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Behind Enemy Lines: What to expect from the Saints vs. the Steelers in Week 3 of the NFL preseason

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In preparation for the Steelers vs. Saints preseason game in the Big Easy, we spent some time with Canal Street Chronicle's contributor JR Ella to talk about the matchup from the other side of the fence.

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The preseason continues to drag along as the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints will play in a relatively meaningless exhibition in New Orleans Friday night at 8:00 p.m. EDT. With the Steelers facing another NFC opponent, and it being the "final dress reherasal" for starters, we got to spend some time learning about what to expect from this Saints team as they make the cross-state trip to Pittsburgh.

We sat down with Canal Street Chronicle's (SB Nation's Saints site) contributor JR Ella to talk about the upcoming matchup, and even had him try to give us a prediction for the preseason game.

The Steelers plan on playing their starters for the first part of the first half of the game Friday, how are the Saints approaching this game with their starters, especially Drew Brees?

Throughout his tenure in New Orleans, coach Payton has usually played his starters for the length of the first quarter up to a full half in the third preseason game. So far this preseason, Drew Brees has thrown a grand total of nine passes, completing six of them with no touchdowns and an interception. Although Brees doesn't really need preseason to be ready for the games that count, it is likely that Sean Payton will want his quarterback to get in a little bit of a groove against the Steelers before likely sitting out the fourth preseason game. I expect Brees to play all of the first quarter, and maybe even a series or two in the second quarter, depending on how successful, or not, the offense has been after 15 minutes of play.

The Saints had a disappointing 2015 season. What are the expectations for the upcoming season? If they fail to reach the playoffs is Sean Payton officially on the hot seat?

Somewhat quietly, Sean Payton is one of the highest paid coaches in the entire NFL. That inevitably adds some pressure on a coach whose team has now missed the playoffs two years in a row after a very successful run from 2006 to 2013. Because of the combination of these facts, if the Saints do not reach the playoffs this year, Payton's seat might get quite hot indeed. And if the season is an abysmal failure, I wouldn't even completely put it past owner Tom Benson to show Payton the door. But we're obviously far from that right now. The expectations for the upcoming season are to get to the postseason at a minimum, because both the organization, and the fan base alike, believe that with Brees and Payton at the helm, winning the division is never out of the question. Once in "The Tournament," everything then becomes possible.

The Saints' roster has changed a lot since their Super Bowl win. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses for the 2016 team?

Saying that the Saints roster has changed since the Super Bowl win is quite an understatement. Of the players from that 2009 squad who played a significant role, only Drew Brees, right tackle Zach Strief and safety Roman Harper (who came back to the team this offseason) remain. So the player turnover has been significant, and with it has come a lot of inconsistency. As long as Payton and Brees are with the team, the strength of the Saints is always the offense and notably the passing game. This year it's not going to be any different, with weapons like wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and rookie Mike Thomas, or newly-acquired tight end Coby Fleener who should flourish in Payton's passing system. The big, glaring weakness is the defense, at pretty much every level. The pass rush is mediocre, the linebacking corps either too old or inexperienced and the secondary was abysmal last season. Despite some improvements on that side of the ball this offseason, defense is not going to be what the Saints will count on to win games in 2016.

Can you give us one offensive player to keep an eye on which Steelers fans might not already know?

For those Steelers fans who (like me) do not play fantasy football, keep an eye on wide receiver Willie Snead. An undrafted free agent signee of the Cleveland Browns in 2014, Snead exploded in Payton's offense last year and was behind only Brandin Cooks and Ben Watson in both targets (101), receptions (69) and touchdowns (3). Snead also had 984 receiving yards, second only to Cooks (1138). He may not be a household name just yet, but Willie Snead is the next Lance Moore (in his prime) for the Saints. As a bonus, keep an eye on rookie wide receiver Mike Thomas out of Ohio State. After turning heads in camp and in the first two preseason games, Thomas is already being tabbed as the next dynamic wide receiver to emerge from the Payton/Brees combo, a la Marques Colston.

Can you give us one defensive player to keep an eye on which Steelers fans might not already know?

The Saints recently released oft-injured cornerback Keenan Lewis, whom you are undoubtedly quite familiar with. His potential replacement is P.J. Williams, whom the Saints drafted in the third round last year out of Florida State. Williams was expected to contribute early, but a knee injury kept him out all of last year. So far this offseason, Williams has shown enough promise to be considered as a possible starter opposite second-year cornerback Delvin Breaux. It is quite likely that Big Ben or whoever throws the ball for the Steelers tonight will go after Williams just to see what he's got.

Extra Credit: If you can predict the preseason, you should play the lottery, but who do you have winning this game, and score?

The Saints and the Steelers are both 0-2 so far this preseason, so someone's leaving the Superdome tonight with the dreaded 0-3 preseason record (I kid, I kid). I expect New Orleans to have its best offensive showing yet this preseason and it should be a shootout that eventually goes to the home team, just because I'll be a preseason homer here. Saints 31 - Steelers 28.