Steelers, Falcons aim to start respective turnarounds
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-2-1 and tied for last place in the AFC North at the quarter-pole of the season. The Atlanta Falcons are 1-3 and in last in the NFC South.
Both teams will be trying to take the first step toward saving their respective seasons when they meet on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin came to several conclusions about his team after studying what took place during the first four games.
First and foremost, he said, the Steelers have to find ways to start games better. The Steelers have been outscored 42-6 in the first quarter this season. That can't continue to happen if the Steelers want to contend for a playoff berth.
"We have to get out of the gates quicker," Tomlin said. "We can't spot people points in the NFL. We have to do a better job starting games on both sides of the ball."
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn saw good things from his defense that he'd like to see carry over when the team travels to Pittsburgh. Quinn said the defense, which gave up 43 points to the Saints and 37 points to the Bengals, has shown improvement.
He mentioned how the team's tackling and pass rush has gotten better.
"I thought tackling was at the top of the list," Quinn said. "We're back down into single digits (for missed tackles) and that part of the game was certainly better. I thought from a pass-rush standpoint, it was much improved from the week prior."
That doesn't bode well for a Steelers offense that not only has failed to score on their first possession in a game, but had three three-and-outs to begin their first three games. Against the Ravens, they committed a turnover in their own territory to make things even worse.
The Steelers haven't run the ball with effectiveness in their past three games, and their passing game hit a stumbling block against the Ravens, who have the top-ranked defense in the league.
The biggest issue with the passing game is Antonio Brown's production. Brown, a perennial All-Pro, has yet to record a 100-yard receiving game and remains well below his career average in yards per game.
"We've seen so many things in the last nine years," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's hard to show anything different. I just think I have to play better to get his numbers (up), which in turn help get us wins."
Tomlin is confident Roethlisberger and Brown will get on the same page soon.
"We missed some opportunities in the (Ravens) game, especially on possessions downs," Tomlin said. "I've seen that tandem throughout the years. They'll smooth it out. They'll find a rhythm. Over the course of a journey the cream rises. I anticipate that happening. They'll be the formidable tandem they always are."
The Steelers have to be much better on defense, too. The Falcons bring with them one of the NFL's top passing attacks. They are averaging 29 points per game and throw for 315 yards per game.
All-Pro Julio Jones leads the league with 502 receiving yards, and rookie Calvin Ridley leads the league with six touchdown catches.
"Julio Jones is a load," Tomlin said. "He's big, he's physical and he's fast. They utilize him in a lot of ways."
Jones has yet to score a touchdown this season, and Ridley has six. Tomlin said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has seen defenses play similar defenses on Jones that Roethlisberger is seeing for Brown. They're getting double-teamed and other players have had to step up.
"We have to work to minimize Ridley," Tomlin said. "He's a young, hot hand."
Quinn said he thought pressure from the ends and the tackles has gotten better. This despite the team being without defensive end Derrick Shelby. The Falcons had three sacks against the Bengals, all of them courtesy of Takk McKinley and all coming in the second half.
With Shelby's status uncertain and with tackle Grady Jarrett tweaking his ankle late in the game, the Falcons strengthened their roster by signing veteran Michael Bennett. He was released by Jacksonville, who drafted him out of Ohio State in the sixth round in 2015. Bennett (6-foot-2, 287 pounds) played 13 games in 2015 and had 10 tackles and one-half sack. He played only one game in 2017.
There won't be any final decision on Jarrett until later in the week, possibly on game day. He sprained an ankle and it's been difficult for him to get around.
"It was tough not having him go," Quinn said. "You know how tough he is, so for him to have to be out and not be able to finish because he is as all-in as it gets and as tough as it gets. That was a tough blow for us."
If Jarrett can't go, he'll join safety Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones on the sideline. That will make things even tougher against Roethlisberger and Brown, two of the league's top offensive threats.
"It's the explosiveness that their team has and so as good and explosive as Antonio is, they've got a full complement of guys that they use as receivers and tight ends and backs," Quinn said. "They make it very challenging, just because of the different guys they go to in matchups. Much like us where there was nine guys who caught passes (Sunday), they got a full arsenal and full stable of guys that they like to feature."
Sunday's meeting will be the 17th regular-season meeting between the teams. The Steelers lead 13-2-1. Three of the past four games in this series have gone to overtime. The Steelers have won the past two games, including a 15-9 overtime win the last time the Falcons visited Heinz Field in 2010. Atlanta's two wins against the Steelers came in 1970 and 2006. The game in '06 went to overtime, with the Falcons pulling out a 41-38 victory.
Updated October 3, 2018