Top 10 NFL Games of 2018: #10 Pittsburgh @ New Orleans Week 16

Summer for football fans can be just as entertaining as watching paint dry. The MLB season and the NBA and NHL playoffs are great in their own right, but we all know football is king.

As the calendar turns over to July we can see the football season coming around the corner. The seemingly never-ending off-season has its highlights in March and April with free agency and the draft, but none of those events ever seem to fill that void a fall Sunday can provide.

In an attempt to help ease the pain these summer months bring, and I will present you with recaps and break downs of the best 10 games of the 2018 season.

The New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers have been two of the most entertaining teams we have had to pleasure to watch this decade. Both feature franchise, Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a constant stream of playmakers on both sides of the ball.

The Saints entered this week 16 match up in play for the one seed in the playoffs and as one of the hottest teams in the NFL with a 12-2 record. Pittsburgh entered this game on a different note after losing three of their last four, at 8-5-1 and struggling to hold on to their grasp of the AFC North and overall playoff hopes. Star running back James Connor, would have to sit out another game after suffering an injury in a week 13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

First Quarter

The Saints defense was on their game early, mixing up zone coverages focused on containing Antonio Brown (#84) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19), forcing Ben Roethlisberger (#7) to find other targets underneath coverage. The Steelers would end up punting early in the first quarter.

After finishing 7-9 for three consecutive season (2014-2016), the New Orleans Saints had to change up their philosophies and team building process in order to try and keep their championship window open with Drew Brees (#9).

After drafting Alvin Kamara (#41) in 2017, the Saints took some of the offensive load off of Brees’ shoulders and emphasized their two-headed monster at running back with Kamara and Mark Ingram (#22).

In 2018, the Saints rolled out another offensive weapon that has shown to be one of the more versatile players we have seen in recent memory, Taysom Hill (#7).

Hill had been used as a tight end, running back and quarterback on offense for the Saints. But with only three receptions and six pass attempts to this point in the year, Hill coming into the game was a cue to the defense that a run play was coming.

Offensive tendencies throughout the course of a 16 game season tend to define who you are as a team and what your coaches like to call. Sean Payton decided it was time to break those tendencies and called a pass for Hill. The result went just about how you would expect.

Hill enters the game and Brees stays on the field splitting out to the field side as the lone wide receiver. Brees is a good athlete, but not one with the talent to run a route and win one-on-one against a corner back of Joe Haden’s (#23) caliber. The Saints essentially are playing 10 on 11 this play. With 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 46 yard-line, taking a shot at the end zone is not an unconventional call. Asking Taysom Hill to throw the ball is, however.

The concept is a double post, and the Saints get the coverage they want against this call, Cover 3. The play is designed for Michael Thomas to bend his post down across the face of the middle third defender, safety Sean Davis (#21), with Ted Ginn Jr. (#19) taking his post over the top of that middle third defender.

Pittsburgh brings five rushers and the pressure forces an under thrown ball from Hill. Davis does an incredible job playing center field. He initially covers Thomas’ route, and once the ball is in the air, he is able to react and flip his hips in order to make a play on the ball and come away with an interception in the end zone. A horse collar tackle by Josh Hill (#89) gifts the Steelers another 15 yards on a huge first quarter play.

The Steelers would manufacture a decent drive resulting in a 49-yard field goal from Chris Boswell (#9).

The Saints would rebound well from the turnover, making Davis the victim.

New Orleans is in 22 personnel but in a spread formation. Thomas is the only wide receiver on the field playing in the slot to the field side. Pittsburgh again brings an extra rusher with Cover 1 in the back end. Davis appears to be playing zone coverage instead and the result is Michael Thomas wide open in the middle of the field. Brees makes Pittsburgh pay with a 28-yard gain.

The biggest play on this drive was four plays later when the referees would rear their ugly head.

New Orleans is in 11 personnel going five-wide on a huge 4th and 1 call early in the game. Off the snap, Brees immediately looks to the boundary side of the field where he is trying to hit Thomas on a whip route for a quick throw and catch for a first gain. Mike Hilton (#28) is the primary defender on Thomas and T.J. Watt (#90) fakes a rush but drops back in coverage. Brees is forced to improvise. Kamara is open running towards the end zone but Brees has to set his feet to get off the desperation throw. Haden is able to recover and get in position. However, a phantom pass interference penalty is called on Haden. The Saints would then punch the ball in for six on the next play. New Orleans is up 7-3.

Watching this play with hindsight of the aftermath of the NFC Championship game is interesting, I suppose the football gods (or referees) giveth and taketh away.

Second Quarter

The Steelers would tack on another field goal at the beginning of the quarter. The Saints responded with another touchdown drive of their own that was aided by another pass interference call. 14-6, New Orleans.

Antonio Brown had only been targeted three times for one completion and -1 yards to this point in the game, Pittsburgh had to get their All-Pro receiver going before the game was out of reach. Brown was drawing shadow coverage from Marshon Lattimore (#23) all game.

Pittsburgh is in 11 personnel on this 3rd and 2 with a tight bunch formation consisting of Jaylen Samuels (#38), Vance McDonald (#89) and Ryan Switzer (#10) into the boundary. They call a pick play with Switzer coming underneath, but Roethlisberger looks elsewhere. Brown is at the top of the screen locked in one-on-one coverage with Lattimore. Roethlisberger recognizes the match-up and the amount of space Brown has to work with and decides to go his way. A perfect back-shoulder throw and catch is near impossible to stop, and the push Brown gets on Lattimore helps too.

Pittsburgh would march down the field eating up nearly six minutes of game time before they equalized the score.

It’s 3rd and goal from the three, and the biggest play of the game to this point. Pittsburgh has trips to the field in an 11 personnel set. New Orleans would rush five, focusing coverage to the trips formation with Demario Davis (#56) and Marcus Williams (#43) crashing any potential underneath in-breaking routes. With all their attention to the field side, New Orleans forgets to cover Samuels out of the back field and a simple flat route results in a walk in score for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, has shown in multiple instances that he is not afraid to pass on the extra-point attempt and instead go for two. After seeing how the Saints covered the last play, Pittsburgh decided to test their luck again with another flat route. The result would be the same: The ball ending up in the paint. Eli Rogers (#17) is uncovered for another easy throw for Roethlisberger. The Saints again emphasized covering the inside and crossing routes with extra defenders, which left the flat wide open.

With the game now tied at 14-14, there was still time for Brees and the Saints offense to get some points before the half.

After an in bounds completion to Ben Watson (#84), the clock was running on a 2nd and 4 with under 20 seconds left before the gun. Pittsburgh is running a Cover 4 defense to prevent the deep completion when Kamara runs a simple out route out of the backfield. Kamara shows why he is elite with his burst, ability to slip tackles and contact balance. A 31 yard gain sets up a Will Lutz (#3) field goal to give the Saints a 17-14 lead into the half.

Third Quarter

The Saints would start the second half with the ball, and another big play by Kamara resulting in a 43 yard gain had New Orleans marching down into the red zone again. They are faced a 3rd and 4 from the 16 yard-line.

Taysom Hill enters the game as a slot receiver to the field side with tight ends Watson and Hill to the boundary and Kamara in the backfield. New Orleans is running a mesh concept with Kamara running a wheel route up the sideline. Pittsburgh blitzes again and there is a free rusher, so Brees has to make a play. While evading the rush to his right, Brees throws to Thomas while falling down. Thomas shakes a tackle and picks up a first down, keeping the drive alive and moving the Saints closer to the goal-line. Three plays later Kamara would punch it in from one yard out to give the Saints a 24-14 lead.

Facing a ten point deficit in the third quarter, the Steelers knew they had to manufacture a drive with some points. There’s no better way to do that than to get your best players involved. On eight of the ten plays on this drive, Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown or JuJu Smith-Schuster to march 75 yards down the field, bringing the game within a field goal. Saints only lead the Steelers 24-21.

The Steelers defense would then respond with two sacks on Brees, resulting in a Thomas Morstead punt. Pittsburgh would get the ball on their own 34 and stuck with the formula that worked on the previous drive: Feed Brown and Smith-Schuster.

Antonio Brown secured a 26 yard reception that would bring the Steelers to the New Orleans 40 yard-line.

New Orleans had been crashing down on the Steelers inside routes all game when Roethlisberger finds Smith-Schuster for 20 yards on this play. Smith-Schuster is playing the outside slot receiver to the field side and runs a whip route. Vance McDonald acts as a pick on this play, forcing P.J. Williams (#26) to work over the top of McDonald to cover Smith-Schuster’s route. The result is Smith-Schuster wide open with room to run. The Steelers push into the red zone, threatening to take the lead.

Fourth Quarter

Two plays later, the Steelers are in 12 personnel, with Brown and Smith-Schuster both split out really wide outside the numbers. Roethlisberger recognizes and zeroes in on Brown. Brown gives Lattimore a quick stutter step and then takes off with an inside release. Kurt Coleman (#29) doubles Brown from the inside, but Brown’s release is too clean and he is too fast for the coverage to keep up. A beautiful ball from Roethlisberger hits Brown in stride and the Steelers take the lead. This was the best throw and catch of the day from either team, and it put the Steelers up 28-24.

New Orleans would struggle again on offense with a quick three-and-out. After a decent drive from the Steelers is halted by a Steven Ridley fumble, the Saints get the ball back on their own 35 with 10:12 left in the game.

After a holding penalty neutralizes a big gain from Michael Thomas, New Orleans is forced to punt once more.

The Steelers unsuccessfully tried to block a field goal against the Chargers three times in a row in week 13. This time the special teams unit delivers. T.J. Watt (#90) and L.J. Fort (#54) overpower Saints lineman Will Clapp (#64) and Fort finds himself directly in the path of the kick. Momentum stays on Pittsburgh’s side.

First play of the Steelers possession is a play that won the week six game against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier in the year, a double slant combination with Rogers acting as a pick and Brown coming underneath with a full head of steam, catching the ball in stride ready to make a play. But the Saints are not playing a Cover 0 blitz like Cincinnati was, and Lattimore was ready for it, making a physical tackle to hold Brown to a short gain. Watching these two Pro-Bowl-caliber players go at it was a treat.

New Orleans sacked Roethlisberger after the completion to Brown, and the Steelers came up short on the resulting third down. This leads Mike Tomlin into taking another huge risk in a crucial point of the game on this 4th and 5. Pittsburgh motions Jordan Dangerfield (#37) out from the punt formation into a slot on the field side. Any type of motion on a punt is a defensive cue for a fake. The dive by Roosevelt Nix (#45) is nearly successful but he comes up a half a yard short for a conversion.

Brees and the New Orleans offense get the ball back with a short field and a chance to regain the lead late. Like a surgeon, Brees carves up the Steelers defense on the ensuing drive. On the third series, New Orleans is penalized with an offensive holding call on tackle Ryan Ramczyk. After incompletions on 1st and 20 and 2nd and 20, Brees has to make some magic happen on third down.

New Orleans is in 11 personnel with Ginn and Kirkwood split nearby into the boundary. Payton calls up a dagger concept, sending Hill and Kirkwood flying down the seams and Ginn cutting underneath on a dig route right at the sticks. Ginn works deep into Pittsburgh territory, setting the Saints up with 1st and goal from the 7 yard-line. Brees would then hit Thomas on back-to-back plays, with the receiver capping off the drive with an amazing touchdown grab right at the goal-line.

Pittsburgh would be given one last chance to keep their slim division title hopes alive. After a false start and three incompletions, it came down to a 4th and 15.

Pittsburgh is in 11 personnel with Antonio Brown split outside the numbers to the bottom of the screen. New Orleans calls a deep cover 3 zone with Lattimore lined up 10 yards off of Brown. Lattimore slips when Brown makes his cut and that’s all the space he needs to make a patented “Tony-2-Tap” catch on the sideline. Brown’s ability to drag his feet on the sidelines makes him one of the most dangerous receivers in the league when targeted outside the numbers. Pittsburgh is still breathing.

Roethlisberger is able to lead the Steelers into New Orleans territory with under a minute remaining in the game. Pittsburgh has done an incredible job building one of the best receiving corps consistently on a year-to-year basis. Bringing five receivers into the game and going to an empty formation, they try to put New Orleans on their heels.

New Orleans sticks to a Tampa-2 coverage, one of their most used coverages, when Roethlisberger finds Smith-Schuster running underneath the coverage. Sheldon Rankins (#98) is a defensive tackle and is very rarely used in coverage. He makes the play of the game, popping the ball out of Smith-Schuster’s grasp as he is fighting for extra yardage. Ball game.

This game had it all: Great offense, great defense and some huge plays on special teams by both teams. With stellar play in all three phases of the game as well as the post-season consequences this game had for both teams, it earns a spot in the 10 best games of the 2018 season. The Steelers will look back on this game (as well as many others) when analyzing why they missed the post-season and let the division fall through their hands like grains of sand.

MVP of the Game: Drew Brees

Brees is known for his impeccable accuracy and decision making as well as his ability to be the unquestioned leader of his team. While many fans are used to seeing Brees put up godly numbers in games his team wins, some might look at the box score and say that he wasn’t that great this game, putting up a stat line of 27/39 for 326 yards and only one touchdown. However, his ability to spread the ball around, make smart decisions, and extend plays when he has to makes him the most valuable player on the field for this contest.

Watch the highlights and re-live this week 16 game here.

Follow Jake on Twitter @JakeSchwanitz. Check out the rest of his work here, including his look at UTEP corner back Nik Needham, how Sony Michel was eased into his rookie season and  Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill.

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