Week 13 is here, and the Atlanta Falcons are right back to two games below .500 after blowing a game-winning opportunity against the Washington Commanders. Atlanta now returns home to face an opponent coming off the strongest three-game stretch of their season in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Needless to say, with Atlanta sitting at 5-7, this is a must-win game for their slim playoff hopes.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Steelers, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Pittsburgh expert: Jeff Hartman. Jeff is a Senior Editor over at Behind the Steel Curtain, SB Nation’s site for all things Pittsburgh Steelers.
I brought five questions to Jeff to try to get a better sense of the Steelers recent resurgence, including the development of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and T.J. Watt’s return to the defensive lineup.
Q1. The Steelers had a really tough start to the season, but have rebounded after the bye. What do you attribute the improvements to, and do you think Pittsburgh can finish strong in 2022?
Jeff Hartman: I do think the Steelers can, and will, finish strong in 2022, and it all starts up front for the team. The offensive line is getting some serious push in the run game, and the rush defense has stepped up their game to make teams one-dimensional. The running game on offense has helped take some of the pressure off Kenny Pickett, and the team has responded by posting over 100 yards rushing every week since their Week 9 bye. On top of that, they haven’t turned the ball over since their Week 8 game in Philadelphia, all while taking the ball away twice in the three games since the bye. In other words, they’re using the age-old way of winning with a rookie: Run the ball, stop the run, don’t turn it over, and take the ball away. It’s simple, but that’s what they’re doing and having success doing it
Q2. As you mentioned in your questions to me, the Falcons and Steelers had a remarkably similar QB situation heading into the season. Pittsburgh went in with veteran Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, while Atlanta brought in veteran Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder. It didn’t take Pickett long to get on the field for the Steelers, and he’s taken his lumps so far this year. How do you feel about Pickett, and do you think the team made the right call going to him so early?
Jeff: Personally, I think the team botched the handling of the QB situation since Day 1. Not in the fact they signed Trubisky, but how they handled the “open competition” in training camp and the preseason. Why I used quotations there is because there was never an open competition. Mike Tomlin handed the job to Trubisky, and stuck with the decision no matter what. Trubisky never had the look of a capable quarterback, and the team turns to Pickett in Week 4 when he hadn’t had real repetitions with players like Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Diontae Johnson outside of individual drills due to the way the team orchestrated their plan at the position. The nice thing about the decision though is it is getting Pickett experience. He has improved every week he’s played, and seems to be figuring out how to play the position at the NFL level. He talks openly about the process, and how the wide array of looks NFL defenses give throughout the game has been the biggest shift from college. He’s getting better, and has the look of a guy who could be the quarterback for a while
Q3. Najee Harris, who looks like the engine of the Steelers offense, got banged up last week and has missed practice. How concerned are you about Harris’ status, and what would his loss mean for the offense? Who is the next man up if Harris is out?
Jeff: If Najee Harris misses the game, but Jaylen Warren returns from his hamstring injury, I think the Steelers running game will be okay. A combination of Warren, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland would be one heck of a running back by committee. They all have a unique skill set and could cause headaches for opposing defenses. However, if Harris is able to play, I expect he will be limited in his touches and time, which would equate to more reps for the other backs.
Q4. There are few players more important to a defense than T.J. Watt, and he’s finally made his return to the Steelers. Which is good, because Pittsburgh’s defense was really struggling statistically this season. What were the issues that were causing the poor performance, and what does Watt’s return mean for the defense?
Jeff: Watt’s return means everything for the defense. Since he was drafted in 2017, the Steelers have only had 1 win and 1 tie when Watt doesn’t play. But the issues with the defense are many. They lack the interior push from the defensive front they typically had which equates into the quarterback having nowhere to go when the pressure of the edge is imminent. Couple that with cornerbacks who are CB2, at best, and you lack a true leader who can be matched up with the opposition’s best receiver and help negate them throughout the game. The Steelers have a good core on defense, but have several holes which need filled this offseason either via free agency or the NFL Draft.
Q5. The line seems to be moving constantly on DraftKings, but the Falcons are currently back to being 1-point favorites over the Steelers at home. What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
Jeff: This is a game I think the Steelers find a way to win back-to-back games for the first time this season. The Falcons like to run the football, and the Steelers like to stop the run. This game could come down to which team can run the ball the best, and I like the way the Steelers are trending after putting up 172 yards on the ground against a very good Indianapolis defense. It will be close, and could be higher scoring than most think, but I like the Steelers, especially if they’re getting points.
Many thanks to Jeff Hartman for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @JHartman_PIT, and if you’re in the mood for a Steelers perspective on things, follow Behind the Steel Curtain at @btsteelcurtain.