#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: The end is near? Here?

WEEK 5

ATLANTA FALCONS (1-3) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (1-2-1)

FOX, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: AIR APPARENT/ Ravens snuff out Steelers’ one-dimensional offense

Summary: Despite being pushed around all evening, Pittsburgh’s beleaguered defense did more than enough to win Sunday against the rival Ravens, holding them to a bunch of field goals and 26 total points. The problem now – and it’s a much bigger problem – is that the Steelers All-#7-All-The-Time offense is leaking oil without even pretending it’s going to try and run the football and with its creator and engineer, Ben Roethlisberger, getting frighteningly inaccurate throwing the football in this, his 15th NFL season.

This week’s announcers: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston. It’s always nice to hear a couple different voices for these FOX games, but you can expect to hear Johnston doing a lot of talking and talking and talking. Speaking of which, Collinsworth was absolutely nails last week on Sunday night. Just a couple of the high points: Quickly recognized and demonstrated how Ravens first touchdown was not Joe Haden’s fault and that he has actually recognized a blown coverage and tried to salvage it. With score 14-0, he quickly noted he still expected a close game. Voila! It was 14-14 about 10 minutes later. He also recognized before anyone else that the Raven’s two-high safety look was choking out the Steelers offense as Ben Roethlisberger became more inaccurate on short routes and James Conner could not turn any runs into chunk plays. People who appreciate Collinsworth’s talent can always come up with concrete examples of why. We’ve never heard any of the haters come up with anything beside they don’t like the sound of his voice. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Partly sunny, chance of a shower, warm, 85. How nice of the Steelers to import a little bit of Atlanta weather for the Falcons visit. Obviously, you’d rather it were a little more uncomfortable for a dome team. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: John Parry. This crew is only averaging 10 penalties and 90 penalty yards assessed per game. Wait, what? That’s against league averages of 14 and 123. We’re not sure how long league office will tolerate such judiciousness and restraint. Seriously, this will be a test for that restraint as the Steelers still lead the league in total penalties, total penalty yards and total opponent penalties. The Falcons, meanwhile, are sixth in total penalties and fourth in penalty yards. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers got a defensive touchdown from Big Play Bill Gay (who doesn’t look so bad now, does he?) en route to a 27-20 win at the Georgia Dome in December 2014. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 360 yards but no scores in the game. The last time the Falcons came to Heinz Field was 2010 when the Dennis Dixon-led Steelers won 15-9 in OT on Rashard Mendenhall’s 50-yard run (probably the high point of Mendenhall’s Pittsburgh career).

The line: Pittsburgh -3/57.5. Smarts say: This one is dead even with Pittsburgh getting the typical three points for being at home. After three uncharacteristic overs, the Steelers and Ravens went under last week and this week’s number is an astronomical 57.5. About 60 percent of bettors were on the over at this writing. Putting the line and o/u together and you get something like 30-27 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 3rd passing, 28th rushing, 10th scoring (25.5 ppg), 15th sacks allowed (9)

ATL defense, 25th passing, 25th rushing, 30th scoring (30.5 ppg), 22nd sacks (8)

When the Falcons have the ball:

ATL offense, 6th passing, 21st rushing, 6th scoring (29.0 ppg), 19th sacks allowed (10)

PIT defense, 29th passing, 21st rushing, 26th scoring (29.0 ppg), 4th sacks (13)

Giveaway/Takeaway: ATL +2 (7th in league); PIT -2 (20th in league)

Strength of schedule: ATL .667; PIT .667

So…: Look at those defensive number for… both teams! Hilariously, the Steelers rushing defense improved this week because Joe Flacco had such an easy time picking apart Pittsburgh’s pass defense, the Ravens barely had to attempt any runs. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger

Why: As we saw with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, the end of a franchise quarterback’s career can be brutal for a team to manage. They rarely walk away on their own, they tend to taper away (see Bradshaw, Terry). On the other side, teams who have revolved around one player for a decade or more often struggle with when it’s even reasonable to consider moving on without that player. Ben Roethlisberger is in his 15th season. The end is coming. Is it here now? We’re not willing to say that, and #7 certainly didn’t seem willing Sunday night when he vowed to play better. In doing so, he put a bullseye squarely on his back. If he continues to struggle mightily in this game with his accuracy, the “end of an era” takes on the national level will multiply.

Atlanta: Dan Quinn

Why: 20 months ago, Dan Quinn was coasting to a Super Bowl blowout of the vaunted New England Patriots and his future appeared limitless. You know how that game ended and now Quinn needs to turn things around in Atlanta before his career heads the same way. Despite a 10-6 record and playoff win last season, there was a considerable bad taste left by the Falcons fade against the undermanned Eagles in last year’s playoffs. It would appear the Steelers are in a similar position – wounded and ripe to be beaten – and Quinn and Co. would be wise to not allow Pittsburgh to hand around Sunday or the heat might be on in Atlanta.

Key matchups:

Falcons Edge Vic Beasley Jr. vs. Steelers LT Alejandro Villanueva. Beasley raised all kinds of havoc for Andy Dalton last week and it was impossible not to imagine what he might do to Villanueva, who has struggled pretty noticeably, not just to start this season, but as a continuation of poor play over the second half of last season. Villanueva was once such an exciting LT prospect because it appeared he had a high ceiling to improve, having come to the position in just the last few years. But, so far, that ceiling looks like it actually was a low one. The big man needs to take a quantum leap soon or Pittsburgh will be in the market again for a blind-side anchor.

Quick hits:

+ The Steelers have been a very good October team in recent years so we guess we should note that if Pittsburgh goes 3-0 this October (vs. ATL, @CIN, vs. CLE), they would be 4-2-1 and likely playing for first place in the division on Nov. 4 in Baltimore. We’re not predicting that, mind you, just duly noting this season could turn around quickly.

+ Hopes that T.J. Watt would blossom into a star in his second NFL season, which is usually when players make their greatest leap in production, appear to be wishful thinking through one-fourth of the schedule. Watt has three sacks, but all of those were recorded in the opener at Cleveland. Since then, he’s been mostly invisible and seemingly in pass coverage quite a bit. He has 20 tackles through four games. Pro Football Focus rates his play as average, but ranks him 86th out of 111 outside linebackers in the league. Obviously, that’s not a level of play commensurate with being selected in the first round.

+ Bud Dupree, who’s playing more from the right side this season, also has three sacks but only 11 tackles. Dupree has had a good number of quarterback pressures this season in what certainly seems like his best four-game stretch as a Steelers. PFF ranks him “average,” as well, 62nd out of 111 outside linebackers.

+ These two cases illustrate how the Steelers defense has gotten so bad – one draft at a time plus one huge injury. Because they’ve been mostly successful on the field, Pittsburgh has been selecting in the second half of the first round for most of the past decade. We’ve detailed previously why it’s difficult to get a truly impactful defensive player there, the “sure thing” physical freaks are long gone and it’s hard to justify the value of taking a productive college player in R1 who you’re not sure can project to the NFL physically. Dupree and Watt right now are poster boys for what you often get in this position, average NFL players when you really need at least one of them to be a star. The same is true of most of Pittsburgh’s top picks on defense – Artie Burns, Cam Heyward, Ziggy Hood – decent players, Heyward maybe better than that, Hood not quite worthy, but none of them game changers. There were two exceptions, of course: Jarvis Jones, who was a clear bust, and Ryan Shazier, who was the closest thing to a game changer in black and yellow over the past decade. Now, no one hits in every draft so a lot of these picks would be considered “fine” if at least a few of them panned out with game-changing players.

The pick: Even if the Steelers offense gets its act together, Pittsburgh will need to stop Julio Jones in order to win this game… and Mohamed Sanu… and phenom Calvin Ridley Jr. We can’t see that happening given the fact that Pittsburgh’s secondary can’t seem to decide who is covering where on any particular down… Atlanta 31-21.

Last week: We finally got on the board by picking against the Steelers Genius! The double win leaves us 1-2-1 straight up and 1-3 against the spread.

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