The Falcons sat their starters and gave reserves and roster hopefuls (I should trademark that, I’ve typed it a lot) their big, final shot to make the team. From an evaluation standpoint, the Falcons surely have plenty to look at and consider. From a gameplay perspective, it was a bloodbath.
Pittsburgh went up immediately and never looked back, running the score up to 24-0 at halftime. The Falcons barely managed to stop anything until late in the second quarter and barely moved the ball until around the same timeframe, even after Pittsburgh’s reserves came in. By that point the frustration in the fanbase about starters sitting was at a rolling boil, and the fact that things settled into a scoreless slugfest from there did nothing to cure that. It goes without saying that all eyes will be on the starters come Week 1 against the Panthers, but it is worth remembering that there are very few teams in the NFL where the backups aren’t going to look completely overwhelmed against another team’s full starting lineup.
Now, though, preseason is over, and the Falcons did get the look at reserves that they wanted. That was good news for DeMarcco Hellams, who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine thanks to his consistent play and fundamental soundness as a defender, and roster hopefuls like Keilahn Harris, LaCale London, and others. It was bad news for Josh Miles, Tyler Vrabel, Jalen Mayfield, and Breon Borders, among others, who struggled at times and may find themselves on the outside looking in as a result. The Falcons will weigh that all carefully and try to assemble their best possible roster, with outside acquisitions more a given than a likelihood at spots like tackle.
If you sat out the slog or you just want a refresher on who did what, our instant recap is below.
The Falcons kicked off, and a penalty on the opening kickoff ensured Pittsburgh was backed up right away. Immediate pressure and nice coverage by Clark Phillips resulted in just a two yard pass on the first play of the drive, and then Natrone Brooks and company swarmed to Najee Harris to hold him to a three yard carry. Unfortunately, Kenny Pickett then hit Diontae Johnson down the sideline against Breon Borders. Then Jaylen Warren picked up several yards on a carry, with Brooks picking up another tackle. Harris then got a hole thanks to Jaylinn Hawkins overshooting the gap and picked up a first down. A quick run stop by DeMarcco Hellams and others prevented a gain, and then a big sideline shot to George Pickens nearly went for a touchdown despite quality coverage by Natrone Brooks. Harris then quickly punched in a touchdown. 7-0 Steelers.
Mathew Sexton fielded the return and fought through contact, though he was a little hesitant to go forward. Then Godwin Igwebuike was destroyed in the backfield on the first carry, Taylor Heinicke was swiftly sacked by T.J. Watt on second down, and John FitzPatrick dropped a low ball to end the drive. Punt.
The return was a successful one, putting the Steelers in excellent field position. A short pass to Naje Harris led to a huge gain on first down. Tae Davis followed that up with a nice tackle to stop what otherwise would’ve been more than five yards. Another touchdown on a run by Warren extended the lead further. 14-0 Steelers.
Igwebuike got a yard before he was hit. The next play wasn’t much better, but a 12 men on the field penalty helped Atlanta pick up a few yards. Igwebuike picked up a handful of yards on the following play, and then Taylor Heinicke impressively escaped pressure and then essentially threw it away. Punt.
Mitch Trubisky came in and immediately completed a 15 yard pass. Tae Davis blew into the backfield and disrupted the play and LaCale London cleaned up with a nice tackle to limit the next play to two yards. Unfortunately, Warren then took the ball a long way once again. A nice run stop by Joe Gaziano gave way to another big gain and a first down as the Steelers continued to roll with reserves, followed by a quick plunge that picked up a couple of yards. Three more yards followed on the next run, and then pressure finally got Trubisky off his game and Demone Harris picked up the sack. The Steelers settled for a field goal to make it 17-0.
Sexton returned the next kick and managed a nice return, getting the Falcons to the 25. He also caught the next pass from Logan Woodside for about five yards, with Carlos Washington getting stymied on the next carry. That (mercifully) ended the first quarter.
John FitzPatrick got the grab for the first first down of the evening for Atlanta, depressingly. Washington got nowhere on the next carry. Woodside’s next pass was deflected, but the next connected with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for five yards. That was not a first down, so punt again from the great Bradley Pinion.
Breon Borders managed a nice tackle to save a run that otherwise would’ve gone more than six yards. Anthony McFarland didn’t make it far on the next play, with Tae Davis making the tackle. Davis chipped in on the next tackle, but McFarland managed the first down. Trubisky then completed a pass for eight yards, with McFarland getting eaten alive by Joe Gaziano on the next play. Unfortunately, Trubisky got 11 on the next play to Connor Heyward. A false start backed up Pittsburgh, and then Demone Harris came in to make a tackle for a loss. The next play went nowhere, but a holding call on Brooks led to a Pittsburgh first down. Atlanta picked up back-to-back tackles to prevent any significant gains, with Hellams adding one on second down, and it was 3rd and 6. A pass interference call on Breon Borders on the next play got the Steelers close, and then McFarland plowed thorugh the middle of the defense to score. 24-0 Steelers.
Woodside then hit Keilahn Harris for a 26 yard gain, the first really big play of the night for Atlanta. The following play was less impressive, as Parker Hesse appeared to miss an opportunity to block Elandon Roberts, who blew into the backfield for a 14 yard loss on a sack. Woodside then found Hesse for five yards, followed by a Woodside throw that was a little behind Igwebuike. Punt.
A few yards on the next carry, with Natrone Brooks getting the tackle. Another solid tackle gave way to Clark Phillips with solid coverage but a missed tackle, which allowed a first down. Brooks broke up the next pass, the first incompletion of the night for the Steelers, and then Trubisky scrambled for 23 yards and broke what was left of my Thursday evening spirit. He did have the courtesy to miss badly on his next throw. A short throw was stopped after two yards by Hellams, and on third down, Mikes Jones Jr. came up with the sack to force a punt from Pittsburgh at last.
A couple of yards for Washington on first down, followed by a quick pass over the middle to Harris for about five yards. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside made the critical catch on third down and fought for extra yardage, coming away with the third down. Woodside was under pressure on the next play and threw downfield but short of his receiver. A pass interference call gave the Falcons a first, but then Woodside threw high to Josh Ali on the next play and Ali took a pretty big hit. Washington picked up a couple of yards and the half was over.
Josh Ali got us going with a nice catch and run, continuing to show well in his opportunities outside of a drop in the first preseason game. Igwebuike then got the first down and a few yards, but Woodside was sacked on the next play thanks to Jalen Mayfield getting beaten badly. Woodside then scrambled for a few yards, Igwebuike picked up a couple, and Mathew Sexton picked up a first down on a dart from Woodside. Arcega-Whiteside then came down with an impressive leaping catch on the sideline just shy of the marker, but seemed to be hurt after the reception. Sexton picked up a low pass after Woodside escaped pressure, and then Parker Hesse got a yard, followed by Washington getting a yard. Washington then picked up a first down on a short pass from Woodside, and then a foul on Pittsburgh brought the Falcons closer to the goal line. Woodside threw it a bit short of FitzPatrick on the next play, and then Washington fumbled on the next carry and Pittsburgh recovered.
Pittsburgh picked up a first down on three plays, capped off by a short Mason Rudolph scramble. Jones Jr. stopped what otherwise would’ve been a first down run on the next play. The Steelers ground to a halt after that thanks to some strong coverage, and ultimately punted.
Woodside hit Harris again, as the rookie continued to enjoy a nice night. The drive stalled out from there, but did feature a falling Woodside hitting Parker Hesse for a decent gain. Punt.
The Steelers made it nine yards on their next drive, which is not enough for a first down. Third quarter over.
The Steelers converted a fourth down plunge by Rudolph. LaCale London got a nice run stop and then Rudolph wildly overthrew the second down pass, but on third down Rudolph completed the pass under pressure despite a facemask from Demone Harris. A short run followed, followed by another short run, followed by a pass slipping through a Steeler receiver’s hands. Punt.
Washington picked up about five on first down, and then picked up seven yards on a strike from Woodside, continuing to show well as a receiving option out of the backfield. Keilahn Harris then caught back-to-back passes for a first down before Washington took a carry for about three yards. Josh Ali snagged the next catch, but the drive then bogged down thanks to a tipped ball and a false start on Jovaughn Gwyn, and the Falcons ultimately punted.
Pittsburgh seemed eager to wrap things up. A pair of carries went four yards, and on third down, Rudolph went deep and didn’t connect, with smart coverage from Darren Hall. Punt.
Woodside immediately went to Carlos Washington for six yards, and Washington then took it for a yard. On the next play, Washington carried it again, picking up two and ending up a little short of a first down. The fourth down attempt was unsuccessful.
The Falcons got pressure on the next play, forcing a panicky Rudolph throw to nowhere. The subsequent handoff went nowhere, and then Rudolph missed downfield. A missed field goal gave the Falcons the ball back.
Logan Woodside was hurt on the next play on a strip sack, which was a huge sour note. Fortunately, he did start throwing on the sideline, which hopefully means he does not have a significant injury.
The Steelers stalled out thanks in huge part to a big stop by Andre Smith Jr. on third down. They went for in on 4th and 11, and Rudolph’s inaccuracy fortunately prevented a touchdown on a shot to the end zone.
Woodside returned, which was a relief, and immediately connected with Washington. On the next play he scrambled to get the team to 3rd and 1, then connected with Slade Bolden for a first down. Bolden caught a pass for a few yards on the next play, with Woodside finding Washington for several yards on following that. A Washington carry for about four yards followed, and then the final timeout left 24 seconds left. Woodside was sacked again on the next play, and with time winding down, the team was not able to get off one more play. 24-0, Steelers.