Atlanta came out of the first six games of the season, considered by myself and many others to be a brutal opening stretch, at 3-3. They had just beaten a tough 49ers team in impressive fashion, seemed to be finding their footing on defense and through the air, and had a +10 point differential. Pieces were written, here and elsewhere, about the team’s rushing renaissance and their resilience, and it seemed as though the Falcons might not just exceed expectations but smash them to pieces.
Fast forward and that has not happened. The Falcons are 2-4 since their 3-3 start, including one borderline miraculous win where the Panthers squandered two clear-cut opportunities to win, and have seen their defense and offense sag over that span. They have a -31 point differential over the past six games, have only scored over 20 points in one of their past four contests, and are seeing too many games come down to a single play. Pieces have been written, here and elsewhere, about potential lineup changes, the heavy impact of injuries, and the way this team is not progressing after such a strong start.
This is a pivotal moment in the season, because the loss to Washington was a heavy blow but not a fatal one, thanks to Tampa Bay’s ineptitude. The Falcons face a mediocre Steelers team at home and then have the bye week before loading up for their final four games of the season, with a win likely helping them keep pace in the NFC South and a loss potentially dealing a deathblow to those still-present playoff hopes. It’s an opportunity to get a win, but more than that, it’s an opportunity to kick off the final stretch of the season with a revival of sorts, returning to the hyper-efficient passing game and bend-but-rarely-break defense that helped the Falcons get by the Browns, Seahawks, and 49ers earlier this year. Arthur Smith criticized reporters and analysts over the summer for writing the team’s obituary too early, which was fair, but he and this Falcons squad now have a prime opportunity to once again put off the inevitable eulogy.
Will they beat Pittsburgh? What’s this matchup all about? To answer that, let’s examine the matchup in a bit more detail.
Falcons - Steelers comparison
The Steelers do two things reasonably well: Get turnovers and stop the run. In every other way, they’re somewhere between mediocre and lousy, making them a seemingly ideal opponent for the Falcons to get back on track.
Or are they? Pittsburgh has been on a mini-tear of late just as the Falcons have begun to swoon, winning two of their last three and giving the Bengals hell in their sole loss. Kenny Pickett doesn’t look like the lost cause I thought he would be, the ground game is effective, and...well, the passing defense is still miserable, but that’s not a team strength for Atlanta. As has been the case so many times this year, the Falcons can’t afford to take a Pittsburgh squad finding its way a bit lightly.
The Falcons are, for all the warts and worries outlined in this morning’s roundtable by some of The Falcoholic’s brightest lights, still a capable team. The passing game has been somewhere between pedestrian and actively useless for weeks now, but we have multiple games this season where it was crisp and functional, and the Steelers are truly hapless at stopping effective aerial assaults. The ground game has proven, over and over again, to be effectively matchup-proof, which means Pittsburgh’s very good run defense is not something I’m going to lose sleep over. And defensively, again a merely okay Steelers offense that might be missing Najee Harris, I like their chances of doing enough to keep Atlanta in the game.
How the Steelers have changed
In too many ways to count. Effectively the only familiar faces for Pittsburgh from the last time Atlanta played them all the way back in 2018 are legendary coach Mike Tomlin, a handful of stud defenders like Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt, and kicker Chris Bowell. With nearly five years passing between matchups, everything else is different.
The Steelers finally got to put odious statue Ben Roethlisberger out to pasture, with Pickett being the team’s new heir apparent. Najee Harris is the team’s latest star runner, and the supporting cast on offense is wildly different than it was in the peak days of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers have, in turn, gone from a consistent contender to one of the league’s shakiest teams, something they’re hoping to have cleaned up by 2023.
Effectively, though, this is the worst Pittsburgh team Atlanta has seen since 2006, the last time they managed to beat the Steelers, and this squad is far less capable than that one. This is a time to take advantage.
What lies ahead
As I’ve alluded to many times, this should be a get-right game for the Falcons. The Steelers aren’t stellar at any one thing, and their run defense is not good enough to slow one of the league’s most effective rushing attacks all that much. An Atlanta team playing to their ability level, as limited as it might be with players like Kyle Pitts and Ta’Quon Graham on the shelf, can handle Pittsburgh at home. It’s that simple.
Of course, it’s not really that simple, because the Falcons haven’t come close to playing at the height of their powers since the game against the 49ers. They can take advantage of a suspect Steelers secondary, but they’ve thrown for over 200 yards just once in their past nine games. They should be able to pester a young quarterback, but they’ll need turnovers to do so because their pass rush is so suspect. They should outplay the Steelers, but Pittsburgh has an excellent coaching staff and the Falcons have been falling short in big moments for a while now. And so on, so long as we recognize that a more complete effort should get the job done.
The big lurking danger here, though, is not that the Falcons will play poorly but that they may make mistakes the Steelers can capitalize on. Pittsburgh has forced seven fumbles—two more than the Falcons, but still in the bottom third of the league—but have 13 interceptions, tied for the second-highest total in the entire NFL. Few teams in the league are better at punishing errant or risky throws, and those have been a feature and not a bug of this Falcons passing attack most of the year.
To win, then, Atlanta may need to avoid the obvious temptation to attack this Steelers pass defense and just do what has worked for them all year. They’ll need to bottle up Pickett and not let the Steelers run all over them, but otherwise creating their own turnovers, coming up with timely stops to force field goals, and bulldozing their way down the field on the ground seems like as good a recipe as any you’ll find for actually winning this game.
When you really boil down this matchup, as frustrating as this simple sentiment is, the Falcons should win this game if they just play well and avoid costly mistakes. Whether they can do so and reverse a slow six game slide remains to be seen, but getting a victory here is a big deal for this team’s still-dim postseason hopes and could be the spark the Falcons need to make the final few games a small triumph.
Don’t forget to check out all our coverage! We’re transitioning to using this article as our storystream for each matchup, so you can find all our Falcons - Steelers articles below.