The Atlanta Falcons (1-3) and Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2-1) were both popular preseason picks to win their divisions and make a serious run at the Super Bowl. Both teams now find themselves in desperation mode, residing at the bottom of their respective divisions, with just one win apiece heading into Sunday’s highly anticipated cross-conference tilt at Heinz Field.
If not for three last-minute collapses, the Falcons would be sitting at 4-0 right now. Their most recent unravelling came in the form of a heartbreaking 37-36 loss at home to the Bengals. Atlanta’s offense once again put up monster numbers, just as it did in Week 3’s overtime loss to the Saints. However, it wasn’t enough to make up for an overly generous defense that has been hit extremely hard by the injury bug this season. And a potent Pittsburgh passing attack won’t make life any easier for this defense on the road.
The Steelers’ poor start to the season can largely be attributed to the defensive side of the football as well. But the Pittsburgh defense can’t shoulder all the blame. The Le’Veon Bell fiasco continues to be a notable distraction. Turnovers and penalties have played a big role. And it doesn’t help that the offense has not scored a single point in the second half of three games this season, including last Sunday night in the 26-14 home loss to the Ravens. A beat-up Falcons’ defense should provide a solution to the Steelers’ second-half scoring woes on Sunday. The real challenge will be trying keep pace with one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL in a shootout.
Atlanta at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Pittsburgh passing game vs. Atlanta pass defense
Ben Roethlisberger has an extensive track record of carving up bad pass defenses, and the NFL’s leading passer (353.5 ypg) should have a golden opportunity to do it again on Sunday. Standout wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster should have little trouble navigating their way around a short-handed Falcons’ secondary to aid in the effort. Atlanta enters Week 5 with the 25th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, allowing 284 yards per game. Big Ben and the Steeler offensive line will need to be mindful of Atlanta defensive end Takk McKinley off the edge. McKinley is tied for second in the NFL with five sacks, while 2016 NFL sack champion Vic Beasley can bring the heat as well. Otherwise, this is a matchup that the Pittsburgh passing attack should be able to exploit with ease.
2. Atlanta passing game vs. Pittsburgh pass defense
There has not been a hotter passing game in the NFL over the last two weeks than that of the Falcons. During that span, Matt Ryan has thrown for close to 800 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Of course, it helps when you have one of the best receiving corps in the league at your disposal. Rookie wideout Calvin Ridley has been exceptional in his emerging role in the Falcons’ passing game, and now leads all NFL receivers with six touchdown catches. Meanwhile, no one in the NFL has more receiving yards than elite pass catcher Julio Jones with 502. Mohamed Sanu cannot be overlooked as a viable threat either. Sanu is coming off a 111-yard performance against the Bengals.
Atlanta’s high-octane passing attack should be extremely concerning for a Pittsburgh secondary that has been routinely torched for big plays throughout the early going. The Steelers’ pass defense currently sits 29th in the NFL, allowing 304.8 yards per game. Additionally, Pittsburgh has given up 12 touchdowns through the air (second most in the NFL). It should prove to be nothing short of a field day for Matt Ryan and company against the generous Pittsburgh pass defense on Sunday.
3. Run game X-factor?
Most of the buzz surrounding this matchup lies in the potential for an exciting shootout through the air, and justifiably so. That said, both teams have reason to be optimistic about their respective ground attacks on Sunday. It’s also likely that the run game will play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome.
Atlanta’s optimism lies in the return of running back Devonta Freeman this week. The Falcons’ 21st-ranked rushing attack (96 ypg) has been fairly unspectacular without him. And Freeman should provide a much-needed boost against a Steelers’ run defense that ranks just 21st in the league (115.8 ypg). Freeman’s return will be very beneficial to the Falcons’ passing game as well.
Pittsburgh has not been afforded the luxury of being able to run the football much this season, playing from behind most weeks. That could easily happen again on Sunday against the Falcons. However, if the Steelers can avoid such a fate, they should be able to establish a successful ground game with James Conner. The Falcons are among just four NFL defenses giving up five yards or more per carry to opposing running backs. They also have allowed six rushing touchdowns in four games (second most in the NFL). James Conner is not Le’Veon Bell, but he should be able to take advantage of a leaky Atlanta run defense that will be even more vulnerable without Grady Jarrett (ankle) anchoring the defensive line on Sunday.
It’s hard to imagine the Steelers losing at home in back-to-back weeks against a team with a 1-3 record, and a struggling defense decimated by injury. However, the Pittsburgh defense has proven itself to be equally inept, and this is not an ideal time to face a red-hot Atlanta passing attack. It also doesn’t bode well that the Steelers enter Week 5 as the most penalized and turnover-prone team in the NFL.
Pittsburgh should have no problem putting points on the scoreboard in front of the home crowd against the undermanned Atlanta defense. The problem is, the Falcons are better equipped to score more points. Regardless of which team comes out on top, it should be a shootout, and it will be fun to watch.
Prediction: Falcons 34, Steelers 31
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.