The fear for the Steelers heading into their Halloween night game in New Orleans is that their party hosts in the Superdome will come dressed as something really scary, that they will come dressed as the 2009 Saints.
Those Saints ruled the National Football League. They swept to the NFC's best record at 13-3 and beat Indianapolis by two touchdowns to win their first Super Bowl.
These 2010 Saints only faintly resemble the champs. At 4-3 they've already lost as many games as they did all last season when they did not lose until they were 13-0 and put it on cruise control. They surely did not look like champs when they lost last Sunday at home to Cleveland, 30-17, the Browns using two special teams fakes and four interceptions to surprise the Saints.
One thing that has not changed much for the Saints, however, is quarterback Drew Brees and his passing offense. That passing offense ranks fifth in the NFL with an average of 279.3 yards per game and it has to be looking at some inviting numbers when it views a Steelers defense that ranks 24th against the pass, allowing 235.7 yards per game.
The Steelers -- and even their opponents -- insist that those statistics are skewed.
"The only thing that can be read into that is it's almost impossible to run the ball against us," said cornerback Bryant McFadden.
Their defense leads the league against the run, allowing an average of 63.7 yards per game.
"Number one, when you are able to play with a lead, teams become one-dimensional, so those statistics can fool you," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "Number two, certainly when you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers on video you pay close attention to their run defense and it is as good as anyone in the league right now statistically."
"We pride ourselves on stopping the run first and foremost, all 11 guys out there," McFadden said. "By saying that, of course we've seen a lot more passes than most teams because if you can't run and you don't want to try to run, the next thing is to try to throw the ball."
Many of those throws have come in the fourth quarter after the Steelers have led. Many have been successful, too. Baltimore's Joe Flacco led his team to the winning touchdown in the final minute by covering 40 yards with four passes. Miami's Chad Henne drove his team 52 yards to a go-ahead field goal with 5:17 left last week, a fact lost when the Steelers' offense capitalized on the strange fumbledoozie play nearly three minutes later to win it. The Atlanta Falcons drove 64 yards on 13 plays to forge a late tie with a field goal and send that opening game into overtime. Tennessee, trailing by 16, drove for one touchdown and had the ball in position to score and possibly tie it -- all in the final few minutes.
"Teams are forced to pass against them either because they can't run or because they are behind and are forced to throw," Brees said. "Sometimes those pass statistics can get inflated, when in reality they're very good all the way around."
Not everyone agrees that those passing numbers against the Steelers are skewered, most specifically their defensive captain.
"I just think it's something we definitely can improve on," linebacker James Farrior said. "A lot of times it has to do with us making mistakes and letting receivers get open. That's something we definitely can work on in practice. Not having guys wide open down the field is more important than anything else."
Brees is on pace to pass for 4,638 yards, 250 more than last season when he set an NFL record by completing 70.6 percent of his passes.
"Our pass defense has to be the best we've had this year," Farrior proclaimed.
That pass defense will not get a boost by the possible absence of both starting defensive ends. Aaron Smith already is out after surgery to repair a torn triceps. Brett Keisel did not practice for the second consecutive day because of a hamstring injury that kept him out last Sunday.
Smith leads the Steelers with 12 quarterback pressures and Keisel has six.
Ziggy Hood likely will start for Smith and Nick Eason would make his second consecutive start at right end if Keisel cannot play.
The good news for the Steelers: Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and offensive tackle Flozell Adams (ankle) both returned and went through a full practice Thursday.
Center Maurkice Pouncey was sick and missed practice.
The Steelers still have not made a move to fortify their defensive line with the absence of Smith. It's likely to be Steve McLendon, who has been signed off their practice squad two previous times. They also will have to release someone.
In the past, they released quarterback Byron Leftwich for a weekend and re-signed him on Monday. However, starting this week when a team releases a player, even a vested veteran, that player must go through waivers and any team can claim him.
For example, if the Steelers wanted to release, say, third-team quarterback Charlie Batch for one game and then re-sign him on Monday, they would be taking a chance that another team would claim Batch. In the past, they would get assurances from the player that he would not sign elsewhere before they re-signed him on Monday.