Good. Bad. Sharp. Sloppy. The Pittsburgh Steelers can't seem to figure out who or what they are on a given week.
And time is running out.
Pittsburgh's baffling season made another abrupt U-turn in Sunday's 35-32 loss to New Orleans. A rested and healthy defense gave up five touchdown passes to Drew Brees. An offense that has hummed efficiently for the better part of two months turned it over twice and sputtered in scoring range.
Now a resume that already includes puzzling upset losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets can add another unwanted line: a one-sided defeat to a team that began the day with four wins.
"It's got to stop," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "Everybody. Top to bottom. We've got to stop doing this. We're shooting ourselves in the foot and we've got too many good guys, too many good players to not win these games."
Pittsburgh (7-5) believed the return of veterans Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu from injury would provide the jolt necessary to help propel it through December and beyond. While the Steelers remain very much in the picture in the muddled AFC North, they hardly looked like postseason material while Brees turned an early deficit into a borderline blowout before a pair of late scores made the final closer than the reality.
"Every game is a playoff game from here on out," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We needed to have a sense of urgency for this game and just came up short."
Though Ben Roethlisberger passed for 435 yards and two touchdowns, he also tossed a pair of picks the Saints converted into scores. Le'Veon Bell racked up 254 total yards — 159 receiving, 95 rushing — and Antonio Brown caught eight passes for 97 yards and two scores, but both of them came in the final 3 minutes with the Steelers hopelessly behind.
Roethlisberger grappled with his accuracy, completing 32 of 58 passes but failed to blame his issues on a bum right hand. He favored the hand at times in the first half after slamming it on the helmet of New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton.
"It was just one of those days that the balls were coming out high," Roethlisberger said. "They tipped a lot of balls, more than usual. I have to make throws early on that I didn't make today and I usually do."
While Roethlisberger struggled, Brees soared. Pittsburgh kept New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch but it hardly mattered. Brees spread his 19 completions to nine different players.
Kenny Stills caught five passes for a career-high 162 yards and a score as the Saints (5-7) ended a three-game losing streak by restoring a little bit of respectability and a sense of order to the NFC South.
Ben Watson, Marques Colston, Erik Loring and Nick Toon hauled in touchdowns as New Orleans romped.
"When you play inconsistent, that's what happens, starting with myself," said Taylor in his first game back since breaking his right forearm in Week 3. "Going against a future Hall of Fame quarterback like Drew Brees, you've got to be on your Ps and Qs every game."
New Orleans hardly resembled the team that slouched its way through a three-game skid at home, including a 34-27 loss to Baltimore on Monday night. Six days later and 1,100 miles north, the Saints looked reborn.
Mark Ingram ran for 122 yards as New Orleans effectively counterpunched with touchdowns while the Steelers piled up field goals.
Signs of life from one of the league's most maligned defenses helped. New Orleans forced Roethlisberger into a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. The Pittsburgh quarterback hardly looked like the player who tossed a combined 12 touchdowns in his last two home starts.
The passes that zipped so crisply to open receivers during his record-breaking run sailed high and out of reach and occasionally into the arms of Saints' defenders.
New Orleans led 14-6 in the third quarter when defensive end Cameron Jordan tipped a pass by Roethlisberger and caught it for his first career interception to give the Saints the ball at the Pittsburgh 15. It took Brees two plays to hit Toon for an 11-yard score. The Steelers responded with a 13-play, 83-yard drive that ended with Bell sprinting around left end for his third score of the year.
Pittsburgh's momentum lasted 2:31, or the time it took New Orleans to go 89 yards. Stills covered the last 69 alone, badly beating Taylor on a double move. He raced across the goal line to make it 28-16 and Brees completed his best day of the season with a 3-yard lob to Colston early in the fourth quarter.
NOTES: Steelers DE Brett Keisel left in the third quarter with a triceps injury and did not return. ... Graham was also held without a catch in a Week 7 loss to Detroit. ... Pittsburgh fell to 6-2 after its bye week under coach Mike Tomlin. ... The Saints host Carolina next Sunday while the Steelers travel to Cincinnati.
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