By Christina Rivers
The Atlanta Falcons may have come into the game with a losing record, but the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t going to get caught in another situation where they had to come from behind to settle their own fate in week 15. At the Georgia Dome, the Falcons have been a much stronger team this season, but the Steelers’ early six points kept them trailing as the offenses and defenses battled for a full 60 minutes. Pittsburgh didn’t have an exceptional game on either side of the ball, but they protected the ball and created a turnover that were key to success. The Steelers move to 9-5 on the season, just one-half game behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals.
Head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t pull any punches in his post-game press conference. “Man that was a tough fought game,” said Tomlin, “it took efforts obviously in all three phases working together offensively, defensively and kicking. But it wasn’t an easy undertaking by any stretch.” Tomlin gave credit to the Falcons being able to contain the explosive running game that Pittsburgh had put together recently on the back of Le’Veon Bell. The offense adjusted by getting more receivers involved and pounding the ball when the Falcons moved into zone coverage or brought in an extra defensive back.
On defense, Dick LeBeau dialed up several different blitz packages in order to keep Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the pocket and played a rather balanced run-to-pass defense. When a player struggled, LeBeau rotated in the next player, getting all available bodies on the field to keep the defense fresh. There are still areas that could be tweaked and should be this week in practice, but overall the coaching staff seem to be comfortable utilizing the personnel at their disposal to remain competitive.
The Steelers offense was not the high-performance engine it had been the two weeks previous. Some saw that as a bit of a surprise with Atlanta’s defense being ranked so low in the league. Considering that the previous three times these two teams have met resulted in the pair going into overtime, it was a clash of two dangerous offenses matching blows. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was kept honest as the Falcons applied pressure where necessary, but benefited from an offensive line that has not gotten a lot of credit this season. With a solid performance by the offensive front, Roethlisberger was able to pick out targets or hand the ball of to Bell to orchestrate a winning formula. Roethlisberger didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, but was able to put together over 300 passing yards without an interception. Bell had two touchdowns in the game.
While Bell and Antonio Brown were big contributors, the difference-makers were Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Their increased involvement was a significant contribution this week. When asked about more key plays made by the duo, Tomlin said, “Whether it’s Wheaton, Bryant, we have a nice group of complimentary guys that don’t get a lot of volume in terms of opportunity but when they get the opportunity they deliver.”
Tight end Heath Miller could easily have been given the game ball for a crucial play in the fourth quarter that sealed the win, allowing Roethlisberger to simply kneel to end the game. After burning the final 4-plus minutes of the game, Roethlisberger hit Miller on a third-and-one from Atlanta’s 39-yard line for a 25-yard strike.
Despite a horrible call by the officiating crew against Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds who put a clean hit on Ryan, creating an unnecessary roughness penalty that wiped out a loss of yards and gave Atlanta a first down the Falcons turned into a touchdown, the defense played well enough to flip the field several times. Without Julio Jones at receiver, the Steelers battled first with containing the rushing of Steven Jackson. Pittsburgh was able to hold Jackson to 11 carries for 46 yards. Covering Roddy White and Harry Douglas didn’t always go as smoothly as it should have. Mike Mitchell was once again bitten long, but to his credit he didn’t give up when Devin Hester pulled off a 46-yard catch-and-run, forcing him out of bounds and saving a touchdown. Douglas had a ten-catch, 131 yard outing.
The Steelers did one thing that Atlanta couldn’t on defense, and that was come away with a turnover. Atlanta entered the game +5 in turnover ratio, but cornerback William Gay jumped a route from Ryan to Douglas on the first offensive play for the Falcons in the second quarter. Gay returned the ball 52 yards for a touchdown, putting the Steelers on top 13-0. It was Gay’s third interception to result in a touchdown this season and set a single-season franchise record.
While Atlanta had Hester to throw at the Steelers’ special teams coverage unit, Pittsburgh utilized the abilities of Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing to keep the ball away from him. Hester has more returns for touchdowns than any other player in NFL history, but was held to only seven yards on a single punt and 81 yards on three kickoffs. Wing had a gross punting average of 43.0 on the day putting two kicks inside the 20-yard line. Suisham kicked long and deep and went perfect on the day in field goals (2) and PATs (3). Credit should be given to Shamarko Thomas for leading the coverage team with two big tackles. Brown handled the return duties and was able to put together four total returns for 93 yards (punt and kickoff returns).
The Steelers did what they had to do against the Falcons. They didn’t let mistakes overcome them. They kept Atlanta trailing. They managed the game, possessing the ball for just over 30 minutes. They made adjustments due to injury and/or personnel as necessary. There was no real flash, but in December, NFL games are typically not splashy but gut-checks. Playing as a complete team, the Steelers made sure that they matched every score Atlanta was able to put on the board. After hearing all season that Tomlin felt the team had the talent to be a complete team, we’re seeing it come to fruition at a critical time. Although the Steelers trail the Bengals for the AFC North title by one-half game, they have two regular season games left, including one at home against Cincinnati, to take care of. Predictions that the second meeting between the Steelers and Bengals could crown the champion of the division look promising. Pittsburgh has to take care of business and the Kansas City Chiefs in week 16 at Heinz Field first. Overall grade: B.
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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