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Running against the Saints’ defense is near impossible, but also critical to success

As we prepare for Steelers vs. Saints on Sunday, I go behind enemy lines to get the low down on the Steelers’ Week 16 opponent.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season doesn’t get any easier. After beating the New England Patriots in Week 15 at Heinz Field, the team now has to turn their attention to the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 in the Superdome. The road to the playoffs doesn’t get easier for Pittsburgh, and I sat down with Christopher Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles, SB Nation’s Saints site, to ask him some questions about the upcoming game.

Check out his answers below, and be sure to follow Canal Street Chronicles for the best Steelers vs. Saints coverage, from the Saints perspective!

The Saints have one of the best offenses in the NFL, but every unit has their Achilles heal. How can you stop, or slow down, the Saints’ offense?

Two ways: One, force Drew to make quick reads and force throws. You do this by taking advantage of an offensive line that could be playing a backup second-year UDFA making his first career start (Cameron Tom), a backup rookie sixth rounder making his first career start (Will Clapp), a third year player playing out of position (Andrus Peat), and a second year player playing with only one healthy arm (Ryan Ramczyk). T.J. Watt and the Pittsburgh front could have an absolute field day against this banged up group.

If you can put pressure on Drew, force him outside the pocket or to not have the chance to go through his natural read progressions, you can force him into mistakes.

But two, you need to focus primarily on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. It should be stated that the potential return of Ted Ginn Jr (who has been on IR since the middle of October) throws a wrench in this place, but it’s still to be determined if Ginn comes back this week.

Bracket Thomas with a safety over the top and have your best linebacker follow Kamara out of the backfield. If the Saints are going to beat you, make it be with their string of UDFA skill players, because outside of Kamara and Thomas, there isn’t anyone else in the passing game that strikes fear in the heart of opposing defenses.

While most talk about the Saints offense as the dominant force, the defense has been solid. How can an offensive coordinator game plan to beat the Saints’ stout defense?

This will sound like I’m contradicting myself, but hear me out. You need to understand that you will not be able to run on this defense whatsoever. The Saints #1 rush defense is no fluke. They held Saquon Barkley to 44 rushing yards, Todd Gurley to 68, Joe Mixon to 61, Tevin Coleman to 33 in one game and six (yes, SIX) in another, Adrian Peterson to six (yep, six again), Alex Collins to 38, Ezekiel Elliott to 75, and Christian McCaffrey to 53. At the same time, you have to run the ball as often as you can. This tough run defense has forced impatient offensive coordinators to abandon the run, and when Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen knows you’re one-dimensional, that’s when he brings the heat. Cam Jordan, rookie first rounder Marcus Davenport, Pro Bowl snub Sheldon Rankins, and old man Alex Okafor will be pinning their ears back and going after Ben Roethlisberger. Even if it’s not working, you have to keep running the ball to make the Saints defense respect runs and play-action. If they can sell out for the pass, it’s game over.

Sean Payton and Drew Brees will go down as one of the greatest QB/Coach combos in NFL history. What has made their run together so memorable/special?

They are one offensive mind. It’s like they’re an annoyingly-cute married couple that finishes each other’s sentences and then giggles when it happens. Drew has the utmost faith in the plays Sean Payton calls, and Payton has the same level of faith in Drew to execute (or change the play at the line if the defense isn’t showing a look he likes). When you have an offensive genius like Sean Payton, who to his credit, has evolved the Saints offense to play to Drew’s strengths and to compensate for his weaknesses/age, and a Hall of Fame level QB that understands the objective on each play and drive, you get one of the most prolific offenses of the past 12 years.

The Saint’s duo at running back is impressive. How have the Saints been deploying their backs, and are they used in specific packages/downs and distances?

No, there is not real way to predict the formation based off the personnel, and that’s what makes this group so scary. Mark Ingram can run between the tackles, but he’s also formidable in the screen game. Kamara is more of an outside zone runner, but he is not afraid to run up the gut either. Ingram is the better blocker in pass protection, but again, he’s also excellent in screens and delayed draws, so his presence doesn’t really give anything away one way or the other. When Taysom Hill, Mark Ingram, and Alvin Kamara all are in the huddle together, it should start making the Pittsburgh defense a little nervous. Any play, any run, any gadget - they’re all on the table at any time.

What is your prediction for the game, score and how do you see it shaking out?

So, I’m going to do something I’ve never really done before with this answer. I’m going to give you multiple different scenarios with possible scores.

If Terron Armstead and Ted Ginn both play for the Saints - Saints 31, Steelers 21.

If Armstead but no Ginn - Saints 27, Steelers 24

If Ginn but no Armstead - Saints 24, Steelers 31

If no Armstead or Ginn - Saints 17, Steelers 27

If JuJu isn’t able to play after a groin injury in practice, take four points off the board for the Steelers in each game.