Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell knows the secondary can be a bit of a liability. He also knows the unit can perform well if they start to mesh.
"Like a fist, there are five different fingers," said Mitchell, as he tightly curled his hand into a ball. "But they all have to come together for the weapon to work right," per Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
It has been a tough road for the secondary this season, as injuries to Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu have thinned out an already depleted unit. Cortez Allen was hardly living up to the five-year extension he signed this past off-season before he ended up on the IR. Pittsburgh is 23rd in the league in pass-defense, allowing a shade under 250 yards per game.
In years past, defense coordinator Dick LeBeau and company have enforced a strict "bend but don't break" policy in regard to pass defense. Over the last six games of this season, the Steelers have allowed passing touchdowns on plays of 67, 80, 69, 81, 35, and 31 yards, figures that trend toward both bending and breaking. Polamalu acknowledged the unit's need to fix their issues, realizing the secondary could be the piece that makes or breaks the team's post-season hopes.
"The last couple weeks we've given up a lot of big plays," he said. "But I think the major difference is the way our offense has been playing, digging us out of some big-play ruts that we have given up."
Cincinnati's A.J. Green caught a career-high 11 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in their 42-21 victory over the Bengals. On Sunday, the Steelers travel to Atlanta to face perhaps an even more-daunting foe.
Julio Jones, selected two picks after Green in the 2011 NFL Draft, comes into Sunday's matchup as arguably the hottest receiver in the league. Jones is leading the NFL in receiving yards with 1,428 along with six touchdowns. In his last three contests, Jones has racked up 516 yards and three touchdowns, including a 259-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers in which he looked utterly unstoppable. Jones suffered an injury to his hip late in the Packers game and remains questionable for Sunday's matchup with the Steelers.
If Jones can play, CB Brice McCain is looking forward to the matchup. McCain has faced off against the star receiver twice, a 31-17 win in 2009, as McCain's Utah team defeated Jones and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and a 17-10 victory in 2011, as McCain's Texans defeated Jones and the Falcons. Jones was held without a touchdown in both games.
Even if Jones is unable to suit up, the Falcons and QB Matt Ryan boast one of the best passing attacks in the NFL. Ryan threw for 361 yards in a Week 13 win against the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals and All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson on their way to an upset win. With a 5-8 record, this Atlanta team is currently the leader of the NFC South, meaning every game becomes a must-win if they hope to make the playoffs.
With Pittsburgh in a tight race of their own for a playoff spot, fans will be hoping Mitchell and the secondary can close their fists on the Falcons this Sunday.