- James Walker, ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter
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NEW ORLEANS -- With the past two Super Bowl champions facing off in prime time, you were bound to learn something.
The Pittsburgh Steelers found out plenty Sunday night during a 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Many rated Pittsburgh as the best team in football entering Week 8. But it turns out Ben Roethlisberger & Co. have some holes that need to be patched this season.
Here are five things that stood out in the Steelers' loss in the Superdome:
Roethlisberger, offense still a work in progress: You didn't think it would be a cakewalk for Roethlisberger, did you? You didn't think he would come off his lengthy suspension, run through the entire schedule and avoid all potholes?
Roethlisberger had his first major stumble of the season. An energized Saints defense pressured and confused Roethlisberger, who threw for a season-low 195 yards and an interception. He was also sacked three times and hit an additional seven times.
"We just never got into any rhythm tonight," Roethlisberger said. "This is definitely a gut check for us. We got knocked down a little bit tonight and now it will be interesting to see how we will bounce back."
In addition, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called his worst game of the season. Pittsburgh was predictable by running too often on first down, which New Orleans picked up on quickly. That produced long down and distances for the Steelers.
Arians did some of his best work with limited resources while Roethlisberger was suspended. Arians needs to continue to get the most out of his talented personnel for the rest of the season for Pittsburgh to reach its potential.
Pass protection is shaky: New Orleans is not the strongest defense, but Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams came up with a plan that other teams may use. New Orleans spread out its front seven and often overloaded one side to bring multiple players through the gaps. Pittsburgh had trouble getting a read on who was coming and who was dropping into coverage. The Steelers missed a lot of assignments.
Roethlisberger often gets criticized for holding the ball too long, but that wasn’t the case Sunday night. The offensive line didn’t give Roethlisberger enough time to take shots downfield. Against a banged-up New Orleans secondary, Roethlisberger struggled. His longest pass was for 25 yards to tight end Heath Miller, who then fumbled. Roethlisberger spent most of the night getting hit or making quick reads to get rid of the football.
"They provided us with a myriad of looks, but it wasn't outside of their personality," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained. "Coach Williams does a nice job."
Pass defense becoming an issue: Drew Brees and the Saints were expected to make plays. But the Steelers allowed too many passing plays in the second half, as the Saints scored 17 of their 20 points after intermission.
Pittsburgh entered Sunday as a top-five defense but was rated No. 24 against the pass. Lately teams have exploited this. Brees threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Nine different Saints had a reception, with receivers Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston combining for 19 catches and two touchdowns.
The Steelers have allowed each of the past three opposing quarterbacks -- Brees, Chad Henne and Colt McCoy -- to finish with 80-plus passer ratings. Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme is famous for confounding quarterbacks, but lately that hasn’t been the case.
With Pittsburgh leading the NFL in run defense entering Sunday, more and more teams will aim to beat the Steelers via the pass.
Steelers found their kick returner: Receiver Emmanuel Sanders has carved out his niche as the team’s primary kick returner. The rookie third-round draft pick proved Week 7 was no fluke as he had returns of 41 and 38 yards that nearly helped Pittsburgh produce a comeback. Sanders needs to work on his ball security-- he fumbled for the second straight week -- but his energy on special teams has been a much-needed boost to Pittsburgh’s third phase of the game.
Expect a two-team AFC North race to the end: Don't pencil in the Steelers to win the AFC North just yet. The Ravens (5-2) are now in first place in the division.
Baltimore, likewise, hasn't played its best football, but the Ravens have won four out of their last five games -- including a road victory over Pittsburgh on Oct. 3. Many predicted Baltimore to win the AFC North, then switched to Pittsburgh after its hot start without Roethlisberger. But with the Steelers showing some holes even with Roethlisberger, it appears this division will be a two-team race down to the very end.
Pittsburgh will travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals next week on "Monday Night Football."
"There's no need to panic," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We have a terrific football team. This is just one loss and now we have to prepare for Cincinnati."
NEW ORLEANS -- With the past two Super Bowl champions facing off in prime time, you were bound to learn something.The Pittsburgh Steelers found out plenty Sunday night during a 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.