Brees, defence lead Saints past Steelers
Drew Brees shook off some hard hits and figured out Pittsburgh's defence in time to make the defending champion New Orleans Saints look like contenders again.
Brees passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns and the Saints defeated the Steelers 20-10 on Sunday night.
Brees was 20 of 22 for 191 yards in the second half, breaking open a defensive struggle in which no team scored a touchdown through the first three quarters.
"You know it's going to be fast and physical, and it was," Brees said.
Brees' first TD went to Marques Colston for 16 yards and the second went for eight yards to Lance Moore with 2:37 left.
Leigh Torrence then intercepted Ben Roethlisberger to seal it for the Saints (5-3).
The Saints rediscovered the magic of last season a week after an embarrassing 30-17 loss at home to the scuffling Cleveland Browns.
"We have a special group," Brees said. "I think we all knew that from the start. We just had to come out and prove it. It's a long season. It's a marathon. You're going to have your ups and downs."
Rashard Mendenhall had the only touchdown for Pittsburgh (5-2) on a 38-yard run in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger was 17 of 28 for 195 yards in a matchup of the past two Super Bowl champs.
The Saints struggled to run on a Steelers defence that came in ranked first in the NFL against the run and allowed New Orleans only 30 yards on the ground.
Brees was sacked twice and intercepted once, giving him 11 interceptions, as many as he had all of last season.
The Saints tried some trickery, to no avail. When they switched from a field goal to a passing alignment with backup quarterback Chase Daniel in the shotgun formation, Pittsburgh called timeout, and New Orleans decided to settle for Garrett Hartley's 31-yard field goal to tie the game 3-3.
In the third quarter, right tackle Zach Strief, who had reported as an eligible receiver, was wide open in the end zone, but was backpedaling and unable to jump high enough to snag a short pass Brees lobbed over his head. Again, New Orleans had to settle for a field goal to go up 6-3.
Late in the third quarter, the Saints ran a reverse in which it appeared Colston was supposed to pass. He bobbled the exchange, however, and decided to run with it for a minimal gain. The receiver redeemed himself later on that drive when he hauled in a 16-yard touchdown, running for the last few yards and reaching to get the ball over the pylon before he was bumped out of bounds.
The play capped a 10-play, 59-yard drive for the game's first touchdown, giving New Orleans a 13-3 lead.
Pittsburgh had only one possession in the third quarter, which ended when cornerback Malcolm Jenkins broke up a fourth-and-4 pass from the New Orleans 40.
But after New Orleans went ahead by 10 early in the fourth, Pittsburgh's offence seemed to find its rhythm. The Steelers went 68 yards in only four plays to make it 13-10, capped by Mendenhall's 38-yard scoring run in which he bolted through a huge hole on the right side, cut to the sideline and outran everyone to the end zone.
Suddenly, both offences were rolling in time for a climactic, action-packed finish. When Brees hit Robert Meachem for a 50-yard gain into Steelers territory, it appeared the Saints would quickly extend their lead again.
Then cornerback Bryant McFadden sacked Brees, forcing a fumble that Pittsburgh's Lamarr Woodley recovered on the Steelers 27.
The Steelers quickly moved across midfield, only to lose the ball when tight end Heath Miller fumbled on a heavy hit by linebacker Marvin Mitchell and safety Darren Sharper scooped it up, returning the ball 11 yards to the New Orleans 45.
"Today was just one of those games that the ball bounced our way," Sharper said. "Our defence played the best today."
Brees then drove New Orleans right back downfield, finally exposing a Pittsburgh pass defence that came in ranked 24th. He completed all six passes he threw, the last two to Moore, first for a third down conversion, followed by a touchdown on which Moore held on to the ball despite being hit hard by defenders.
Pittsburgh thought it had scored the game's first touchdown on a 13-yard reception by Antwaan Randle El in the second quarter. The officials ruled the play a touchdown, but New Orleans coach Sean Payton successfully challenged the call, and the ball was placed about six inches from the goal line.
The Saints then stuffed the Steelers on three consecutive runs, forcing them to settle for the short field goal.