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Steelers present chance to cure tough times in Big Easy

Questions dogged the New Orleans Saints well before last Sunday's debacle against the Cleveland Browns.

What's wrong with Drew Brees? What's wrong with Sean Payton? Where did all of the dominance that led to last year's magical Super Bowl title go?

Steelers ready for road win?

The Steelers are 3-0 on the road this season, and now Ben Roethlisberger and Co. appear primed and ready to make it four road victories this Sunday in New Orleans. **More ...**

The Cleveland game simply served as an ugly reminder to Saints fans that the worries they had leading up to Week 6, when they watched their team pound the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were well placed after all.

Now, there is reason for full-fledged panic.

After suffering a 30-17 loss to the now 2-5 Browns at the Superdome, the 4-3 Saints find themselves facing the genuine prospect of suffering back-to-back home losses, their fourth defeat in six games, and falling into third place in the NFC South. The 5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, regarded by many to be the best team in the NFL, are coming to the Big Easy on Halloween night. And if the Saints and their followers think what they've experienced so far has been scary, they haven't seen anything yet.

"Now, coming off a clunker of a performance at home, they've got the Pittsburgh Steelers coming in," former NFL quarterback and ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski said. "If that doesn't get your attention, something's wrong. I think this is kind of a litmus test of where they are coming off a world championship ... where they are this year. And this will tell a lot about their football team."

As Saints safety Darren Sharper told reporters, "Right now, (the Steelers are) playing as an elite team. So it's a good measuring stick for us. We're trying to get to that level. Right now, we're not playing at the level that they are."

The Steelers went 3-1 while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was serving his suspension for violating the league's conduct policy. They've won both games since his return, and his teammates think he is playing the best he ever has.

The Steelers' defense ranks fifth in the league and first against the run. Their biggest flaw appears to be their pass defense, which ranks 24th. It would make sense to assume New Orleans' fifth-ranked passing attack could exploit the Steelers through the air, but there has been little about the Saints' offense that can be counted on from week to week.

"I thought they had fixed their issues (in a 31-6 victory against the Bucs) and you look at that Cleveland game, it was not the same team that we saw late last year and in the playoffs and, obviously, the Super Bowl," Jaworski said. "I think, first and foremost, they're still a quality football team. In the ebb and flow of the season, I think there are always some games where you go, 'Wow, it wasn't our day.' And that may have been their game last week."

Still, Jaworski and others who have followed the Saints closely point to the following reasons why the team isn't performing at the level it did for most of 2009:

» Offensive predictability. It's to be expected that every opponent will invest maximum time studying the offense of a defending Super Bowl champ that excels on that side of the ball. But Payton has made it a bit easier by frequently running the same plays in his pass-heavy scheme. That was evident in Week 7, with Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan staying a step ahead of Payton throughout the game.

"It doesn't happen often, but I thought Rob Ryan had outcoached Sean Payton in this one," Jaworski said. "There's nothing wrong, actually, with teams that run the same plays a lot, and they're successful. It just shows they execute very well. But I thought there was a predictability that Rob was able to decode and beat receivers to their routes. And it forced Brees, a lot of times, to hold onto the football. His No. 1 (receiver) was taken away, No. 2 was taken away, and then (he's) trying to get to three, and the pressure was on him."

» The loss of running back Reggie Bush. He has missed five games with a fractured fibula suffered in Week 2, and is likely to be out again Sunday night. It isn't that Bush has overwhelming involvement with the number of times he handles the ball as a receiver or a running back. It's that defenses must account for him in ways they don't for the Saints' other backs. Now, opponents can trust linebackers to handle pass coverage on pass routes the New Orleans backs run, leaving more defensive backs available for deeper coverage.

» Brees' inconsistency. To some degree, he has been hampered by the offense's predictability and Bush's absence. He also is still trying to find a comfort zone with newcomer Ladell Betts, whose failure to stop in the right spot of Cleveland's zone coverage resulted in one of Brees' four interceptions. A classic case of a quarterback and receiver who simply haven't worked together long enough.

"But I'm not going to lie to you," Jaworski said. "He's made some bad decisions as well, which is uncharacteristic of Drew Brees."

Said former Saints quarterback and New Orleans radio talk-show host Bobby Hebert: "For this team to win, Drew Brees just can't play good or average. He has to play great. And he played great last year, and they ended up winning the championship."

» Right offensive tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb has struggled. The line, in general, hasn't performed well and that has caused Brees to feel a good deal of pressure. But Stinchcomb's play has been particularly below par, NFL observers say.

"I'm definitely surprised," Hebert said. "I thought, like the whole fan base, (the Saints' offensive success) doesn't happen by accident. Since Coach Payton and Drew Brees have been here, you don't have a top-five offense. You have the No. 1 offense in the NFL, and worst they've finished was fourth."

All of which sets the Saints up for a deeper decline -- or a much-needed rebound.

"(The feeling's) not, mathematically, we have to win this game," Hebert said. "But I just think, from a swagger, from a confidence standpoint, just to feel good about yourself going forward, you've got to beat a team like the Steelers. The game Sunday night is more important from a psychological standpoint than just, 'Oh, we've got to catch the Falcons and have a chance to win the NFC South.'"

Of course, the Saints could go a long way toward helping themselves on that count as well.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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