STEELERS // SAINTS OVERVIEW
The Steelers and Saints will clash in the highest-total game on the Week 16 Main Slate, with the 11-3 Saints fighting to hold onto the top seed in the NFC playoffs, and with the 8-5-1 Steelers hoping to hold off the Ravens for a division title. While both defenses do a lot of things well, these teams rank second (New Orleans) and fifth (Pittsburgh) in points per game this year, creating opportunities for this game to evolve into a back-and-forth shootout. Vegas has gotten behind this game with an Over/Under of 53.0 — installing the Saints as 6.0 point favorites at home.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints’ pass rush, talented cornerbacks, and man-heavy coverage scheme have allowed them to slow down low-end receivers and/or passing attacks this year, but this team remains susceptible against talent-rich players — adding plenty of “reward” to the “risk” that this defense has brought into play lately. While New Orleans held D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel to under 20 yards apiece last week and shut down Chris Godwin for a 1-13-0 line on 10 targets a couple weeks back, they allowed Amari Cooper to go 8-76-0 on only eight targets, and they allowed Julio Jones to eviscerate them for an 11-147-0 line the week before that. In both of those games, number two receivers were also able to get involved (with Michael Gallup going 5-76-0 and Calvin Ridley going 8-93-1), creating hope in this spot that both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown can turn into solid plays this week. If JuJu misses with the groin injury he picked up on Thursday, it will be the all-AB show for this offense. Across the Steelers’ last four games, JuJu and AB have combined for target totals of 30 // 22 // 16 // 17 — and while it is no guarantee, it would not be surprising to see AB soak up 14 to 17 targets of his own if JuJu is sidelined. This offense — more than any other in football — is willing to lean on the pass (first in the league in pass play rate) while focusing fully on top weapons. With the Saints playing plenty of man coverage and the Steelers focusing so much of their offensive attention on these two guys, this is one of the most straightforward spots on the slate: the targets will be there, and these guys will either beat their coverage or they won’t. Given the connection that Ben Roethlisberger has with each of these guys and the individual skills each player boasts as a route technician and contested-catch maven, the chances of them winning in this spot are high.
If JuJu does miss, we should see plenty of Eli Rogers in the slot and James Washington on the outside. Washington has struggled mightily in his rookie year — hauling in only 13 of 33 targets for 153 yards — but volume potential will keep him in the conversation, and his downfield skill set will leave him with some upside. Rogers played 28 snaps last week in his first action of the year, with 24 of these snaps coming out of the slot, where JuJu plays 66% of the time. Rogers did not top 43 yards in a game last year, and in his rookie year (2016) he topped 61 yards only twice. He is likeliest to function as an underneath outlet with limited per-play upside — but there is always a chance he runs a couple downfield routes or breaks off a long YAC gain to float his upside in this spot.
The tight ends remain afterthoughts in this offense, and the Saints have allowed the third fewest receptions and the third fewest yards to the position, making Washington and Rogers better dart throws if JuJu misses; but from a broken-play-and-touchdowns perspective, Vance McDonald and Jesse James are fine bets if you want to chase.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
After smashing last week against the Patriots and their number 31 run defense, Jaylen Samuels will face a much more challenging test this week against the Saints and a run defense that ranks second in fewest yards allowed per carry and first in fewest rushing yards allowed to the running back position. Even with the Saints climbing toward the middle of the pack in receiving yards allowed to backs, there is only one team in football that has allowed fewer scrimmage yards to running backs than the Saints have allowed. (That team is the Ravens…who have allowed only five fewer yards through 14 games.) Samuels has touched the ball 18 and 21 times since taking over for James Conner in the lead role. He’s a bet-on-touchdowns or bet-on-broken-play option in this extremely difficult matchup.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers have presented a difficult matchup for opposing passing attacks — ranking first in the NFL in sacks, while allowing the lowest YAC/R rate in the league and holding enemy passing attacks to a middling 7.2 yards per pass attempt. Upside in recent weeks has been especially difficult to come by for perimeter wide receivers — though as noted across the last few weeks, the Steelers have been attackable in the slot, leading to recent slot-dominant lines of:
:: 7-86-1 (12 targets) — Emmanuel Sanders
:: 14-148-1 (19 targets) — Keenan Allen
:: 5-76-0 (seven targets) — Seth Roberts
:: 7-90-0 (11 targets) — Julian Edelman
After months of trying to talk people off of paying the lofty Michael Thomas price tag for the consistently low Michael Thomas production (five roster-wrecking games at his price tag in 10 games since Ingram returned // only one game in that stretch that justified his price tag, and only one that exceeded price-considered expectations), he is finally presented with a spot that swings expectations the other way, with the Steelers likely to generate points and push the Saints at least somewhat out of their run-heavy ways, and with Thomas running 31% of his routes out of the slot so far this year — a number that Sean Payton is likely to boost a bit this week. Thomas still has an average depth of target of only 7.9 (putting him in the same range as names like Randall Cobb, Cole Beasley, Willie Snead, and Mohamed Sanu), and his xYAC/R of 3.6 still speaks to the volume he needs in order to justify a space on your roster from a salary-allocation standpoint; but while I still prefer to pay up at running back myself, this is the rare spot in which Thomas sets up with a decent shot at posting the sort of monster game that we need to be targeting at his price tag. Further helping Thomas’ case is the connection he and Brees have with one another, which should enable this duo to produce even when Thomas lines up on the perimeter against Joe Haden.
While the target concentration on this team is heavily focused on Thomas and the running backs, we did see the Saints feed a miraculous 13 targets to Tre’Quan Smith in Week 11 when the Eagles sold out to slow down Thomas. Keith Butler’s Steelers unit is not known for tilting coverage in an effort to take away one player, and that should not be expected this week — but there are outlier scenarios in which Tre’Quan (who has six total targets in his last four games if we take away Week 11) sees a spike in work this week, keeping him in the low-floor, high-ceiling tourney conversation.
Keith Kirkwood also carries slim appeal, with a 70% slot rate on the season; though with the Saints introducing variable formations throughout the course of each game, Kirkwood can only be counted on for about half of this team’s snaps. He has been held to exactly two or three targets in five of his six games on the active roster.
Elsewhere on the Saints, Tommylee Lewis and the three-man tight end rotation continue to see limited involvement, but none of these plays can be relied on beyond purely guessing and hoping. Through the air this year, this has been the Michael Thomas show — and with Brees failing to top even 36 pass attempts a single time since Ingram returned (with those 36 attempts coming in the 45-35 home shootout against the Rams), everyone should be deemed an iffy-volume bet outside the primary pieces on this team.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
The Steelers have also been tough against the run this year, ranking eighth in yards allowed per carry while holding enemy backfields to the seventh fewest rushing yards and the fifth fewest yards from scrimmage — impressively holding running backs to the third fewest receiving yards in the league. Alvin Kamara has topped 100 rushing yards only once all season (that was before Ingram returned), while Ingram has topped 100 yards only two times (while failing to top 16 carries in any game this year). Ingram has been a consistent bet this year for 12 to 13 carries and a pair of receptions, while Kamara has been locked into 12 to 14 carries and four to seven receptions since his backfield mate returned. While it is certainly possible for one of these backs to break off a long play in this difficult matchup, the biggest value is likely to come from touchdowns, as each guy has multi-score potential on a team that has point totals at home this year of 40 // 21 // 43 // 45 // 48 // 31. The four home games these two have played together have not yet yielded a combined score that would make a “cheat code” viable for the salary, but you could try to “guess right” between the two and hope for a multi-score game. Kamara is obviously the more explosive player, though this is reflected in the pricing. Since Ingram returned, he has six touchdowns and Kamara has 10.
Given pricing on the both of these offenses (with the running backs on these teams less assured of points than the running backs in other spots, and with my preference for paying up for the sure points at running back over trying to “guess right” at high-priced wide receiver), I may not end up here myself. Both of these defenses have been playing well enough that this game could fall shy of its lofty Over/Under (five consecutive Saints games have failed to hit the Over, while the Steelers and Patriots played to a low total in a similar spot last week) — though with that said, it’s also true that both of these offenses are good enough that we could see a true, back-and-forth shootout. While I don’t expect to be here on my Main Roster, I will consider a Saints/Steelers game stack with one of my six rosters in the Main Event. The upside is high enough in this spot that there is a clear and obvious argument to be made for trying capture it if it hits.
If trying to isolate individual plays, Brees, Thomas, and Kamara are the best floor/ceiling bets on the Saints, with all of them lining up as strong plays from a raw-projections standpoint (i.e., taking price and positional scarcity out of the equation). Ingram is a bet-on-multiple-touchdowns play (with this bet being at least vaguely attractive in this offense), while Tre’Quan and Kirkwood are deep-tourney, low-floor, bet-on-upside options.
On the Steelers’ side, I likely won’t chase Samuels’ production in this difficult draw, but the wide receivers stand out — with AB/JuJu both in play in tourneys if JuJu is able to give it a go, and with AB standing out in all formats if JuJu misses. As always, the floor is higher on guys like Saquon and Zeke than it is on a wide receiver — but from a ceiling perspective, there is certainly a chance that AB outscores the running backs this week. Behind AB, I’ll have some interest in Eli and Washington if JuJu misses — with floor certainly not a guarantee, but with an intriguing tourney setup to consider here with double-digit targets and the second largest red zone role in football disappearing to the sidelines.