Preview: Atlanta Falcons
There are 3 more games left in the season, and the sense of urgency escalates as each game passes. The Pittsburgh Steelers positioned themselves a half game behind Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North, but nipping on their heels are the Baltimore Ravens, with the same record as the Steelers (8-5) and the Cleveland Browns, only a game behind at 7-6. The Bengals and Browns play each other today, while the Ravens face a sub par opponent in the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It stands to reason this could be a must-win game for the Steelers, who will also face a sub par opponent in the Atlanta Falcons, but on the road in the Georgia Dome. Winning hasn’t been a given when the Steelers have faced the rest of the Falcons division: Pittsburgh has lost 2 of their 3 games against NFC South opponents.
The key to winning for the Steelers has been scoring: when the team puts up at least 25 points in a game, they have a 7-1 record this season. Scoring less than 25 has fared much worse, with a 1-4 record in those contests.
The one metric that could be in Pittsburgh’s favor is that the Atlanta Falcons defense is 30th in the league in giving up points. The Atlanta defense has also had trouble getting to the QB this season, with 15 sacks overall, or roughly 1 per game. Keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright and giving him time to throw the ball has been something the offensive line has done well at this season; and extending plays is a Big Ben trademark that has shown time and time again to have big play potential.
Le’Veon Bell has been a large part of the offensive surge. Last week, Bell joined Walter Payton in becoming the only players in NFL history with 200+ yards from scrimmage in 3 consecutive games. Also on offense, Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receiving and most times targeted, while also continuing his streak of games with at least 1 catch, and 5 catches with 50+ yards. Martavis Bryant also continues his rookie scoring trend, catching his 7th touchdown in as many games played this season.
The Atlanta offense, on the other hand, may be without their superstar WR Julio Jones, who is a game time decision to play, due to a hip injury. This might be great news for the Steelers, who gave up 2 long pass plays to the Bengals’ AJ Green last week, and have been hit for long touchdown passes in each of the last 4 games. Falcons WRs Roddy White and Harry Douglas are both healthy for today’s game, and will give the secondary plenty of headaches on their own.
Atlanta’s backfield is largely unimpressive. RB Steven Jackson leads the team with 652 yards and 6 touchdowns, averaging 3.7 yards per play. The only other back to average more than 4, Antone Smith, has done so on just 23 carries and has hardly been a threat all year.
Atlanta’s offensive woes should help a rebounding Steelers defense, who should see action from James Harrison and Ryan Shazier today, along with Jarvis Jones who returned last game. CB Ike Taylor is not likely to play, due to an injury, which may benefit Pittsburgh. In my opinion, Steelers corners Will Gay, Brice McCain and Antown Blake have all played better in relief of Taylor. The safeties will have to step up their play and know when they have to help, and when they do not have help on their own: both Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell have found themselves out of position at times during the season, and with a thin CB corps (Cortez Allen is already on the IR) the defense will need all the help they can get.
At the end of the day, the match up on paper looks as good as it always does. It will be up to the Steelers to not defeat themselves in a few areas, to make sure they leave Atlanta with a victory:
- Turnover battle
- Score 25+ points
- Do not settle for 3 or less points in the red zone or on time-consuming possessions