Well. Here we are. Another week and another injury to the Atlanta defense. This week, Grady Jarrett joined the list of defensive starters to miss at least one game this season. Add to that the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers and their high-powered offense are waiting for their crack at the Falcons, and one can understand the lack of faith of some Falcons fans.
Luckily, the Falcons offense is adding Devonta Freeman to an already dangerous offense, making the defense’s job a little easier, hopefully. Does Atlanta have a chance to slow the Steelers down? Sure. Do I think they do it? Let’s find out.
In the trenches
The Falcons are going to struggle this game—I just want to warn you. Relying on Michael Bennett, Deadrin Senat, and Takkarist McKinley is not the best recipe for success against one of the most talented offenses in the league. Fortunately, the Steelers have struggled to run the ball so far this season which will put less of a burden on the depleted Atlanta defensive line. However, I expect to see a steady dose of James Connor to take advantage of those injuries in the trenches.
Once again, it will come down to McKinley and Vic Beasley getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger to limit the Steelers’ success in the passing game. This season has been a rough one for Big Ben but the Falcons have a habit of getting struggling quarterbacks back on track.
Based off Pro Football Focus ratings, the Pittsburgh offensive line has been pretty average overall, but each player has a much higher pass block rating than they do run blocking. We’re talking anywhere from a 15-to-20-point difference in the two grades. The only consistently poor grade belongs to center Maurkice Pouncey.
If Atlanta were healthy and at full strength, I would like their chances to at least slow the Steelers down in the running game and to generate consistent pressure on Roethlisberger. As it stands right now, though? I think the lack of depth along the line of scrimmage hurts Atlanta as the game goes on, and the Falcons struggle to get Roethlisberger to the ground consistently.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Steelers
Here we have the most entertaining matchups of the game. On one side: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Damontae Kazee, and Brian Poole; on the other side: Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Vance McDonald. Throw in James Connor and DeVondre Campbell and the two teams should be pretty competitive—on paper, at least.
However, one of the biggest issues for Atlanta—other than injuries—is the lack of production from their big name players like Trufant and Beasley. If Trufant plays well and can limit the amount of explosive plays that Brown has, things will improve greatly. This offense is stacked, though. I may feel alright about Trufant or Alford, but I don’t feel great about both of them limiting both Brown and Smith-Schuster.
McDonald has never been an elite tight end in this league but he has played pretty well in Pittsburgh. His best asset in this game will be his experience against the younger Kazee, plus the amount of help the rest of his teammates demand.
This is a game that Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen make a huge impact in and potentially thrive in—fast, explosive style of play that lends itself to their talents and ability. However, without those guys, this skeleton crew of a defense is going to have to pray for some turnovers and some Steelers mistakes to slow this offense down.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Falcons still have some talented players on defense and they still have a solid coaching staff, but this group doesn’t have enough to truly stop a powerful offense like the one they will see on Sunday. If Beasley and McKinley can each have big games, get a strip sack or two, and make Ben uncomfortable the entire game, it will swing things in a major way for the Falcons.
Similarly, if the Falcons can take advantage of Roethlisberger’s carelessness and make him toss an interception, Atlanta has a much better chance at slowing this Steelers attack down. I don’t see all of those things happening and I don’t see the Falcons suddenly flipping a switch and becoming a great defense. Like I said a few weeks ago, this isn’t a scheme issue or an X’s and O’s issue—it’s a personnel and “Jimmies and Joes” issue.
Atlanta struggles on defense and relies on the offense to win the game once again.