“The NFL’s Most Wanted”. That’s the nickname that the talented All-Pro Pittburgh Steelers WR duo of Antonio Brown and Ju Ju Smith-Schuster have given themselves, and with both players currently enjoying a season of over 1,000 plus receiving yards each, they will present a stiff challenge this Sunday afternoon to the much-improved Saints defensive secondary.
As of this very moment, Smith-Schuster has 95 catches for 1,274 yards and six touchdowns, and Brown has 90 for 1,112 and a league-high 13 TD catches. No other team in the NFL has two receivers each with at least 90 catches and 1,100 receiving yards, which essentially means that the Steelers have not one but two All-Pro caliber WR’s to guard against.
NFL’s Most Wanted 😈 pic.twitter.com/vl7Q9dBL0G
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) November 20, 2018
That’s a dilemma not lost on Saints head coach Sean Payton, who’s well-aware of what kind of damage the talented tandem can do to an opposing defense.
“They’re explosive players, they run well, they have great ball skills. It’s challenging with two, relative to how you cover them. I think they transition very well. They can get to top end speed, but they can also stop. That allows them separation and you partner that with a quarterback like Ben (Roethlisberger) and that makes for a challenging day.”
Nevertheless, the Saints defensive backs are confident that they can meet the challenge, and Saints #2 CB Eli Apple told ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett that it’s not as if the Saints secondary hasn’t already been challenged this year.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Apple.”Every week’s a test. We just played the No. 1 passing offense last week [at Tampa Bay]. So we just gotta continue to get better.”
They’ll have to be better against Brown and Smith-Schuster, who amazingly might actually be THE most talented duo that New Orleans will have faced this year.
Dating all the way back to their Week #1 season-opening loss to Tampa Bay at the Superdome, the Saints have gone up directly against the duos of Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson (twice), Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley (all twice), Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and the Rams’ trio of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (before he got hurt).
So it’s not as if the Saints secondary isn’t already battle-tested if nothing else, although clearly they’re playing much better now and with a greater degree of confidence than they were at the beginning of the year.
“I mean, they’re great. A great group of receivers. I’ve got respect for them,” Saints #1 CB Marshon Lattimore said to Triplett. “But we go against [Atlanta Falcons receivers Julio Jones] and Calvin Ridley two times a year, and they’re great receivers just like AB and JuJu are great receivers. So we’re just gonna go in there and see how it works out.”
The whole League will be watching Sunday’s nationally-televised match-up very closely, especially the teams in the NFC that potentially would face the Saints in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs.
Those teams at the moment appear to be the Cowboys, the Vikings, the Bears, or the team that some observers feel would give the Saints the toughest match-up in a potential NFC Championship Game, which would actually be a “rematch” with the Rams — who have since replaced the injured Kupp with emerging star WR Josh Reynolds.
But before worrying about the Playoffs, the Saints are well aware that they first need to take care of business this Sunday against “The NFL’s Most Wanted”.
“We’re just playing hard, playing for each other, playing great assignment football,” Apple said. “Of course, our coaches are putting us in great position to make plays, and we just gotta keep it going.”
The Saints might get a break actually, since Smith-Schuster suffered a groin injury in the Steelers’ practice session yesterday, as first reported by Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster had to leave practice (limited) early with a groin injury on Thursday. @TheAthleticPGH
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) December 20, 2018
The Steelers will practice one last time today before making the trip down to NOLA, and the official release of injury designations later this afternoon will bring further word about Smith-Schuster’s status. The former University of Southern California All-American has not missed a game yet this season.
If he can’t play, the Steelers would probably compensate with a handful of possible replacements that include talented rookie James Washington, Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer or long-time veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey.
But assuming that Smith-Schuster does give it a go, you can bet that the Saints are well-prepared to do battle with “The NFL’s Most Wanted”…..