB Deuce McAllister had 60 yards on 15 carries including two short touchdowns. RB Reggie Bush rushed 10 times for 49 yards and caught seven passes for 40 yards, adding another seven yards on a punt return. Bush's 15 yard touchdown run in the second quarter was his second pro touchdown, and his first on offense.
QB Ben Roethlisberger was 17/28 for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Strongside linebacker Scott Shanle and reserve DT Antwan Lake collected sacks on Roethlisberger. The Steelers committed no turnovers, while the Saints lost three fumbles, certainly the deciding factor of the day.
The Saints collected 29 first downs and were 10 of 16 on third down and one-for-one on fourth down, and outgained the Steelers 517 to 467, but the Steelers outgained the Saints 217 to 124 on the ground.
Rookie punter Steve Weatherford, one of the many crucial rookie contributors to this team, punted twice, downing one inside the 10 and another placed inside the five. But on the second punt, Weatherford's punt bounced backwards at the one yard line but Bryan Scott couldn't corral the ball and it bounced into the end zone.
WR Joe Horn (groin) and CB Fred Thomas (hamstring) were inactive on the day, as was reserve TE Nate Lawrie (back) and special teams captain Steve Gleason.
The Steelers rise to 3-6 while the Saints fall to 6-3 and one game ahead in the NFC South.