Steelers Readying for Another Hall of Fame QB

From Brady to Brees, Pittsburgh looks to take strong defensive play on road

Josh Rowntree
December 20, 2018 - 4:13 pm
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks to pass while under pressure by Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (90) in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

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144,349. It’s a big number. It’s also how many passing yards Tom Brady and Drew Brees have, combined. 

After slaying the Brady dragon and the New England Patriots Sunday, the Steelers will now look for a repeat performance against the NFL’s all-time passing leader in Brees. 

“It’s exciting,” Pittsburgh cornerback Mike Hilton said. “It’s something defenses look forward to. We know we’re playing two of the top five quarterbacks (of all-time) in the last two weeks, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us. You want to compete against the best and show how good of a defense you are. We’ve got another opportunity this week.”

The 39-year-old Brees is having an MVP caliber season, passing for 31 touchdowns and just five interceptions, leading the Saints to the NFC’s top spot with a 12-2 record. 

“Brees is the person who runs the engine over there,” Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt said. “You can totally tell by how he puts everybody in position to let them make great plays. They have two good backs and they make great plays when they have the opportunity to have the ball in their hands. Our goal is to stop the run and put the ball in Brees’ hands.”

And Brees’ weapons are legitimate, but a bit different than what the Steelers saw from Brady and New England. The Saints start their offense with a pair of talented running backs in second-year speedster Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram. 

On the year, Kamara has run for 860 yards, caught 77 passes for 627 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. In the passing game, New Orleans features one of the game’s best pass-catchers in Michael Thomas, who has 109 catches for 1267 yards and eight scores. 

“Kamara, coming out of the backfield, being able to spread him out, he’s like a receiver,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “And then, with Michael Thomas, he’s just a good dude. He’s a volume catcher, he gets a lot of balls. So we’ve got to be aware of those two dudes at all times. 

“Drew Brees, he puts the ball right where it’s supposed to be.”

Haden, who is coming off an AFC Defensive Player of the Week performance against New England, in which he made 12 tackles and intercepted Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, will likely see a matchup with Thomas. 

“He’s a physical receiver, he runs good routes and, at the same time, he’s working with a good quarterback. When you have somebody that can throw you open, it’s kind of tough.”

The Steelers have struggled, all season, to force turnovers. But the biggest play of the year, arguably, is Haden’s interception on Brady. And now he, and the rest of the defense, is hoping the turnover flood gates open.

“I expect them in bunches,” Haden said. “We expect to just keep getting our hands on passes. If we do touch them, make sure that we come down with it and then ball search. We feel like that’s definitely something that helped us in the game and we know turnovers are special. So it’s something we’re working towards.

“We have to be opportunistic. If the balls gets to us, make sure we catch it and if they do catch the ball, try to strip it out, try to punch it out. Get to the quarterback, cause sack-strip fumbles. Every way we can get after the ball, we have to get after it.”

The Saints are almost untouchable at home. Since losing to Tampa Bay in the opening week of the season, New Orleans has won their last five games at Mercedes Benz Superdome. Brees has led them to at least 31 points in the last four games at home, as well.

“It’s one of the better home field advantages in the League,” said Hilton, who played in the Superdome for the Sugar Bowl game while with Ole Miss. “We know our crowd is going to be out there loud and rowdy, so we’ve got to take that energy and use it.”

Throw in early December’s loss to Philip Rivers and the Chargers, in addition to back-to-back games against Brady and Brees, and the Steelers will have faced three first ballot Hall of Famer passers in the last four weeks. So can the defense take its strong play from the New England game on the road is yet to be determined.

“These two quarterbacks we’re facing have probably seen everything that you could probably throw at them,” Tuitt said. “This isn’t a ‘trick them’ kind of team. We have to line up and play good football against a good team.”