The Atlanta Falcons face another tough matchup at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13. Of course, there are many intriguing players entering the weekend for both teams. Yet, it is impossible to name more than five Falcons that pique such interest, as we all know.
However, I am tasked each week to do my utmost to select the five most captivating and alluring Falcons, and it is a duty I take seriously.
Given the absence of tight end Kyle Pitts the past two weeks, one would expect the Falcons to feature their other first-round pass-catcher in Drake London quite a bit. Unfortunately, that hasn’t quite been the case, as London has just a combined three catches for 31 yards over the past two games. Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has targeted receivers 29 times since Pitts suffered his season-ending knee injury in the second half against the Chicago Bears. Only four of those targets have been in London’s direction, and too often it has appeared recently that the Falcons’ veteran quarterback and their promising young receiver haven’t been on the same page.
That issue needs to be corrected this week against the Steelers, and the Falcons need to show that they can find ways to incorporate their high-profile receivers into the offense on a more regular basis. That has been an oft-discussed issue involving Pitts throughout this season and the Falcons can’t let that narrative continue down the stretch with London as they look to make a playoff push.
Another player that theoretically should also benefit production-wise from the absence of Pitts is running back Cordarrelle Patterson. However, similarly to London, the Falcons have not done a great job incorporating the running back into their passing game this season. Overall, backs have been targeted on less than 15 percent of the team’s passes this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL.
This development has devastated Patterson’s production after a breakout 2021 where he was the fifth-most targeted back in the NFL. Patterson took advantage of those frequent opportunities last year, leading running backs with eight explosive receptions of 20 yards or more. That production was thanks to his well-honed skillset as a kickoff returner that makes him dangerous with the ball in his hands. Patterson has yet to generate an explosive play on a single reception this year, so that skillset has been mostly wasted.
But there are signs of progress in recent weeks as backs have been targeted on 24 percent of Mariota’s passes since Pitts’ injury, with Patterson seeing five targets last week against the Washington Commanders. That matched the total of targets he had seen in his six previous outings this year combined. As is the case with London, the Falcons need to do a better job getting the ball into the hands of a playmaker like Patterson if this passing game is going to show progress down the stretch.
There remains uncertainty at left guard heading into this Steelers matchup, with injuries to Chuma Edoga and Elijah Wilkinson likely prompting Colby Gossett to make his second consecutive start at the position this weekend. It’ll mark Gossett’s fourth start this season, as the Falcons have played musical chairs at left guard with four separate players logging starts there in 2022. That number might increase with the potential return of Jalen Mayfield off injured reserve during the bye week.
But in the meantime, Gossett will have his hands full for the second week in a row when he faces Steelers All-Pro defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. Gossett held his own against Commanders Pro Bowler Jonathan Allen last week and will need to do so again on Sunday if the Falcons are going to establish their run game against a formidable Steelers front that currently ranks sixth in rushing defense. If Gossett handles himself reasonably well, it will allow the Falcons a bit more leeway coming out of their Week 14 bye to be more patient with the others battling back from injuries. It could also solidify the possibility that Gossett could be in the mix to compete for a starting job come 2023 should he return as a restricted free agent this offseason.
Another impending free agent along the offensive line is right tackle Kaleb McGary. After inconsistent early seasons in Atlanta, McGary is in the midst of his best year since joining the team in 2019 as a surprise first-round selection. But part of McGary’s success in 2022 is related to the fact that he hasn’t faced a ton of premium competition this year. Injuries to Jadeveon Clowney and Nick Bosa earlier in the year proved fortunate timing for McGary. But he won’t have quite the same luck with 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt coming to town this weekend.
However, Lady Luck continues to give McGary a playful smirk. Watt has missed most of 2022 with a pectoral injury and since returning to the Steelers lineup in Week 10, hasn’t quite looked the same. Despite not being the same player that tied the NFL record 22.5 sacks a season ago, Watt remains a dangerous pass-rusher who can still expose McGary’s biggest weakness in handling speed. If McGary can hold his own even against a diminished Watt, it will potentially help line his pockets this offseason if/when he hits the open market and receives a lucrative extension from the Falcons or another team.
The last intriguing player for the Falcons entering this weekend is second-year cornerback Darren Hall. Stepping in for injured starter Casey Hayward back in Week 7, Hall has been up and down in the weeks since. Things appeared better for him when Hall lined up across from Cornell Armstrong and Rashad Fenton when both filled in for a then-injured A.J. Terrell. Opposing quarterbacks regularly attacked both Armstrong and Fenton, given they appeared to be weaker links. But since Terrell’s return in Week 11, Hall now appears to be the secondary’s softer spot and it has led to increased struggles.
Hall still has a golden opportunity to carve out a more permanent role opposite Terrell with five games remaining this season. But he needs to show that he can handle the extra attention he’ll receive playing opposite Terrell. This week, he’ll be matched up against George Pickens and Diontae Johnson, a very promising duo of receivers in Pittsburgh. Both are more than capable of exploiting vulnerabilities in the Falcons’ secondary, so Hall needs to get rid of the target on his back and show that he is not one of those weaknesses. .
Are there other Falcons that you can name that you believe merit intrigue on Sunday against the Steelers?