1. How has Keenan Lewis been playing? Steeler Nation was fairly well divided on his departure, all things considered (read: salary cap issues). I've seen some good things and some not-so-good things. Do you feel he's played up to his contract so far?
Lewis has been a blessing for the Saints since he arrived in New Orleans in 2013. His most notable performance in a Saints uniform was perhaps last year in the Wild Card round against the Eagles in Philadelphia. Lewis shut down DeSean Jackson until he went out of the game with a concussion. On the very next play, Jackson who had done nothing up to that point caught a deep ball down the sideline to setup an Eagles score.
This year, Lewis has been good although not spectacular. Teams haven't thrown his way a lot since the second cornerback spot for New Orleans has been so utterly abysmal. Lewis hurt his knee a few weeks ago against the San Francisco 49ers and as a result of him being somewhat gimpy, he has played less press man-coverage and he has been susceptible to curl- and dig-routes because of the cushion he has given to wide receivers lately.
Overall, Lewis has been worth the money the Saints gave him when he signed prior to the start of last year, as he has easily been the best cornerback on the roster. That overrates him a little bit because the other Saints corners are so poor, however his performance has been well above average and the hype that has been surrounding him since last season is well-deserved.
2. How big will the absence of Brodrick Bunkley be in this game? The Steelers have had issues with him in past games in his career.
Big! As big as Bunkley's 300-plus run-stopping pounds. The Saints defense masqueraded as an average run-stopping unit until about the midpoint of the season. However, in the last three games, the bottom has completely fallen out. New Orleans has allowed 144, 186 and 215 rushing yards to the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens respectively. Even worse, in those three consecutive games, the Saints allowed 4.5, 5.2 and an awful 6.7 yards per carry respectively. Dreadful! Losing Bunkley will only make things worse in the middle of New Orleans' defensive line, unless backup John Jenkins (a 2013 third-round draft pick out of Georgia) can step up his game. I'm not holding my breath. Those shouts of joy you're hearing? Yup, that's running back Le'Veon Bell celebrating after he read this segment.
3. What's the feeling among Saints fans about defensive coordinator Rob Ryan? Outspoken, brash, his departure from Dallas was controversial. Do you feel the Saints' transition to a 3-4 defense under his guidance has gone well?
As always in the NFL, the adage is "what have you done for me lately?" And lately, the Saints defense has been a hot mess. Interestingly, Rob Ryan has actually run a hybrid defense in NOLA, oscillating between a 3-4 and a 4-3, depending on the offensive look and his personnel. Last year, with pretty much the same guys he has today, Ryan's defense was unexpectedly good. I mean top-5 good, racking up sacks, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and, despite a lack of interceptions, they defended the pass beautifully. Ryan was the toast of the town back then, he'd regularly stop by a New Orleans' watering hole called "Ms. Mae's" and buy rounds for the patrons. We loved him and his hair.
This year, Ryan installed even more exotic stuff in his defense. In the off-season, he claimed with bravado that they would "get weird." Well, they got weird alright, so much so that Saints defenders were often seen being completely confused on the field, missing assignments and still calling plays as the ball was snapped. Ryan is on the hot seat, even though no one has said it publicly just yet. Head coach Sean Payton sees the end of the road with this Saints roster as it's constituted, because of high salaries and cap numbers. He wants to win now. If Ryan's defense ends the season with the same ineptitude, Payton might fire him this off-season and bring in someone else who can help him contend in 2015. If Ryan goes, no one in New Orleans will feel sorry for him. That's just the cold world of the NFL as we know and love it.
4. I really liked Brandin Cooks coming out of Oregon State (former collegiate teammate of Steelers WR Markus Wheaton); it's unfortunate he's out for the season now. Evaluate his play as a rookie and describe the expectations he has in New Orleans.
Man, is he exciting as a player. Let me be Jon Gruden first and then I'll critique his plays a little bit: I love that guy! Cooks had become a little Swiss army knife for Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints offense. In only ten games, he had 53 receptions for 550 yards and three receiving touchdowns. To those numbers, add seven rushes for 73 yards and one rushing touchdown. Cooks is the de facto replacement of Darren Sproles in the Saints offense. He's no Sproles yet but, in time, he'll be an unbelievably useful cog in the Saints always-potent offense.
On the not-so-good side, Cooks has been a lousy punt returner. That's one aspect of his game that he'll have to seriously work on. He had 10 punt returns for...don't laugh: 35 yards. That's a paltry 3.5-yard average, which is simply unacceptable. Another criticism of Cooks is that he'll catch a pass but, as soon as he feels contact approaching, he'll go down as if shot by a sniper. This may explain why his punt return yards were so poor, since there's tons of contact on those plays. Overall, this is a kid that has a bright future in New Orleans and just needs to iron out some kinks. In time, he'll be a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.
5. Were fans upset with the decision to move on from Lance Moore? It seemed like he was well-liked. Are fans pulling for him at all - maybe not on Sunday, but in the rest of the Steelers' games?
Oh yeah, Saints fans were really sad to see Moore go. I have to admit, I haven't been following his year very closely, but whenever Steelers games are on TV, I pay attention to his touches. Moore was beloved in New Orleans because he was always "Mister Reliable" when it came to clutch third-down catches. And then he became legendary for his touchdown dances. Here is a compilation (forgive the bad video quality) of some of his best dance moves:
He's definitely missed in New Orleans, although eventually we understood that New Orleans wanted to go younger with its receiving corps, passing the torch to guys like Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and Joe Morgan. We certainly wish Moore the best...in two weeks.
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