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PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 02: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half during the game at Heinz Field on December 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

No one has passed the ball more in the NFL this year than Ben Roethlisberger but the Pittsburgh Steelers  (8-5-1) chances of beating the New Orleans Saints (12-2) on the road Sunday will likely come down to how well they run the ball.

The Steelers are 7-0-1 this year when they run the ball at least 20 times. Their only win when they ran the ball under 20 times came against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Steelers won that game 20-16 despite gaining only 26 yards on the ground in 11 carries. The Steelers tied the Browns 21-21 in the season opener while gaining 159 yards rushing on 35 carries.

In their five losses, they had carries of 11, 13, 16, 17 and 19. The Steelers are 6-0-1 when they rush for over 100 yards. Their only victories when they gained under 100 yards came against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The Steelers gained only 78 yards on 22 carries when they beat the Bucs 30-27 in the third game of the season.

More passes mean more mistakes for Roethlisberger

Furthermore, Roethlisberger is 5-1 this season when making 40 or fewer throws. The only loss came against Oakland when Roethlisberger completed 25 of 29 passes. But he sat out most of the second half with rib injuries. The Raiders won that game 24-21. The Steelers are 3-4-1 when Roethlisberger throws more than 40 times.

In their 17-10 win over the Patriots Sunday, the Steelers ran the ball 25 times and gained 158 yards, the most since their season opener against the Browns. Roethlisberger threw the ball 34 times against the Patriots, completing 22 for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

Saints are tough against the run

However, running the ball against the Saints certainly won’t be easy. While the Patriots rank 17th against the run, giving up an average of 116 rushing yards per game, the Saints are number one against the run, giving up only 79.1 yards on the ground per game.

That could be a real challenge for Steelers running game, which comes into the game, averaging a meager 93.9 yards per game rushing, despite Sunday’s outstanding performance against the Patriots. The Steelers are ranked 30th in rushing yards per game, behind only Atlanta and Arizona.

Teams have only 301 carries against the Saints, which is tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the fewest amount. That gives some credence to the theory that teams don’t run much against the Saints because they’ve often fell behind and had to pass. Teams have run the ball on the Steelers 332 times, which is sixth in the league.

The Saints are giving up 3.7 yards per run, which is the second-lowest average in the league. Only Houston at 3.6 yards has given up fewer.

Teams have passed on the Saints

The Saints are much more susceptible to the pass, giving up 262.5 yards per game through the air, which is the 28th most in the NFL. The Steelers, meanwhile, give up an average of 236 yards passing per game, which is ranked 13th.

Overall, the Saints are tied for seventh with the Seattle Seahawks in scoring defense, giving up an average of 20.9 points per game. The Steelers are ranked 15th, giving up an average of 22.6 points per game.

Interceptions up for Ben Roethlisberger

While the Steelers might find more success passing than running against the Saints, Roethlisberger will have to careful with his throws. While Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 580 attempted passes and is second in yards with 4,462, he’s also tied with New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold at 15 interceptions, the most in the league. Roethlisberger has thrown eight interceptions in the past five games. He had thrown only four interceptions in his previous eight games.

After throwing two picks Sunday, Roethlisberger has a quarterback rating of 96.4 which is the 16th highest in the league.

The Saints defense has 45 sacks, which is tied with Chicago for fourth best in the league. The Saints also have 12 interceptions, which is tied with eight other teams for 12th in the league. New Orleans is tied for sixth both in forced fumbles with 17 and recovered fumbles with 10.

On offense, New Orleans comes into Sunday’s game averaging 30.8 points per game, which is second in the league. The Steelers are fifth, averaging 27.4 points per game.

Brees leads NFL in QB rankings

Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback leads the league with 116.8 rating. He’s thrown 31 touchdowns and five interceptions. However, he’s thrown only 450 passes for 3,366 yards, which are both far below Roethlisberger’s numbers.

The fact of the matter is that Brees hasn’t had to throw as much as Roethlisberger because the Saints have been more committed to the run. The Saints have 425 carries on the year, third in the league. The Steelers are 29th with only 307 rush attempts.

However, Pittsburgh is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, which is slightly better than the Saints 4.2 yards per carry. The Steelers are 17th in that category while the Saints are tied with five other teams for the 20th ranking.

Overall, the Saints are averaging 127 yards rushing per game, which is eighth in the league. They will be challenged by the Steelers rushing defense, which is ranked sixth in the league, yielding an average of 96.9 yards per game. They are also ranked sixth in yards per carry, giving up 4.1 yards.

Brees and the Saints are averaging 258 yards per game through the air, which is ranked 11th. Roethlisberger and the Steelers are averaging 311 yards passing per game, which is ranked third.

Steelers not good at interceptions

Picking off Brees will be difficult for the Steelers, who have only seven interceptions this year. Only three teams have less. The Steelers are tied with nine other teams for 13th in forced fumbles with 12.  They are tied for 18th in recovered fumbles with seven. They are tied for second with 46 sacks.

One final statistic. The Saints are 6-1 at home while the Steelers are 4-2-1 on the road.

Whatever the numbers say, it adds up to a very important game for both teams. The Saints have the top seed in the NFC playoffs, and they will be trying to hold off the second place Los Angeles Rams who are 11-3.

Steelers must beat the Saints

However, the Steelers might have to beat the Saints just to make the playoffs. The Steelers lead the AFC North over Baltimore by half a game. They will make the playoffs if they win out. But Baltimore could take the division if they win out and the Steelers lose to either the Saints or Cincinnati Bengals.

Pittsburgh could also lose out for the second wild card slot. If the Saints or Bengals beat the Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) or Tennessee Titans (8-6) could gain that second spot by winning out. To make matters more interesting, the Titans and Colts square off in the season finale. Miami at 7-7 could also sneak in if things break right for them.

So, while the Steelers kept their post-season hopes alive with a win against their perennial nemeses the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh might well need a win on the road against the team with the best record in the NFL to secure a playoff spot.

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View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Pittsburgh Steelers Must Run to Win Sunday