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How the Falcons’ injury woes could help the Steelers to a victory in Week 5

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons to head-to-head in Week 5 at Heinz Field, and we go behind enemy lines to get the low-down on the opponent.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Right now the Pittsburgh Steelers are not a very popular team among their fan base. Sure, they always have their devout followers, but fans are pretty upset with the horrid 1-2-1 record in the first quarter of the season.

How bad has it become? Many want Mike Tomlin’s seat to start heating up, and feel as if the defense is beyond repair. In other words, burn it to the ground and start from scratch. What is humorous about this situation, is after asking David Choate, editor of SB Nation’s The Falcoholic, some questions about the upcoming matchup in Week 5, Falcons fans are feeling some of the same things Steelers fans are.

Sitting at 1-3, the Falcons need this game every bit as much as the Steelers do, so it might be worth it to learn a little bit more about this NFC South opponent. Check out the interview I had with David below, and be sure to check out The Falcoholic for the best coverage of Week 5 from the Falcons’ perspective.

What is the health of the Falcons right now? Are there any key injuries which could impact the game this Sunday?

The Falcons are in rough shape. They’re missing both starting safeties for the rest of the year, and star middle linebacker Deion Jones won’t return for weeks. They’re also missing starting left guard Andy Levitre and won’t have their best defensive tackle, Grady Jarrett, for at least this week.

If that sounds grim, that’s because it is. Atlanta’s been cobbling it together on defense with awful results over the last couple of weeks, and I’m not sure that changes this Sunday. Jarrett’s loss will be keenly felt because he was both the team’s best interior pass rusher and one of their better run defenders, but the Steelers should generally find this defense unusually easy to move on. On the offensive side, it’s probably worth seeing if Wes Schweitzer, Levitre’s replacement, can hold up. He has so far.

The Falcons have gotten off to a rough start to the season, and are coming off a back-breaking loss to the Bengals in Week 4. Considering this team was in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, what is the feel surrounding the team moving forward, both from the players and the fan base?

There’s a lot of despair. Few Falcons fans really believe at this point that this team can still contend for a Super Bowl with all their injuries, though I think a fair number are still holding out hope for a playoff berth. The short-term outlook for this team depends a lot on injury replacements stepping up and the offense continuing to be stellar, which could happen but like it may not to the degree necessary to get the Falcons to, say, 10-6 after a 1-3 start.

You’ll never hear the players say that because Dan Quinn and company do an excellent job of keeping everyone on track, and these are guys with some swagger to begin with. It’s better that way.

The long-term outlook is more nuanced. There is a small but vocal minority of the fan base that believes the Falcons have gone as far as they can with Dan Quinn at the helm, given this team’s persistent issues with fundamentals and his in-game management. The larger part of the fan base is unhappy now but believes this team has enough talent to bounce back in a major way in 2019. I’d say I find myself in the latter camp.

Looking at the Falcons’ offense, what are the weaknesses there? In other words, if you were a defensive coordinator, what are you scheming to try and slow down this high-flying unit?

Good luck finding many. When this team is really firing on all cylinders, they’re very tough to stop because of the difficulty in keeping Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper in check all at the same time. Your best is probably to pressure Matt Ryan, as the offensive line has scuffled a bit in pass protection, or look to make the team one dimensional by shutting down the ground game. The Falcons haven’t been great running the football this year, but they are getting Devonta Freeman back this week.

There’s no secret sauce, though. If you can force Ryan into a few bad throws or pin your ears back on third down and just take him down, you’ll stall out a few drives. With the way Pittsburgh’s offense is capable of playing, that might be enough.

Defensively, the Falcons have had a few key losses. What are the strengths and weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball?

Cruelly, the strengths have mostly been taken away from Atlanta. Their secondary was one of the better-looking units in the league late last year and figured to be even better this year with the addition of second round cornerback Isaiah Oliver. With the invaluable Ricardo Allen down for the year, the Falcons found themselves without their best communicator, a true defensive leader, and underrated safety net. Without Keanu Neal, they don’t have their most physical, playmaking safety. Without him, the coverage has looked listless, and while time may improve it you should still be able to take advantage of that.

This is a defense without a ton of strengths right now. There’s plenty of speed and physicality here, but outside of the fearsome Takkarist McKinley, there’s not a lot of pass rushing punch. They do have a solid run defense thus far this year and are still capable of big plays, but this isn’t a unit to fear until they get their act together.

What is your prediction for the game, and how do you see it shaking out?

I want to be more positive about this one than I am, but I just watched the Falcons give up 80 points over two weeks and endure two excruciating losses against teams with terrific offenses and questionable defenses. I think the Falcons will keep it close, score over 30 points, and still lose because the defense can’t quite get it together.

I’ll go Steelers 34 - Falcons 31 — and hope I’m wrong.