Dave Choate: The Steelers strike me as an incredibly inconsistent team, but one with enough talent to be truly dangerous in the post-season. What have the Steelers struggled with this year, and what's their ideal method for beating teams in 2014?
Neal Coolong: The running joke is the Steelers will go far in the playoffs, should they get there, because there won't be any bad teams. They do fine against the good teams, they just struggle with the Jets and the Buccaneers.
Not sure whether to laugh or cry at that statement.
What I wonder about is whether the Steelers are closer in line with a bad team that overachieves, as opposed to a good team that falls to the depths of its opponent. Losses to the bad teams are more in line with who they are right now as a team, and beating good teams is above their expected reach. This team's defense really hasn't been good throughout the season. There are times they can play pretty good football, but other times (the game against Cleveland rings loudly here), guys are well out of position, tackles are missed and it doesn't seem they have a strong sense as to what's going on around them. It's not all about tackles and coverages. Sometimes it seems like guys just don't know where they're supposed to be, so they pick a spot.
This defense is a tough mixture of new, young and old. They haven't blended together fully, and while we've seen it coming a little bit better over the second half of the year, I think we're at a point where we can say it's on the offense to win, and the defense's highest and best use is to probably force four punts and get a takeaway. I think if they can do that, they'll win the vast majority of games they play.
Dave Choate: Talk to me about Le'Veon Bell, a player I admire and arguably the most potent running back in the NFL today. Can he be stopped? If so, how?
Neal Coolong: Bell's a very dynamic player. He's elusive, he runs with great balance and he's incredibly patient. What I've really enjoyed about him this year as opposed to last season is he has this fantastic sense of where the play is going. He knows exactly when to cut, he knows when to accelerate and he knows when to just take the yards he has in front of him. He's taking far fewer negative carries this year than last year, and the scheme in which the Steelers run, there are multiple options of where he can go. He doesn't make bad decisions often but when he does, he's still able to get a yard or two out of it.
As a receiver, he's probably even better. One, he's a very sharp route-runner. It'll be difficult for most linebackers to keep up with him in that regard. When he gets the ball in his hands, he's as difficult to stop as any player in the game. That patience and vision come to play again. He never panics; he waits for the defender to commit to the tackle, and he can cut out of it. He may break an ankle or two.
Stopping him is a team effort, and I certainly don't think he's unstoppable. The question is more about limiting his effectiveness. He is clearly in incredible shape, based on how energetic he is late in games, so it's a four quarters kind of effort. One must approach him from inside out. What's more important than breaking down at the right time to make the tackle is bracketing him to take away the cutback lane. He loves cutting back to his right, and he does it at a near Adrian Peterson-like level. It's a sharp angle and it's as fast as his regular speed, so guys need to approach him with the mindset it's likely more than one guy will be needed to bring him down.
Dave Choate: The Steelers have always been known for their defense, but I know this unit is somewhat of a shadow of the teams I grew up watching. What's the best way to attack them, what are their particular remaining strengths and who should we watch?
Neal Coolong: If I'm Matt Ryan, I want to run a receiver inside-and-up and split the Steelers' safeties the first time I see them in Cover 2. In doing that, I want to drag a receiver underneath and see if I can get either safety to bite on that route, and have the seam receiver matched against the safety deep down the field. There's no doubt Ryan has seen this in film, it's happened to the Steelers multiple times. While many have and to an extent fairly so bashed the Steelers cornerbacks, the problems they've had are more blown coverages and a lack of communication between the entire secondary at different times. William Gay had a rough game against the New Orleans Saints. I thought cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Mike Mitchell were rough against the Bengals. This list goes on and on.
Throwing the ball frequently but not taking deep drops, getting it out on schedule and planning to work the long way down the field will be key for the Falcons. On one hand, wearing out the Steelers' thin defense will help them come the second half, but perhaps more importantly, it keeps one of the game's most explosive offenses off the field. Turnovers will be critical in this game, and I think the Steelers win most games they play with an even turnover differential, so protecting the ball, and accepting a punt or two instead of risking fumbles on sacks in deep drops is probably a better idea, but always keep the idea of getting the ball deep against certain defenses in mind.
Dave Choate: This has the potential to turn into a shootout. Assuming the Falcons put Desmond Trufant, one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL, on Antonio Brown, who will be instrumental for the Steelers' passing attack? Can they keep up with the Falcons?
Neal Coolong: Antonio Brown has faced a lot of good cornerbacks this season. Trufant is exactly as you described him. He will not be able to cover Antonio Brown exclusively, any more than one cornerback can be expected to shut down a completely healthy Julio Jones. That's just not the way the game is played anymore. If you give the elite-level receivers 10 targets over the course of four quarters against any one cornerback, he's going to make plays. Brown could very well break the team's single-season receptions record (113 held by Hines Ward in 2002) and his own single-season yardage record (1,499 set last year) against Atlanta. He isn't in that position because he faced the worst cornerbacks in the NFL each week. The Steelers' offense moves him around, and adjusts plays to get him in position to get the ball.
On top of that, I don't think the NFL has a better route-runner than Antonio Brown. He's incredibly fast in and out of his breaks. He's as difficult a short-field cover assignment as there is in the league. One missed tackle on an 8-yard route is a 20 yard gain. Brown has caught at least five passes and has gained at least 70 yards in the team's last 15 games (NFL record). With all due respect to Desmond Trufant, an excellent cornerback, it'll take more than just him, because giving Brown single coverage over four quarters will allow a big play or two.
Dave Choate: What's your prediction for this game, as well as the rest of the season?
Neal Coolong: It is so difficult predicting what this team will do each week. I keep waiting for a big defensive breakout but this isn't a good match-up for that side of the ball. I think this one goes down to the wire, which always seems to be what happens any time I watch a Falcons game in the GeorgiaDome. These two teams certainly know what that's like facing each other - Steelers vs. Falcons always comes down to the last play. I see that happening again, and I think it'll be on the speed of a comeback from one team's offense and a meltdown from one team's defense (depending on which side of the fence you're on).
As far as the rest of the season...I've been saying I think Baltimore will end up winning the division. I feel that's even more true now they've taken out Miami, and have great QBs such as Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Johnny Manziel left on their schedule. The Steelers get Matt Ryan, Alex Smith and Andy Dalton. A little less to worry about with the last two but this one is really tough.
My biggest concern, and I don't mean to be negative, but the Steelers haven't won four games in a row since 2012, and the fourth had to come in overtime after Ben Roethlisberger was hurt against the 4-12 Chiefs. The Steelers beat the Bengals last week, and very well could have to win their remaining three games (i.e. a four-game winning streak) to take the division. Stranger things have happened, for sure, but we haven't seen much to suggest they're capable of keeping that kind of momentum going this year. It's possible, and I think this weekend will show a lot about the intestinal fortitude of this year's Steelers. It's a good match-up for both teams in many ways, and...well...I'm gonna take the Steelers pulling one out late, 34-31.