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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Steelers

What can Devonta Freeman provide in his return from injury? Can Ridley keep up the pace? Will a leader emerge on defense? We take a closer look at some of the most interesting players to watch when the Falcons take on the Steelers in Week 5.

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Falcons (1-3) take on the Steelers (1-2-1) in what almost feels like a knockout round—the winner of this game keeps their playoff hopes afloat, while the loser is in desperate territory at best. Atlanta has been a play or two away from winning each of their games, but they’ve been unable to finish things over the past two weeks—a defense reeling from the loss of 4 starters has been a huge liability, even with the offense averaging 29 points a game.

Pittsburgh is in a similar boat. The offense has been very good, if a bit inconsistent, but the defense has put them in bad situations week after week. Can the Falcons get right on the road in Week 5, or will the Steelers stop the bleeding at home? Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important Falcons players to watch on Sunday.

Devonta Freeman

Freeman is officially back for Week 5, and it’ll be exciting to see what he can bring to the table against the Steelers. Tevin Coleman is great for his big plays and receiving ability, but the Falcons’ have missed Freeman’s consistent running style. Playing keep away from the Steelers’ offense could be a recipe for success—particularly with Atlanta’s defense ailing and desperately needing more time to jell.

If Freeman is fully healthy, can he provide an extra element to the ground game? I think yes, though Pittsburgh’s defense has been slightly better against the run than against the pass. Even with Freeman’s return, we should still see plenty of Coleman and rookie Ito Smith—who has been very impressive and notched his first NFL TD last week against the Bengals.

Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones

The Falcons appear to have struck gold with rookie WR Calvin Ridley, who leads the NFL in receiving TDs with 6 over four games. All of the sudden, opposing defenses are forced to choose between dedicating double coverage to Ridley, or to All-Pro WR Julio Jones. So far, Julio has received the bulk of the attention—and Ridley has been the beneficiary of that, dominating the lesser competition over each of the past three games.

Can this duo stay red hot against Pittsburgh, and can Julio Jones finally score this season? The answer could very well dictate the outcome of Sunday’s game. One thing is certain: these two—and the plethora of other weapons the Falcons’ possess, including the RB trio, WR Mohamed Sanu, and TE Austin Hooper—will make Atlanta’s offense very difficult to defend for the remainder of the 2018 season.

Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat

With Grady Jarrett out of this game, Atlanta’s defense will need veteran Jack Crawford and rookie Deadrin Senat to step up—particularly in the pass rush department. Crawford has been a nickel specialist thus far, and it’s likely he’ll get all the reps he can handle against the Steelers. Senat has mostly played in the base package, but he’s flashed some relatively raw pass rushing ability. The Falcons will need these two to pick up the slack, or it could be an even longer day for the defense on Sunday.

The only other two DTs on the roster right now are veteran Terrell McClain—who has been solid but unspectacular thus far—and the recently-signed Michael Bennett. Bennett has some potential, but it’s unclear how many snaps he’ll play for Atlanta after only a few days of practice. The bulk of the pass rushing responsibilities will fall on Crawford and Senat—let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.

De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley

One defensive unit that may actually be trending up is the LB corps. Still featuring the quality play of De’Vondre Campbell—who now wears the green dot on defense—the group may be beginning to stabilize after an encouraging performance in Week 4 from sophomore Duke Riley. Riley had an excellent diagnosis and tackle for a loss, and generally looked less lost on Sunday.

Campbell is a very smart player, so it’s only a matter of time until he settles into his new role as the signal caller. It’s yet to be seen if he can truly take on the role of a full-time defensive leader, but at this point, just lining up correctly would go a long way in helping this defense play better. Let’s hope Riley can also continue to improve, as his development into a quality or even passable starter would help things tremendously.

The Falcons’ secondary

The one unit we thought we could depend upon even after injuries ravaged the safety group was the CBs. Over the past two weeks, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Brian Poole have all taken nosedives in performance. I don’t necessarily blame them for the Saints game—the Falcons were missing Takk McKinley and were generating little to no pass rush—but they should’ve been better against the Bengals. They’ll have an even tougher challenge this week against Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Atlanta needs them to rise to that challenge on Sunday.

On the safety side, we should continue to watch Damontae Kazee’s development. He’ll likely be starting for this defense for a significant amount of time—the start of the 2019 season, as well—and the Falcons need to see what they have in him. So far, he’s looked pretty darn impressive, and hopefully he’ll continue to improve along with the rest of the defense.

We should also watch to see who ends up emerging at SS. Right now, Atlanta has Brian Poole (who played poorly there in Week 4), Jordan Richards (who played poorly there in Weeks 2-3), Keith Tandy (who blocked a punt in Week 4, but otherwise hasn’t been given a chance), and Sharrod Neasman (who we’ve seen nothing of since 2017). I still think Tandy is the best option there, but let’s see who starts against the Steelers on Sunday.

What are some matchups that you’ll be watching when the Falcons take on the Steelers in Week 5? Do you think the Falcons, or the Steelers have the advantage in this game?