Atlanta has struggled against the Steelers since the beginning of time, and Sunday was no different. The Falcons struggled early, rallied late, and then fall apart at the very end to ensure the Steelers would pull off a close win, moving Atlanta to a dismal 4-8 in one score games on the season.
The Falcons needed this win, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way they came out. Atlanta’s defense allowed Pittsburgh to score on all four of their first half drives, with three field goals and one really dispiriting touchdown drive, and the offense simply couldn’t do much about it as Marcus Mariota missed passes, receivers dropped opportunities, and the team leaned away from the ground game. They went into halftime down 16-6 at home in a game with high stakes, which suggested a very hard ceiling for this team, and came out after the half and squandered a fast start.
The Falcons, of course, have excelled at hanging around even when they look terrible along the way, and they did it again in this one. Down 19-6 late in the third quarter, the Falcons put together their first great drive of the day to close the gap to six points, and then got a stop and a long drive that seemed destined to give them the lead. Instead, they Falconed it up—two penalties, a high Mariota throw, potentially a missed penalty that wasn’t really in their control—and Koo was able to close the gap to three points.
Unfortunately, the next drive was defined by quality Pittsburgh gains and Arthur Smith’s decision to not call a timeout until after the two minute warning, likely in the hopes that Atlanta would get the ball back with time and timeouts to work with. Instead, Pittsburgh picked up a first down on a surprise pass and forced Atlanta to then call three straight timeouts. The Steelers would punt with less than a minute to go, giving Atlanta one last desperation drive, but Mariota threw an interception on the first play and the game was over.
The 5-8 Falcons head into the bye needing to make changes in the name of ensuring they can be successful in 2023, whether that’s a big shift at quarterback, younger players getting opportunities at cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver, and other positions. Regardless, they exceeded our expectations through the first six games and then have crashed down to earth hard over the next seven efforts, making it clear how important all that cap space and another big draft haul will be. We’ll just hope the last four games are fun and give us hope for the future.
Here’s the full drive-by-drive recap.
My DirectTV was a nightmare so I missed the first minute or so of the game, but I caught up. The Steelers moved slowly and methodically for a pair of early first downs despite some actual pressure from the Falcons defense. A false start backed up Pittsburgh slightly, but then Kenny Pickett seemed to connect with Steven Sims for a diving catch that went 21 yards. That play was overturned, and then an 8 yard gain to Jaylen Warren got the Steelers to 3rd and 7. Pat Freiermuth caught it for 9 for a first down, and then a pair of Najee Harris runs and a Pickett sneak earned another first down. Fortunately, Richie Grant blew up Pickett on the next play for a five yard loss, and then Pickett missed George Pickens and Freiermuth on the next two plays. Matthew Wright doinked it off the side but it went in. 3-0 Steelers.
Marcus Mariota threw a first down to Drake London right away on a play action pass, and then found Olamide Zaccheaus for a couple of yards. Cordarrelle Patterson fought through a missed tackle and picked up seven yards for a first down, and then Mariota looked for London again but the rookie receiver couldn’t get it. Caleb Huntley ran it for eight, but a holding call on Feleipe Franks wiped out the gain and made it 2nd and 20. Mariota threw it too high for KhaDarel Hodge over the middle of the field on the next play, a false start backed the Falcons up on the next play, and then he threw it to Damiere Byrd for 11 yards and the Falcons had to punt.
Picket ran for nine yards on first down, and then Harris got the first down. A quick pass and then a direct handoff to Sims got another first down. Benny Snell ran for three, and then Diontae Johnson picked up nine yards, and then Snell picked up several. That was the entire first quarter.
The grinding ground game kept working for the Steelers right up until it didn’t, thanks to a first down run stop for Adetokunbo Ogundeji. Pickett took a deep shot that didn’t quite connect on the next play, and then Johnson dropped a pass intended for him to end the drive. Wright took the field for another field goal attempt and drilled it. 6-0 Steelers.
Tyler Allgeier kicked things off with a big run, and then picked up a yard on the next play. Mariota found Parker Hesse for a first down and then some, a 17 yard pickup, and then found London for 13 on the next play as the Falcons got just outside the 20 yard line. Patterson got blown up in the backfield on first down, then Mariota threw an off-target pass that Levi Wallace almost intercepted. On third down, Mariota couldn’t find an open man in the first couple of seconds and was swarmed by Pittsburgh defenders for a sack, leaving Koo to hit a 50 yarder. 6-3 Steelers.
Pickett went for Johnson on first down deep downfield and just missed. Najee Harris got six yards, and then Pickett found Freiermuth, who broke a pair of tackles and rumbled all the way down inside the 15 yard line for a huge, embarrassing gain. The Steelers picked up a false start on first down, but Pickett found Connor Heyward (Craig’s son) for a touchdown on the next play. 13-3 Steelers.
Mariota found London for a big gain down the sideline on first down, but then Patterson was hit in the backfield on the next run. Mariota got a low snap from Dalman, escaped pressure and tried to hit Hodge downfield, but the throw took a little while to get there and the Pittsburgh defender was able to interfere with it just enough to make life hard for Hodge, who had it but didn’t come down with it. It was still an insanely impressive play from Mariota, and then a 10 yard pickup from Anthony Firkser set up a long field goal try. Koo hit a 54 yarder to close the gap. 13-6 Steelers.
Pickens found Johnson for 20 yards down the sideline right away. Sims got the ball again for seven yards on a carry, and then Warren got a first down. A quick run and a quick pass to Harris got another first down as the clock wound down. Sims picked up three on first down and then the Falcons took a timeout, and then Grant chased down Pickett and forced him to throw it away. On third down, Pickett threw it to the sideline to Sims, but a penalty cost them a down and forced a long field goal try with 1:34 on the clock. Wright hit the attempt. 16-6 Steelers.
The Falcons had a little time to score and Mariota wasted no time, finding London for about eight yards and then Olamide Zaccheaus for a first down and then some. On first down, Mariota couldn’t find Zaccheaus on a pass, and then he missed London high. On third down, he threw it just a little high and a defender got a hand on it, forcing a punt.
Cordarrelle Patterson got the ball on first down and got just a yard thanks to an ankle tackle, with Terrell Edmunds injuring himself on the play. Caleb Huntley then picked up several yards on second down, setting up a Marcus Mariota keeper for a first down. Huntley picked up a few yards on first down, and the Mariota whiffed badly downfield to Olamide Zaccheaus. A delay of game penalty backed the Falcons up five yards, and then Mariota found himself under pressure and throwing off his back foot, which resulted in a wild overthrow deep downfield to an open London. Punt.
Najee Harris picked up a few on first down, and then the Steelers picked up a first down. Pickett then ran for several yards, and Benny Snell got about four on second down. and then picked up the first down. Pickett threw it into the dirt on first down, but Harris rescued the drive with some nice pickups on the ground. A throw to Benny Snell then picked up 11, and a horse collar tackle call on Richie Grant added 15. A false start fortunately backed Pittsburgh up, but Snell picked up a handful of yards on first and 15. Pickett then targeted Johnson in the end zone, but A.J. Terrell was all over him and prevented the catch. A delay of game penalty made it 3rd and 18. They threw a screen to Warren, but it did not get close. Wright hit his attempt, however. 19-6 Steelers.
Mariota ran it for nine yards on first down, and then Patterson picked up a first down. Then Patterson picked up another first down on a nice run, and then another first down on a huge run. Tyler Allgeier got about six on first down, then close to three on second down, and then a defensive call helped out. Then Mariota was able to find MyCole Pruitt, who stretched out for a touchdown grab to help close the gap for Atlanta. 19-13 Steelers.
The Steelers wanted to widen the gap, and a quick two yard pass to Pickens got things going. They didn’t pick up much on second down, and the quarter was over.
The fourth quarter got off to an interesting start, with the Steelers fumbling it away and the Falcons picking it up. Unfortunately, the call was overturned (and should not have been), but Pittsburgh still had to punt.
A few yards for Allgeier to start things off, and then Mariota hit London for a first down. Then Patterson picked up a handful of yards, there were a couple more on the next carry by Allgeier, and then a pitch to Allgeier got a first down. Allgeier picked up about six on first down, and then only a yard on second down, and then a couple of yards on third down. Fortunately, he picked up a first down on fourth down. Patterson followed that up with six yards, and then got close to a first down on second down, with Mariota hitting Anthony Firkser for a first down on the next play. Patterson jogged in for a touchdown, but a holding call on Parker Hesse backed it up. Huntley then picked up three yards, and then Jake Matthews was called for a false start. A throw to London picked up several yards, setting up a long third and goal where Mariota threw it too high for London to get, though it seemed like the Steelers defender had a lot of contact in coverage. Koo drilled the field goal attempt, though, to get it within three points. 19-16 Steelers.
The Steelers needed to score points to salt it away. They got a first down after a couple of plays and kept the clock running down to four minutes, and then a couple of nice runs picked up another first down. A short first down run brought Pittsburgh to the two minute warning. Diontae Johnson grabbed a first down catch, which finally prompted Arthur Smith to call a timeout. Then Harris picked up several yards and the Falcons called their second timeout, and then they called their third on a short pickup. The Steelers ran it with Pickett on third down and let the clock wind down as far as they could, and then set up a punt with 51 seconds on the clock. A huge punt took almost 10 seconds off the clock and set the Falcons up with the ball inside the five yard line.
Mariota threw a pass that was intercepted on the very next play, effectively ending the game. The Steelers won.