Here are some notes and observations from Week 8 in the AFC North:
Even Troy Polamalu occasionally has bad games. The Pittsburgh Steelers' do-it-all safety had his worst game in years during Sunday's 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Polamalu and Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees were involved in a chess match, and Brees won most of those matchups by catching Polamalu out of position several times for big gains. Polamalu struggled to get a read on Brees and was a step or two late on big plays. Polamalu also missed tackles he usually makes in what was a rare, subpar performance by his standards.
The Superdome was the loudest stadium I've heard all season. The raucous atmosphere definitely bothered Pittsburgh (5-2), which had won its first three road games this season. The communication on offense was shaky because of the crowd noise, and the defense eventually succumbed to the pressure of trying to carry the team for four quarters.
"We better get used to these kind of environments; it comes with the territory when you're trying to be world champs," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've got to play good people in their place and play better than that moving forward."
I'm baffled as to why the Steelers failed to successfully attack New Orleans' blitzes. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks at beating pressure packages. The play calling was one step behind. The Steelers didn't run many screens, couldn't execute hot routes and didn't take many shots deep against single coverage. That would have made New Orleans think twice about bringing extra defenders. But Pittsburgh's offense never figured it out. So credit the Saints for continuing to bring the heat.
Expect the spotlight to be on the future of coach Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals playing their first national game on "Monday Night Football." This topic has been somewhat quiet in Cincinnati since the start of the regular season. But with the Bengals' postseason hopes in dire straits, the chatter will certainly pick up. How will this impact the locker room? Will the Bengals play hard, knowing Lewis could be coaching out his final nine games under contract? Or will they pack it in? We will find out how Cincinnati responds, starting on Monday against Pittsburgh.
That brings us to our next point: what team is more capable of playing spoiler, Cincinnati (2-5) or the Cleveland Browns (2-5)? Both teams are heading in opposite directions. The Bengals have the talent to be dangerous, but their execution has been awful during their four-game losing streak. Cleveland plays more efficiently with less talent and also could be a tough out. Keep an eye on both division teams.
Here is an odd stat: Punter Reggie Hodges (one carry, 68 yards) is Cleveland's second-leading rusher behind tailback Peyton Hillis. Hodges' fake punt last week against the Saints was Cleveland's longest running play this season. But it's also another indicator of the Browns' lack of depth at running back. Last month, Cleveland traded Jerome Harrison and released James Davis. Cleveland hopes it gets help from new acquisition Mike Bell, who didn't show much in his Browns debut but hopes to improve after the bye.
Receiver Donte' Stallworth (foot) is expected to return this week. He should add needed speed to the Baltimore Ravens' offense. When healthy, Stallworth is one of the fastest players in the division. Outside of receiver Anquan Boldin, Baltimore hasn't had enough long passing plays this season. Boldin has seven receptions of 20 yards or more, which is solid. But receivers Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh have combined for just six 20-plus-yard receptions in seven games.