Leave it to the Steelers to eschew ineptitude in favor of handily defeating what on paper appears to be a very talented opponent, thereby (temporarily) fettering our cynical and increasingly defeatist takes about the state of the team. The rushing attack and the pass defense, two entities that have both absorbed their fair share of valid criticism this season, looked good, and Antonio Brown had his best game of the season, catching two touchdowns and posting his first 100-yard game since Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville in the AFC Playoffs last season. All told, the Steelers stomped the Falcons 41-17, looking every bit the Super Bowl contender they were assumed to be at the beginning of the season. Time will tell if the Steelers have truly coalesced into a veritable championship frontrunner or if Sunday’s win will be a season-long highpoint (or it could be neither and they could finish the season, like, 8-7-1, I don’t know), but for now it feels pretty awesome to luxuriate in the spoils of a much-needed win.
Stock up: Offensive and defensive coaching!
It always feels a little ridiculous to point the finger at the coaching staff when competent adult people on the field fail to execute basic and fundamental tasks that underpin the entirety of their profession. Keith Butler didn’t miss that tackle or get run over by that back or get bodied by that receiver or commit that penalty or blow that assignment, you know? It feels even more ridiculous for me, who is not a Football Knower by any stretch of the imagination, to criticize the philosophies or schematics of any of the number of highly intelligent football men milling about Pittsburgh’s sidelines. If anyone’s an idiot, it’s me, because unlike Mike Tomlin, I did not find a job that allows me to wear sweatpants to work.
That’s kind of where we’ve found ourselves the past couple of weeks, assuming that the issues befalling the Steelers were systemic in nature and that the coaching staff was patient zero. And there was actually some veracity to these assumptions, it seems! A week after they fell behind 14-0 to Baltimore—which was aided in large part to a pair of disastrous offensive drives to begin the proceedings—and abandoned the run game, the Steelers featured James Conner heavily against Atlanta, scoring touchdowns on each of their first two drives. Defensively, the Steelers sent wave after wave of pressure after Matt Ryan, forcing six sacks, causing a scoop-and-score fumble (it was more like a Bud Dupree apparently lacks the concept of object permanence and thus picking up a loose football was beyond his capabilities, so someone else had to dive on top of it-and-score), and preventing Atlanta from gaining any traction near the red-zone, where the Falcons made only two trips all afternoon.
The Falcons are 1-4 at the moment, but this is a team that’s stockpiled as much offensive firepower as you’ll find east of Los Angeles. Devonte Freeman (eight rushes for 32 yards; two catches for nine yards) and Tevin Coleman (seven rushes for 15 yards; two catches for 15 yards) comprise one of the league’s most volcanic position groups, and the same can be said of the receiving corps, which is led by Julio Jones (five catches for 62 yards; nearly every yard he gained was accrued in garbage time) and supplemented by the dynamic Mohamed Sanu (four catches for 73 yards) and quickly-ascending Calvin Ridley (four catches for 38 yards). And the Steelers more or less held this group in check. Atlanta’s leading receiver, Austin Hooper, snagged eight passes in the first half but was a ghost in the second, catching just a single ball. Anyone with even a fleeting interest in the NFL this season could’ve told you the Falcons offense vs. the Steelers defense was a hilarious mismatch on paper, and I fully expected the Falcons to score over a million points. That the Steelers held this group to 17 points is a commendable achievement, and that they managed to accomplish this feat despite Atlanta having scored at least 30 points in each of its past three games makes it all the more impressive. The players certainly deserve praise for their role in this rebound, but the importance of the coaching staff’s efforts should not be understated.
Stock up: Offensive line
James Conner (whose monstrous performance is self-evident and therefore does not require an explicit stock up explanation) ate well Sunday, scoring a pair of touchdowns and gaining north of 180 all-purpose yards on 25 touches. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was not sacked. The line’s performance is probably largely attributable to the fact that a) the average Falcon defender weighs like 130 pounds and b) Atlanta’s pass rushers, Tak McKinley and Vic Beasley are absurdly aggressive in rushing the passer, which often puts them out of position to make any kind of tangible impact in the running game, but it’s a nice confidence-booster and proved just how effective the Steelers can be with a functional rushing attack.
Stock down: Football memes
Vance McDonald was not afforded any opportunities to eviscerate one of Atlanta’s many tiny defenders, as he spent most of his day blocking and acting as a decoy. Here’s hoping his blows up Twitter next week by stuffing Dre Kirkpatrick into a suitcase, or something.
Stock up: T.J. Watt
I know I didn’t create a section for Conner because Conner’s performance was obviously very good and didn’t require any further commentary, but if we’re rating various football happenings based on rarity and majesty, I’m going punt return touchdown > kickoff return touchdown > fumble return/pick-six (move this up to no. 1 if the scorer weighs 290 or more pounds) > three sack game > 100-yard rushing performance > 100-yard receiving performance > 300-yard passing performance. Watt is now tied for the NFL lead in sacks with his brother J.J. and Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins with six and honestly it’s pretty easy to envision a scenario in which Watt (either, really, but T.J. for this exercise) finishes the season with top-five sack numbers. He’s gotta be more of a consistent every-down presence (all of his sacks were amassed in two games; he was held sackless (he he) in Pittsburgh’s other three games), but it isn’t a stretch to say that the Steelers may have found themselves a franchise pass rusher.
Stock down: Penalties
The Steelers, the most penalized team in the NFL, drew seven penalties, including a 15-yard personal foul against Jon Bostic for engaging in some unnecessary horseplay with Matt Ryan. Now, forgive the despicable Steelers homerism, but it seemed to me that, on this particular play, Bostic’s facemask was entangled with Ryan’s, causing Bostic to jerk his head forward. Or I could be wrong. I literally do not know what does and what does not constitute a penalty anymore.
Stock up: Backups
Ugh, here’s a cursed lede: Tyler Matakevich had a solid game, as did L.J. Fort, who is by default probably the closest thing the Steelers have to a Ryan Shazier proxy on the roster. I think it was important for Fort to log some meaningful snaps and make a handful of significant contributions to the overall defensive effort because it gives him a solid foundation upon which to build. Fort’s the type of player the Steelers could use in the middle of their defense, so anything that maybe fast-tracks his development a little bit will benefit the Steelers.
Scratch that, actually. Did you know that L.J. Fort is 28 years-old? That’s INSANE. L.J. Fort, to me, is a perpetually 23-year-old project linebacker who appears to be this untapped font of unlimited potential but in reality is nothing more than a sub-replacement-level depth linebacker. Still, the Steelers will take it.
Stock up: Third-down offense
The Steelers converted nine of their 12 third-down conversions, which is a stunning, borderline miraculous turnaround when you consider how ineffective they were against Baltimore last week, particularly in the second half. A 75 percent conversion rate obviously is not sustainable and Pittsburgh will soon regress to a more contemporary mean, but, like most things in the Atlanta game, it’s been encouraging to see how unstoppable the Steelers offense can be.
Stock up: Joe Haden
Let me be clear: Joe Haden is great, maybe the great defensive back in NFL history, and no amount of proprietary metrics [narrows eyes at Pro Football Focus] will convince me otherwise. Haden was partially responsible for holding receiving demigod Julio Jones catch-less and yards-less for the first three quarters of Sunday’s game, which is a sentence I never thought I’d be writing in the aftermath of this game. If an asteroid were barreling down on this planet, ready to wipe Earth’s slate clean of the scourge of humankind, our only hope for survival would be commissioning a space shuttle and sending Joe Haden to orbit to swat the daggum thing back into the vastest expanses of the galaxy.
Postseason hopes: Up!
The Steelers are 2-2-1 and still tied for last in their division, but by defeating Atlanta so soundly, so utterly convincingly, they’ve demonstrated that the Super Bowl aspirations were not rooted in hype and conjecture and that they’re a team that belongs in that conversation. They have an enormous game coming up this Sunday against the Bengals, a victory from which would put them back on solid footing in the AFC and further legitimize their status as contenders. If the Steelers look anything like they did against Atlanta, they’ll be tough to beat.