It was the kind of dominant win that tantalizes Steelers Nation with hints of the complete team this 2018 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers might become. After taking a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Steelers’ offense seemed to retreat into its shell in the second quarter, squandering two excellent scoring opportunities — an overthrown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown on a crossing route which looked like it might have been one of his trademark catch-and-run TDs — plus an ill-advised, up-for-grabs pass by Roethlisberger on a 1st-and-goal play from the Falcons’ 7-yard line which was intercepted in the end zone for a touchback.
At halftime, the Steelers led by the slim margin of 13-10, and many of the Steelers Nation faithful were heard muttering “here we go again” under their breaths. But when the Steelers returned to the field following the intermission, they were all business. The defense promptly halted a Falcons’ drive, after which the offense resumed running the ball effectively with James Conner, just as they’d done in the opening quarter.
On a key 3rd-and-13 play, Ben hit Conner on a screen pass and No. 30 rambled for a 23-yard gain, breaking tackles along the way. Then, on a 3rd-and-5 play from the Falcon’s 9-yard line, Ben timed his throw perfectly on an out-route to Brown in the front corner of the end zone for the TD that increased the lead to 20-10.
With a little under three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers’ defense once again stepped up to thwart the Falcons and force a punt. Roosevelt Nix broke through the line and made a diving block of Matt Bosher’s punt, and Bosher recovered the ball but was stopped by Tyler Matakevich on the Falcons’ 18-yard line. The Steelers promptly scored another TD on a 3-yard Conner dive over the goal line which broke the game open at 27-10.
While Atlanta scored one TD in the fourth quarter, they never challenged again as the Steelers added two more TDs — the first on a picture-perfect, 47-yard pass from Ben to Brown, and the second on a strip-sack by T.J. Watt as he ran down Matt Ryan from behind and the loose ball was recovered in the end zone by L.J. Fort.
As impressive a win as this 41-17 thumping might be, the score doesn’t begin to represent the Steelers’ level of dominance over the Falcons. Without those two screw-ups by No. 7 in the second quarter, we easily could have been looking at a total of 50-some points — and this in a game where Ben didn’t even post one of his better passing efforts (19/29 for 250 yards). Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there was the Steelers’ much-maligned defense holding down its end of the bargain while allowing only 17 points — a total which would have been still smaller if the Steelers’ defenders hadn’t taken so many costly, defensive penalties that enabled Atlanta to sustain its scoring drives. Equally surprising were the two splash-plays by Nix and Watt that led directly to 14 points for the Black-and-gold. This is something we haven’t seen nearly enough of in recent weeks.
Reading the tea leaves
Nobody can deny the magnitude of this win, especially for a Steelers team that came into the game winless at home. We also have to appreciate the fact that, coming into the game at 1-3, Atlanta needed a win just as badly as Pittsburgh. But make no mistake, the Steelers weren’t exactly facing the cream of the 2018 NFL crop in this matchup. While Matt Ryan certainly has his defenders, he’s not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. As surprising as the Steelers’ defensive performance might have been, you still had the feeling this game might have been much more competitive if the Steelers had been facing a premier quarterback. So while there’s much to like in this win, the Falcons’ infamous choke in Super Bowl 51 apparently signaled the beginning of an extended decline for the team which nowadays doesn’t look anything like a serious contender.
On the other hand, as recently as Week 4, Atlanta had the Cincinnati Bengals on the ropes before a late TD pass from Dalton to A.J. Green pulled out the win for Cincy. With Pittsburgh traveling to Paul Brown Stadium next weekend, perhaps it’s a good sign that the same Atlanta team which played the Bengals so evenly in Week 4 was no match for the Steelers the following week. But then you look at the Baltimore Ravens’ lackluster effort in losing 12-9 to the Cleveland Browns, and it seems pretty difficult to make comparisons based on the teams’ showings against common opponents.
Some definite positives on offense, however, were the play of Conner (21 carries, 110 yards, plus 4 receptions for 75 yards, 2 TDs) and Antonio Brown (6 receptions, 101 yards, 2 TDs). On defense, the play of T.J. Watt (team tackling leader with eight, plus the strip-sack) and the marked improvement shown by 2018 first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds (second in tackles with seven) were quite promising. Overall, the defense appears to be improving — albeit slowly — and that’s certainly a welcome sign. Special teams were generally solid during the game, including the aforementioned, blocked punt by Nix. As for the kicking game, Jordan Berry had a very respectable game on punts, while Boswell still managed to leave us with some lingering doubt by missing his first point-after kick.
The one factor that keeps emerging in characterizing this win is consistency. Except for the Steelers’ second-quarter foibles and the bad kick by Boswell, the Black-and-gold were remarkably consistent throughout the game. And somewhat atypically for this team in recent years, they made this victory look ridiculously easy, as it might have been even a bigger rout. This tends to reassure the fan base that, when the Steelers come out well prepared for a game — and when their defense, kickers and special teams play at least well enough not to be conspicuous liabilities — they can make short work of opponents like Atlanta and also can be competitive with the better teams in the league.
When we look back later in the season, this win might be viewed as a turning point for the 2018 Steelers. After the previous four regular-season games — all of which seemed very much like an extension of the preseason in terms of being unprepared and out of sync —perhaps this is the game that shows the team finally has turned the corner and is ready to start performing up to its capabilities.
Next Sunday’s face-off on the road against the Bengals will be an excellent opportunity to test the theory that the Steelers have truly righted their ship. In the past, Pittsburgh has been able to beat Andy Dalton mainly by pressuring him into any number of serious mistakes. So if the Black-and-gold defense truly is beginning to come together, there’s no doubt that Big Ben and company bring more than enough firepower to the fray to secure the win and move Pittsburgh’s record to 3-2-1, while dropping Cincinnati to 4-2.
But because of the Steelers’ relatively slow start, getting the win in this first of two matchups against the Bengals will be every bit as crucial as the victory over the Falcons. A loss would drop Pittsburgh two full games behind Cincinnati with 10 games remaining — not a very desirable position for the defending AFC North champions.
So the arrow definitely is pointing upwards for the Steelers in the wake of this impressive win. If their improvement extends into the weeks ahead, we might even see the end of calls for Mike Tomlin’s head and a wholesale reconfiguration of the entire Steelers' organization. Well ... a guy can dream anyway.