The Steelers present a fairly unique challenge and opportunity for our Falcons. The challenge comes from a talented group of pass rushers up front—one of the most talented they’ve faced this year, if not the most talented—and a secondary that has punished mistakes by picking off passes all year long, not to mention yet another quality run defense. The opportunity comes from extremely poor coverage, the kind that could lead to the big, broken explosive plays that have fueled so much of Atlanta’s limited success through the air.
There are some big picture questions that need to be answered—can this passing attack lift out of the muck enough to punish Pittsburgh’s weakness, and can a line that has rarely been seriously challenged hold up as well as they did against Washington?—but this game is likely to come down to Atlanta continuing to run effectively and having an efficient, mistake-free day through the air. Let’s talk more about the matchup.
In the trenches
The Steelers have a terrific defensive front, unfortunately. T.J. Watt is back and obviously one of the best pass rushers in football, Cam Heyward is consistently difficult to defend against, and Alex Highsmith is absolutely rolling, with a career-high 10 sacks...through just 12 weeks. They’re part of one of the league’s better run defenses, and the pass rush can be ferocious. Pittsburgh will provide one of the stiffest challenges this offensive line has faced all year long.
That line is coming off a pretty impressive effort against Washington, one where only Colby Gossett really struggled in pass protection, and there’s a possibility that Gossett will be supplanted by one of Chuma Edoga, Jalen Mayfield, or even Elijah Wilkinson, which should only help. They shouldn’t have any trouble pushing the Steelers around to open running lanes, but in pass protection this line has run hot and cold, and it’s clear they aren’t as talented as a collective as the men opposite them in this matchup.
The skill positions
The Steelers have plenty of talent in the secondary, but their results have been incredibly uneven. Levi Wallace has allowed the eight-highest number of yards in the NFL, and Pittsburgh has two defenders in the “top” 25 for touchdowns allowed through the air, as well. They’re among the very worst pass defenses in the NFL, with coverage struggles at every level from linebacker to cornerback to safety, and that presents a prime opportunity for the Falcons. The only problem? They make up for that with a gambling, opportunistic approach that has led to the team having one of the highest interception totals in football.
Even without Kyle Pitts, the Falcons have enough to give Pittsburgh fits. Their ground game is essentially matchup-proof at this juncture, with quality blocking and the five-headed monster of Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, and Marcus Mariota virtually ensuring Atlanta will have a good day on the ground. Things are dicier through the air, where the team’s ability to take advantage of mismatches is dented by Pitts’ absence and the specter of costly mistakes, but there’s certainly still enough talent amongst the group of Olamide Zaccheaus, Cordarrelle Patterson, Drake London, and MyCole Pruitt to at least create a solid, efficient attack.
In the end, it’s probably a wash. The Steelers are an improving but deeply flawed defense with the pass rush ability and turnover-happiness necessary to make this a long day for the Falcons, but Atlanta still should be able to run against them and take advantage of a secondary that has struggled mightily in coverage much of the year.
It will, unfortunately or fortunately, probably come down to how many mistakes and turnovers the Steelers can force Atlanta to make. A clean game from this offense should help them break out of their recent stretch of low-scoring efforts, and they might need to with the Steelers offense finding its footing. We’ll get to that tomorrow.