This Sunday’s game is a pivotal one for the Falcons, who are a couple of losses away from facing a nigh-impossible road to the playoffs. This team has too much talent (and forgive me, too much heart) to be dismissed out of hand, but they need to start winning at a very rapid clip to keep this season alive. Knocking off the Steelers would make the road ahead easier and would erase some doubts about this team, especially if they can do so decisively.
That said, there are reasons to feel confident about this Falcons team heading into Week 5, and there are reasons for grave doubt. Here are one of each.
Feel confident about the offense putting up points
Joe Flacco is in the midst of a pretty impressive bounce-back year, but his 363 yards against the Steelers pass defense was one of the ten highest totals of his career. Considering he only had slightly more against the Bengals, a team Matt Ryan just finished eviscerating, things look promising for the passing attack.
More broadly, this Steelers defense has not been good this year at all. They’re allowing the third-highest yards per game in the NFL, the eighth-most points, the fourth-highest number of passing yards, and the 10th-highest number of rushing yards. They’re better than the Falcons in some ways, worse in others, but the net takeaway is that the Steelers are bad on defense. Playing this one at home isn’t going to fix that against an unconscious Atlanta offense, particularly one getting back a key playmaker in Devonta Freeman.
While the Falcons may not look quite as sharp away from home, they should have absolutely no trouble dropping 25+ points, and frankly 30+ feels like a virtual lock unless the Football Gods have some more weird stuff planned for us. The Steelers just aren’t that good defensively, and they’re unlikely to have compelling answers for Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
Worry a lot about the pass defense
On the flip side of things, the Steelers offense is a major concern, especially when you consider that it hasn’t even looked as good as it is capable of looking to this point.
The Steelers are sixth in total yardage, tied for 12th in points scored, third in passing yardage, and 29th in rushing yardage. Minus Le’Veon Bell their ground game has been forgettable and they’ve just been airing it out. Where having a one-dimensional offense might prove to be a problem against a good defense, against Atlanta it’s a bit of a nightmare scenario.
That’s chiefly because the Falcons have struggled so mightily stopping the pass, with Andy Dalton and Drew Brees torching them in back-to-back weeks. Atlanta tightened up a bit and started getting after Dalton in the second half a week ago, but they also allowed the Bengals to score four touchdowns on four tries in the first half. This Steelers attack is a huge concern.
More broadly, the state of the secondary is a concern. The team’s focus on communication this week is important, no doubt, but Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have struggled in back-to-back weeks, Isaiah Oliver is very much a work in progress, and Brian Poole’s coverage issues have been legion both as a cornerback and a safety these last two weeks. When you have to contain players like Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald, you can’t afford the kinds of lapses that have become commonplace in Atlanta, and I fear that you can’t fix all of even many of those issues in a single week.
If the Falcons win this game, it will probably be because they managed a turnover or two (which isn’t outlandish) or managed to somehow hold this passing attack in check (a bit more outlandish). If they can accomplish either, it will give me hope for the rest of this season.