The Steelers controlled yet another game for almost its entirety, this time it was a matchup against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.
Yes, much like the Monday night affair against the Colts six days earlier, Pittsburgh, who came into the game with a 4-7 record, had slightly less on the line than did the Falcons, who went into the day with a 5-7 mark and in serious contention for first place in the less-than-mediocre NFC South Division.
Yet, the Steelers dictated the action right from the opening kickoff and dominated in time of possession and yards in the first half. As for points? Baby steps still. The Steelers couldn’t put Atlanta away, but they put 16 first-half points on the board for the second week in a row, including an impressive 17-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Pickett to a wide-open Connor Heyward, a play made even more special by the rookie tight end’s ability to keep his eye on the ball while making an over-the-shoulder catch and managing to get both feet and then a knee in bounds in the back of the end zone.
Did the offense match its first-half output in the second half? Of course not. Again, baby steps are still required for this young Steelers' offense, one led by Pickett, who had his moments—the pass to Heyward as well as a few others—and also his moments—he missed a wide-open Pat Freiermuth early in the game and managed to bleep off rookie receiver George Pickens by only targeting him two times for one catch and two yards.
It was an up-and-down day for receiver Diontae Johnson, who made several clutch catches and tallied 60 yards but did drop an easy pass early and was lucky to not be saddled with a fumble late.
The best play of the day came from Freiermuth, who reeled in a short pass from Pickett midway through the first quarter and rumbled (in the new sleek way tight ends do it these days) 57 yards down to the Atlanta 12, a play that ultimately paved the way for the Heyward score.
But the component that again made Pittsburgh’s offense run efficiently, if not potently, on Sunday was the running game; led by Najee Harris, who netted 86 yards on 17 carries, the Steelers rushed for 154 yards against Atlanta’s defense. You have to be excited about how good the ground game has looked since the bye. Actually, you could see signs of growth before the break, and after Sunday, the Steelers have now rushed for 100-plus yards in five-straight games.
Thankfully for a Steelers’ offense that only managed three second-half points, the defense was there to bend but not break against the Falcons' unorthodox yet effective running game, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back/receiver/return legend Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Falcons did wind up rushing for 146 yards on the day, with the vast majority of those yards coming in the second half. Pittsburgh saw its lead shrink from 19-6 to 19-16, but the defense stood up late and limited Atlanta to a field goal on its penultimate drive by forcing an incomplete pass on third and goal from the 10.
And one play after Pressley Harvin III pinned the Falcons down at their own two-yard line with 39 seconds remaining (just his second punt of the day), safety Minkah Fitzpatrick ended the competitive phase of the game with an interception.
It was the Steelers’ third win in four games, and there is growing optimism that they could actually sneak into the playoff...discussion.
Will they? I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but the important thing is that they are playing really well against teams that are on their level. That’s good news since there are a few more such opponents still left on the schedule.
If the Steelers continue to play like they did on Sunday, it will be hard to prevent them from contending for, at the very least, a chance to keep their streak of non-losing seasons alive.