Michael Aprile is the editor-in-chief at fellow Falcons site Rise Up Reader, where you can check out more Falcons coverage.
When the Atlanta Falcons take the field this Sunday in Pittsburgh, two teams that were popular Super Bowl picks a season ago will finally meet. Only this time, this stakes are much lower than they would’ve been back in February. Oh, what could have been.
The universal reasons these two teams were pegged as Super Bowl contenders were obvious: star quarterback, deadly run game, and a wide receiver not bound by the laws of physics. Both offenses were scorching hot, the defenses just adequate enough to win you a playoff game or two. We know how this story plays out, with both teams meeting their inevitable doom to the greatest
deflater quarterback of all time.
Fast forward to present day, and both teams somehow look even better on paper than they did after the magic 2016 season came to a sobering end. With young, ascending defenses and enough stars scattered across both offenses to make Galileo blush, this game stands to be an explosive test for these two clubs. Let’s look at the best matchups this preseason tilt has to offer.
Falcons’ secondary vs. Steelers’ wide receivers
Individual preseason matchups can be somewhat unpredictable or end up not happening at all, which is unfortunately the case here as the Steelers have ruled out All-Pro WR Antonio Brown. His matchup against Desmond Trufant would’ve been must-see television. Still, this position matchup doesn’t lack firepower.
Trufant leads Atlanta’s emerging secondary against one of the richest wide-receiver corps in the game. Both units are expecting a boost from returning starters in Trufant and Martavis Bryant, the latter having just been reinstated for practice and preseason games.
Trufant didn’t play much in his return to the field in Miami, making one awkward tackle and sitting the rest of the game out. He’ll look to shake the rust off against Pittsburgh and get back into his groove as an elite cover corner.
With Robert Alford having his finest camp to date and the talented Bryant looking to return to his playmaking ways, the undercard, so to speak, should be high octane. Alford has impressed early with multiple camp interceptions, sticky coverage, and improved technique. If he can continue his stellar second-half play from last season, the Falcons’ secondary will be that much harder to beat.
Atlanta is also anticipating the return of safety Keanu Neal, who will add some thump to the secondary and force Pittsburgh’s receivers to think twice before going over the middle. Neal hopes to build on a superb rookie season and sync up with safety Ricardo Allen.
Promising youngsters Brian Poole and Damontae Kazee will face a stiff test in Sammie Coates, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey. Kazee looked like a natural in his first NFL action at free safety, and the converted cornerback could force his way into additional regular season snaps if he continues to play well.
Even after the starters are pulled, this premier matchup looks to deliver from start to finish.
Falcons’ offensive line vs. Steelers’ front seven
As if lining up against Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Charles Harris, and Andre Branch last week wasn’t tough enough, the Falcons will face another one of the better front sevens in football this Sunday in the Steel City. The Falcons need to continue to answer some questions along the offensive line, like who the starting right guard will be, how Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder look after late-season injuries, and if Jake Matthews has taken the next step toward becoming an elite tackle.
Newly-signed OT Austin Pasztor was brought in to bolster the depth behind Atlanta’s bookend tackles—his performance could help ease the Falcons’ concerns.
Wes Schweitzer looked more than capable one-on-one against Suh, and he’ll need to play consistently if he wants to lock up the starting right guard job. He’ll have his work cut out for him against one of the NFL’s budding defensive tackles, Javon Hargrave.
The first-team offensive line looked sharp against Miami, but with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and James Harrison on the docket, the Falcons’ line will need to be in regular-season form if they hope to keep the reigning league MVP clean.
Not yet mentioned are Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, two crucial building blocks to what the Steelers hope will be the next great defense in their lauded history. Pittsburgh’s front seven is deep and talented across the board, and the Falcons will get a good idea of where their pass protection stands after these units go to battle.
Falcons’ pass rushers vs. Steelers’ offensive line
The Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, allowing a stingy 21 sacks last season—good for second in the league. Tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert aren’t widely-known players, but what they lack in star power is more than made up for with overall cohesion.
Arguably their best player up front, center Maurkice Pouncey, is not expected to play due to injury. Pro-Bowl guard David DeCastro is likely to suit up, and he’ll provide a formidable test for Falcons’ DTs Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe.
The interior duo of Poe and Jarrett shined in their brief debut against the Dolphins, but the highly-anticipated pass rush unit largely underwhelmed as a whole, netting zero total sacks. It is just preseason, but it’d be encouraging to see Vic Beasley Jr. hint that he’s primed to become a more complete player this year.
UDFA JT Jones showed promise in his first act, but as Cory Woodroof notes, we shouldn’t get too attached to preseason darlings.
The most significant storyline will be the debut of first-round pick Takkarist McKinley. McKinley’s had an impressive rookie camp and has been a bully on the practice field, something that hasn’t been seen in Atlanta since prime John Abraham was wrecking offenses.
When McKinley makes his preseason debut, all eyes will be on him to help transform the Falcons’ pass rush into one of the league’s best. Showing promise against one of the best offensive lines in the game would be an ideal way for McKinley to kick off his NFL career.
Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?