In what was billed as a matchup between two desperate teams, only one team looked capable of getting back on track. A few self-inflicted mistakes kept the Pittsburgh Steelers from going into halftime with a bigger lead. Although Dan Quinn’s group bounced back in the second quarter, they were second best in every department. Ben Roethlisberger’s shaky first half gave the Falcons momentum going into halftime. A disastrous second half quickly erased their hopes of pulling off an upset.
The second half encapsulated what most feared about the Falcons going forward. If the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, they will struggle to stay competitive against talented teams. For all of Pittsburgh’s issues, they still possess one of the better rosters in the league. An offense with their plethora of playmakers can punish any defense. When Desmond Trufant was forced out of the game, it rendered them hopeless in trying to contain Antonio Brown. What happened defensively isn’t nearly half as bad as what transpired offensively.
Pass protection implosion
When previewing this game, it seemed like the only way the Falcons’ offense could stumble is if Matt Ryan was under serious duress. Pittsburgh is notorious for running a wide variety of blitzes and twists. With their back seven struggling all season, Mike Tomlin must have figured they needed to bring pressure at all costs. They don’t have the personnel to cover Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu. Instead of devising coverage schemes to contain them, why not run blitzes from different angles and see if they can knock Ryan out of rhythm? It proved to be a fantastic game plan.
The Falcons could never adjust to Pittsburgh’s relentless pressure. On every third and long, they brought five or six to collapse the pocket. Targeting Tevin Coleman’s inability to pick up blitzes was something they had great success in. With the offensive line slow to react and Steve Sarkisian failing to make any genuine adjustments, it left Ryan helpless in trying to make plays downfield.
To allow six sacks and 11 hits against an average at-best Steelers front seven is problematic. While some sacks came off play action and freak moments, there was still plenty of pressure being created up front by a pure four-man rush. The offensive line simply lost far too many individual battles. After failing to open any running lanes on first down, they would get pushed around on the inside or beaten around the edge on the next two plays. Ryan Schraeder struggled to stay in front of T.J. Watt for most of the game. If he wasn’t getting blown off the line of scrimmage, Watt dipped under him to make the normally steady right tackle look overmatched.
Schraeder isn’t the only highly regarded lineman showing signs of regression. Alex Mack isn’t playing anywhere near the All-Pro level everyone is accustomed to seeing from him. Those outstanding second-level blocks to spring open big runs aren’t happening this season. His tendency of getting overpowered in pass protection is starting to become more noticeable. By allowing three sacks in the last three games, which includes Cameron Hayward humiliating him, it’s fair to question if Mack’s best days are behind him. Other than Jake Matthews, there isn’t any other offensive lineman playing up to expectations right now. That needs to quickly change for the offense to succeed against more-aggressive defensive fronts.
New week, same defensive issues
The undermanned defense was always going to face an uphill battle in this matchup. After looking out of sorts against Baltimore, Pittsburgh was bound to produce explosive plays across the field. Roethlisberger and Brown were going to get back on track at some point this season. To do it against a defense struggling to muster a pass rush shouldn’t be viewed as a major surprise. The loss of Trufant certainly allowed Brown to shine, as both of his touchdowns came when the former Pro Bowler was sidelined.
Besides not generating much pressure, there are multiple weekly habits causing the defense to play even worse. Tackling continues to be a significant problem on all three levels of the defense. On third-and-thirteen, Pittsburgh ran a designed screen for James Conner. That should greatly benefit the defense, which is trying to get off the field at all costs. It was only a ten-point game when the play was called. Brooks Reed ends up being in fine position to stop Conner from accelerating into the open field. The veteran edge rusher fails to wrap him up, along with two other defenders. What should have been a seven-yard gain turns into a massive 28-yard play. The defense never recovered from that mistake.
It wasn’t the only costly missed tackle. Per Pro Football Focus’ Pat Thorman, Conner forced a whopping 12 missed tackles. Duke Riley was on the receiving end of a few nasty runs. After two consecutive decent games, the enigmatic second-year player had a dreadful performance. His inability to wrap up on a consistent basis must be concerning for the coaching staff. The same applies to Brian Poole, who is missing open-field tackles at a rapid rate. What made Poole into a reliable contributor over the last two seasons was his excellent instincts in zone coverage and knack for making big tackles in the open field. Neither of those qualities have been shown this season.
Third down woes and “next man up” aren’t going away
Not being able to generate pressure or properly tackle on a consistent basis will make any defense prone to falling short on third down. It showed in Pittsburgh converting nine of 12 third-downs. They barley a sweat while converting them as well. Other than Reed unleashing his trademark spin move to force an in-completion, Roethlisberger was comfortable in the pocket. The front seven couldn’t cope with Pittsburgh’s terrific offensive line, particularly when they ran power designs.
With the defense lacking difference-makers, it has forced the coaching staff to rotate heavily and hope for someone to break out. Steven Means, Michael Bennett IV, Bruce Carter, and Sharrod Neasman all played on Sunday. These are four players who weren’t on the opening day roster. They are now being given significant snaps four weeks later. That’s the obstacle the Falcons face at this stage of the season. Not having four of their arguably most valuable defensive players leaves them grasping for straws. There is only so much you can expect from a defense relying on players that were deemed not good enough by 32 teams a month ago.
The Falcons face a pivotal two-game home stretch. After facing a slew of playoff teams and what appears to be a very good Bengals’ team, they have two very winnable games coming up. Matchups against the Bucs and Giants gives them an excellent opportunity to get back on track before the bye. The offense should get back to their prolific ways against two woeful defenses. Although there isn’t much optimism surrounding the defense, Grady Jarrett could possibly return against the Giants. There are no easy games left on the schedule, given the difficult circumstances surrounding the team. That doesn’t mean they can’t come out on top against two similarly imbalanced teams.