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Know Thy Enemy: Atlanta Falcons

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Last weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a big step toward securing their first playoff berth in three years. If their usual pattern holds, this weekend they’ll take two steps back when they face the mediocre Atlanta Falcons. Granted, the Falcons are technically a first place team although calling them that is a little like calling someone the tallest midget. They’re 5-8 and alive for a playoff spot only by virtue of being in the laughable NFC South. By no objective measure are they a “good team.”

Unfortunately, it’s the bad teams which routinely give the Steelers the most trouble.

On paper, this should be a pretty good match up for the Black and Gold. The Falcons feature the worst defense in all of football. I repeat, the WORST defense in the NFL.  Yes, even worse than ours. I know, hard to imagine, right?

Atlanta ranks dead last in both yards surrendered and passing yards allowed per game. Their run defense is evidently their “strength” as that’s ranked 21st, giving only 122 yards a game. Teams have averaged – AVERAGED – a whopping 26 points per game against them. As a team, they’ve accumulated a grand total of 15 sacks all season.

And yet, there is a bright spot. Despite being the worst defense statistically, the team is actually a +5 in turnover margin. They may not be able to stop anybody but they do generate turnovers. Thus far they’ve pounced on 10 fumbles and come away with 14 interceptions. As the old saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

The +/- ratio is even more impressive when you consider quarterback Matt Ryan has tossed 11 interceptions to go along with his 25 touchdown passes. He’ll end up throwing for around 4,000 yards and 30 TDs so he’s by no means having a terrible year although the days when he was seen as a potentially elite signal caller seem long gone. Ryan is certainly a more than competent quarterback who should have little problem exploiting the Steelers atrocious secondary.

Wide receiver Julio Jones is the kind of incredible playmaker that makes Ryan look good similarly to how AJ Green should get a cut of Andy Dalton‘s contract for fooling people into thinking the Red Rifle is a potential Pro Bowler. The bad news is Jones is coming off an epic performance against Green Bay. The good news is he was hurt in that game and his status for this weekend is questionable. The Falcons will do everything they can to get him on the field because they’re locked in a dogfight with New Orleans over that NFC South title. 

Even without Jones, the Falcons have some pretty decent talent at wide receiver. Roddy White is about as good a #2 as you’ll find in the league with Harry Douglas providing excellent production out of the slot. Atlanta also employs our old friend Devin Hester. Hester still isn’t much of an offensive weapon although he’s still one of the game’s best return men. I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to burn the Steelers one last time.

Anyway, while their star receiver may be gimpy, our secondary has a host of question marks of its own. Both Ike Taylor and Willie Gay have missed time at practice this week. Ike is holding to his story that he left the Cincy game because his injured shoulder was making him ineffective, which may explain his piss-poor tackling but not why guys were left wide open down the field. I’m not a huge Antwon Blake fan but his performance against Green should at least earn him a spot in the top 3 alongside Brice McCain and Gay until his play dictates otherwise.

Regardless of what they do with the secondary, I’m certain the best way for the Steelers to win is to simply outscore the Falcons. Yes, it’s exactly this kind of insightful analysis you can only find here at ToteStillers!

What I mean is if we want to secure victory, it’ll be up to our offense to take advantage of that lousy Hotlanta defense and just pile up enough points that even our porous D can’t blow the lead. Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from three straight sub-par games with an excellent showing against the Bengals. And what more can I say about Le’Veon Bell? We’re witnessing something very exciting and very special with the emergence of that young man. Every week I say, “I don’t expect blah blah yards or blah blah catches” and every week it seems like Bell sets the bar just a little bit higher. Who knows what he’ll do this week although I’m sure it’ll be something spectacular.

I did a quickie analysis of playoff scenarios last week so I won’t rehash all that here. What I will say is of the Steelers three remaining games, this is actually the one that is most expendable. Atlanta, being an NFC team, is not competing for us directly nor does a loss to them hurt us in terms of tiebreakers. I’d love to see the Steelers close out the year with four straight wins although the reality is two wins against Cincy or a win each against Cincy and KC helps their playoff chances a lot more than a win this week and a loss next week or the week after.

Then again, a win this week and we’ve officially put the possibility of finishing 8-8 behind us once and for all. Who isn’t ready for that?