In what could have been viewed as a potential Super Bowl preview last month has turned into a battle for relevancy. Both the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers have greatly underachieved to start the season. For all their injuries and defensive shortcomings, the Falcons have lost three games by a combined total of 13 points. It’s been that kind of season for Dan Quinn’s squad. Losing almost every key defensive player leaves them searching for answers to salvage what is becoming a lost season.
While the Steelers are in a far more favorable situation, the lack of offensive rhythm and frequent coverage breakdowns have raised serious concerns about their long-term aspirations. Mike Tomlin’s group looks as dysfunctional as ever on both sides of the ball. For a franchise that pride themselves on being consistent and stable, this season has been the complete opposite for one of the AFC’s perennial contenders. This is a huge judgement game for both teams. Whoever doesn’t come out on top will have to do some serious soul-searching.
Adjusting to life without Grady Jarrett
It’s another cruel week for the Falcons’ defense, as Grady Jarrett is out for at least one game. Unlike previous injuries, they won’t have to make adjustments for an extended period of time. What made the defense so impressive last year was how one player emerged into a true difference maker on all three levels. Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal were the biggest reasons behind Atlanta’s ascendance later in the year. With all three players injured, it leaves Quinn’s group in a dire situation. Losing Jarrett in particular puts an underwhelming defensive tackle rotation under severe pressure.
The timing couldn’t be worse going against one of the best offensive lines in the league. Not many teams are better at making combination blocks than Pittsburgh. That could be extremely problematic for Atlanta’s undersized front seven. Terrell McClain has failed to make any genuine impact. While Deadrin Senat continues to show promise, there are questions about him being able to hold up for 30 to 35 snaps. Jack Crawford is proving to be a decent interior pass rusher but tends to get blown off the ball against the run. It remains to be seen if new signing Michael Bennett will play any meaningful role.
To lose Jarrett leaves an already-depleted defense without any realistic solution. The Quant Edge posted an eye-opening statistic about Jarrett’s impact on and off the field. Opposing teams gain three more yards per carry and nearly three more yards per pass attempt when Jarrett is on the sidelines. Expect Pittsburgh to have similar success, especially after a dreadful Sunday night showing against Baltimore.
Under fire secondary faces daunting challenge
The growing discussion about the Falcons’ underachieving cornerbacks started last week. After highlighting them in last week’s game preview, the pressure only intensified following another poor showing. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford lost their individual battles on numerous occasions. If they didn’t get beat in man coverage, they were responsible for committing nearly half of the team’s ten penalties. Both players struggled to move inside, as Brian Poole’s shift to strong safety forced them to handle slot corner responsibilities. The level of competition doesn’t get any easier with JuJu Smith-Schuster producing big plays on a weekly basis. Per ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Pittsburgh fan favorite is the most productive wide receiver in the league out of the slot.
The next two weeks will be difficult for the secondary. Before facing Tampa Bay’s diverse set of playmakers, they must slow down an even more dangerous offense. Vance McDonald and James Washington are big-play threats capable of tearing defenses apart. Although Antonio Brown has been out of sync with Ben Roethlisberger, it’s only a matter of time before they start connecting again. How Quinn switches between playing zone and man will be fascinating to watch. Can the cornerbacks be trusted to play man for most of the game? Is it a risk worth taking?
Forcing Roethlisberger to make more downfield throws is their best hope for success. According to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, the veteran quarterback has only completed 4 of 21 pass attempts to Brown on throws ten yards or more downfield. Roethlisberger is notorious for starting most seasons slow. Marquand Manuel can only hope he is out of sorts for one more game. By receiving improved play from their high-priced cornerback pairing and more diversity within their coverage schemes, the Falcons may be able to earn enough defensive stops.
The return of Devonta Freeman
As the Falcons’ defensive outlook looks bleaker with each passing week, the offense has taken great strides in reclaiming their place as one of the most potent attacks in the league. Overcoming those dreaded red zone issues has been the catalyst of their resurgence. All of this recent success transpired without their starting running back. While some analysts have questioned Freeman’s value, there is no questioning his ability. Freeman is the best all-around running back on the roster. His vision, patience, elusiveness, and vicious cuts makes him one of the most dynamic backs in the league. To get him back is icing on the cake for Steve Sarkisian’s stacked offense.
The only question about his return is the same question that has been asked for the past four seasons. How will the coaching staff balance the workload between Freeman and Tevin Coleman? It’s clear that Coleman is evolving as a ball carrier. His development had been plagued by balance and body control issues over the last few years. Those problems appear to be behind him, as Coleman is running with more confidence and decisiveness.
Sarkisian can’t afford to turn one of the most dynamic weapons in the league into an afterthought. Allowing Freeman to slowly work his way back would be ideal for both running backs. Pittsburgh hasn’t recovered from the devastating loss of Ryan Shazier. That means both running backs should be able to exploit their overmatched linebackers, along with creating explosive plays against one of the worst tackling teams in the league.
Consistency in pass protection
It would be a huge surprise if the Falcons don’t reach the 30-point total for the fourth consecutive game. This is a fantastic matchup for them to attack Pittsburgh downfield, produce chunk plays off play action, and control the line of scrimmage. With Sarkisian adding more wrinkles to his playbook and rookie playmakers emerging, the offense is firing on all cylinders. It also doesn’t hurt that Matt Ryan is playing like a top five quarterback at the moment. He has fully embraced the burden of needing to play a near-perfect game for the Falcons to remain competitive.
The only slight worry involves their inconsistency in pass protection. New Orleans and Cincinnati had success running twists up front. It was the only way both defenses managed to get off the field. Alex Mack allowed a sack in both games from being overpowered off a twist. There have been some communication issues between Wes Schweitzer and him. Pittsburgh’s defense will desperately look to create any sort of pressure.
With all their issues on the back end, Tomlin knows they need to rattle Ryan at all costs. Using the likes of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt off stunts may be their only realistic solution. It will be essential for the offensive line to be organized against an aggressive defense struggling to find their identity. Freeman’s return can only help them pick up blitzes, as Coleman tends to struggle with his positioning when having to block blitzing linebackers.