By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off of a high-scoring win over the Cincinnati Bengals, will travel to the Georgia Dome on Sunday to take on an Atlanta Falcons team that faltered early against the Green Bay Packers on Monday night. The Falcons struggled early, going down to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 17-7, by the mid-point of the second quarter. Atlanta was down 28-7 at the half in what looked to be another NFC South loss. With a great second half effort, the Falcons were able to get to within six points of Green Bay after a 2-yard touchdown catch by Harry Douglas with 2:15 left in the game. In the end, the Falcons couldn’t hold on and dropped to 5-8, but remain in a first-place tie in their division with an equally handicapped New Orleans Saints. The Packers won, 43-37.
Following the game, Ryan said, “I thought that everybody battled. We were playing against a really good football team in Green Bay, up here where they play extremely well. We had no quit, but we put ourselves too far behind early on. When you make mistakes going against a team like that it is tough to overcome. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to make enough plays to overcome what we did in the first half.”
Wide receiver Julio Jones had a career-best game on Monday, recording 259 yards receiving, catching 11 of 17 passes thrown his direction by Ryan. It was Jones’ 79-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the third quarter that set up a touchdown by Eric Weems. Unfortunately, Jones suffered a hip injury. Head coach Mike Smith watched as their number one receiver had to hobble along the sideline for the remainder of the game. Following the game, Smith expressed his feelings about his quarterback and top receiver, “When (Jones) is healthy and he and Matt (Ryan) are in tune with one another they are as good as any in the NFL.”
The Steelers will be monitoring the injury report as they prepare for the Falcons on Sunday to see if Jones, who truly can chew up defenses, will be ready to play by Sunday. The Falcon also lost safety William Moore in the first quarter (foot injury) and defensive tackle Paul Soliai was forced to leave in the second quarter (shoulder injury) before returning in the second half. Safety Kemal Ishmael suffered a possible concussion in the third quarter and was unable to return.
Atlanta has one of the weakest defenses in the league this season. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Falcons rank 24th in the league in points allowed at 342 (26.3-per-game average), 30th in number of first-downs allowed and 21th in yards allowed on the ground. Despite linebacker Paul Worrilow leading the team in tackles, with 70 (46 assisted), he has struggled in stopping the run. “We had a hard time tackling (Eddie Lacy),” admitted Smith. “Obviously there at the end when we wanted a stop to get the ball back to our offense and we had an opportunity to do that and we gave up the big explosive run. We did not tackle well across the board tonight, but (the team) fought extremely hard.”
Pittsburgh exploded in the fourth quarter in Week 14, giving their best performance in a single quarter of the entire season. With Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown having season-high performances and Ben Roethlisberger working well to spread the offense and create yardage, they look to push the Falcons defense to their limits in Week 15.
The Steelers have struggled against big-play receivers and will absolutely have to prepare for the possibility that Jones will return and Roddy White will provide Ryan with a valuable second target through the air. Weems has proven to be valuable at tight end.
In the run game, the Falcons have been led by Steven Jackson who has put together 652 yards at six touchdowns. Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers have been less effective this season. The Falcons are ranked 23rd in rushing yardage with 1,257 yards total on the ground, and 14th in rushing touchdowns with 10. This may bode well for the Steelers who were able to shut down Giovani Bernard in Week 14’s win and saw quarterback Andy Dalton gain the most rushing yards on a play where the Pittsburgh defense simply didn’t account for him.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on