The Pittsburgh Steelers continued their December playoff push with a 27-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. The win raised their record to 9-5 and means the team could clinch their first playoff berth in three seasons with a home win over Kansas City this week and will win the division if they win both their final two games. Much like the game against the Saints two weeks ago the Steelers dominated the first quarter, but again only came away with two field goals and a 6-0 lead. But this one turned on the first play of the second quarter. William Gay picked off a pass by Matt Ryan in the middle of the field and returned it 52 yards for his team-record third touchdown of the season. That proved to be the difference as the two teams put up almost identical statistical performances. Plays: 58 for Pittsburgh, 57 for Atlanta. Total yards: 398 for Pittsburgh, 407 for Atlanta. Time of possession: 30:43 for Pittsburgh, 29:17 for Atlanta. Gay’s interception was the only turnover and it proved decisive. The Steelers closed this one out in style as the defense got a 3-and-out with just under five minutes to go and the offense got three first downs and finished the game taking a knee on the Falcons 15-yard line.
Offensively the Steelers Big 3 each had record-setting days as they added to their outstanding season numbers. Ben Roethlisberger broke his own single-season passing yardage record, Antonio Brown broke Hines Ward’s record for single-season receptions and Le’Veon Bell broke Barry Foster’s record for single-season yards from scrimmage.
Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell and Matt Spaeth all left the game with injuries but all returned. Mitchell’s groin injury would seem to be the one most likely to impact playing time.
Marcus Gilbert, Ike Taylor and James Harrison were inactive due to injury. Gilbert was a surprise as he practiced with the first team late in the week and was expected to start. Dri Archer was a healthy inactive.
The Steelers caught a break as Julio Jones, leading NFL in receiving yardage, was inactive for the Falcons.
*A pedestrian performance by the offense overall, but they did score on four of seven drives and then ran out the clock with their last possession. They converted 6-11 third downs, 2-3 red zone opportunities and didn’t turn it over for the second week in a row.
*Ben Roethlisberger had an odd statistical line becoming only the fourth quarterback (fifth time) to throw for 350+ yards with no TDs or INTs. He finished 27-35 for 360 yards, an impressive 10.3 yds/att. Ben made a big play toward the end of the first quarter when, under heavy pressure, he found Bell on a check-down that turned into a 40-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 from his own 16. He also went 4-4 on the Steelers final drive to seal the game. The win over Atlanta means Roethlisberger has now beaten the other 31 teams in the league joining Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Kerry Collins. Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have beaten all 32.
*Antonio Brown had 10 catches (on 10 targets) for 123 yards, ho-hum, and now has 115 catches on the season. He is only the 4th player in NFL history with back-to-back 110 catch seasons joining Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Wes Welker twice. Brown has made a ton of spectacular catches this season and he added another to the highlight reel at the end of the first half. Facing a 2nd-and-10 from the Falcons 29 with 37 seconds left, Ben threw to AB deep down the left sideline. Brown was initially ruled out-of-bounds, but replay showed he not only made a great over-the-shoulder catch, but also did an exceptional job of dragging his right toe to get both feet in. Another exceptional play in an exceptional season. The Steelers scored on the next play. Brown even showed some good football sense late in the game staying in bounds to keep the clock running. That hasn’t always happened.
*Le’Veon Bell had 119 yards from scrimmage, 47 rushing and 72 receiving. Bell now has 2,043 yards from scrimmage on the season setting the Steelers record. Bell is currently 49th on the NFL single season list. He added two more TDs on the ground.
*Markus Wheaton’s numbers don’t jump off the page, 5 catches, 66 yards, but he looked great running his routes, catching the ball, blocking and seemed to be as in-sync with Roethlisberger as he has been all season.
*The running game never got going and the offensive line had trouble handling a Falcons defense that was definitely geared to stop the run. 14 of the Steelers 20 running plays (excluding kneel downs) went for two yards or less and Le’Veon Bell was repeatedly hit behind the line of scrimmage. One of Bell’s better runs on the day was turning a potential 5-yard loss into a no-gain. On another play to open a Steelers drive from their own 20 in the third quarter Mike Adams completely whiffed on a block and Bell was nailed for a 6-yard loss.
*Brown didn’t do everything right as he was called for an offensive facemark and a taunting penalty on the same play in the third quarter that killed the Steelers opening drive of the second half.
*Having watched the replay a bunch of times, I’m convinced Ramon Foster moved a tick early on the pass play to Heath Miller that sealed the game. It wasn’t called, but I think the Steelers caught a break.
*Big play William Gay has had a solid season, but came into this one having had a rough past couple weeks against New Orleans and Cincinnati. Gay is willing to take risks and jump routes and he did it on the first play of the second quarter, jumping inside Matt Ryan’s pass to Harry Douglas. Gay made a good catch and then did a great job returning the ball for six, largely on his own, helped by a pathetic effort by the Falcons offense. The Steelers secondary has been horrendous, but Gay has been something of a bright spot and his pick-six was the decisive play in this one. He also led the team with eight tackles and two passes defensed.
*Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier all contributed to a solid defensive effort next to Lawrence Timmons. Spence registered a big tackle for loss and was solid in pursuit, Williams had a huge tackle late in the game to stop the Falcons last drive and finished with seven total tackles and Shazier got his first opportunity in a couple months adding two tackles.
*The Steelers twice forced the Falcons to settle for FGs inside the red zone. On the first drive of the second half a fumble forced by Will Allen and Brice McCain proved to be the big play. On their next drive the Falcons had a 2nd-and-1 from the Steelers 2-yard line. Cameron Heyward and Will Allen stopped Steven Jackson for a 2-yard loss, the Falcons didn’t convert on third down and settled for a 22-yard FG. The Falcons gained 145 yards on those back-to-back drives in the third quarter but only got six points.
*The good news is the Steelers didn’t give up a touchdown pass of 65+ yards for the first time in five weeks. The bad news is they did give up to pass plays for 24, 46 and 41 yards, each of which led to Falcons points.
*No sacks. Steelers OLBs Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats were invisible. They combined for two assisted tackles and two QB hits.
*On the first play from scrimmage Stephon Tuitt charged upfield as a Falcons lineman gave him the inside lane. Tuitt ran himself right out of the play and Steven Jackson ran right past him and through his vacated space for an 8-yard gain. Tuitt did a better job later in playing two-gap and holding the point of attack which is what DL coach John Mitchell teaches, but the Falcons gained 97 yards on 20 carries for a 4.9 yd/avg.
*The Steelers got their best efforts of the season in the return game. Markus Wheaton has done a solid job since taking over the kick return duties. He retuned two kicks for 50 yards with a long of 32. Antonio Brown returned two punts for 43 yards with a long of 31.
*Shamarko Thomas made two big tackles on kickoff coverage twice bringing down Devin Hester at the Falcons 16-yard line.
*Brad Wing punted three times for a 43-yard avg., including a 55-yarder. He was an important component in keeping Hester in-check in the return game.
*Todd Haley’s play calling was excellent and the varied weapons of the offense were best exemplified on three consecutive plays on their second half TD drive. On the last play of the third quarter Ben went play-action to Heath Miller for 26 yards. On the next play Roethlisberger hit Markus Wheaton down the left sideline for 30 yards. The Steelers followed that up with the counter power they ran so successfully against Cincinnati. David DeCastro, Will Johnson and Miller cleared out the left side and Bell went in untouched for a 13-yard touchdown.
*The loss to Tampa early in the season appears to have changed the Steelers offensive mind-set late in games. They have shown a willingness to be much more aggressive. On their last drive to close out the game the Steelers didn’t just try to run the ball to chew up clock. They called 3 runs and 3 passes before going play-action to Heath Miller for 25 yards on 3rd-and-1 to get the game-clinching first down. The Steelers even showed an empty set formation on one of those plays, taking advantage of a Falcons defense that was expecting run.
*The Steelers defense showed looks and brought pressure that appeared to confuse Matt Ryan early. Unfortunately the defense rarely got to Ryan and he settled in as the game went on.
*The Steelers were only called for three penalties for 34 yards. That is the second week in a row with only three penalties.
*The Steelers won the toss and took the ball, something we haven’t seen them do very often recently.
*Again the Steelers could have done a better job of managing the clock at the end of the first half. The Steelers called back-to-back timeouts. The first after a 9-yard completion setting up a 3rd-and-1 with 1:19 left. After Le’Veon Bell went for 2 yards and a first down and the Steelers called their second timeout with 1:14 left. This would be an easy situation to call two plays in the huddle or have a quick personnel change as the ball is marked as none of the players are far from the line of scrimmage. Later in the drive Ben spiked the ball after a first down with 38 seconds left giving up a down. The Steelers did convert on the drive after the great catch by Antonio Brown, but they didn’t maximize their opportunity.
Big Officiating Calls
*On a 2nd-and-8 from the Steelers 35 in the second quarter Falcons QB Matt Ryan was crushed by Jason Worilds for an 11-yard sack. Worilds was called for roughing the passer. Twitter almost blew up as seemingly everyone watching the game (Steelers fan or not) thought it was a terrible call. When asked about it at halftime Mike Tomlin said, “He saw what he hit, he kept his eyes up. He didn’t hit him in the head or neck area. We have to live with that.” Tomlin declined further comment after the game. It will be interesting to see if the NFL fines Worilds or essentially admits the refs missed the call. As an aside, it was terrible awareness by Ryan not see Worilds coming from his open side.
*With 3:05 left in the game the Steelers final drive was kept alive on an illegal contact call on Desmond Trufant against Antonio Brown. Good call and big mistake by Trufant as Brown was not going to be the intended target.
The Steelers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6), Sunday, December 21 at Heinz Field. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.