The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their fifth game of the 2018 regular season Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Falcons in what figures to be another exciting out of conference game for both teams with quite a bit of scoring in it. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with their first home win of the 2018 season Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
No free land for Freeman – The falcons will have starting running back Devonta Freeman back on the field Sunday for the first time since Week 1. The Falcons will want to get the football in the hands of Freeman early and often with hopes of controlling the clock offensively and thus keeping their porous defense off the field. The Falcons will run some outside zone plays on Sunday in an effort to stretch the Steelers defense out to create large lanes. Freeman is also dangerous out of the backfield as a pass catcher so he needs a lot of attention paid to him on Sunday by an inside linebacker. 100 or more total yards from scrimmage Sunday from Freeman probably means things haven’t gone too well once again for the Steelers defense.
Big Ben must chime early – The Steelers offense must start producing right out of the chute Sunday against a Falcons defense that will be full off of backups due to injuries in the first quarter of the season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisbeger and the rest of the Steelers offense have scored all of 6 points in the first quarter of games so far this season in 11 total possessions. three of those drives also ended with turnovers. A fast start Sunday against the Falcons defense will allow the Steelers to stick with their running game in an effort to keep their own porous defense off the field.
No schoolyard game for Julio – Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is still one of the best players at his position in the NFL and he already has over 500 yards receiving through four games with an average reception length of 17.3 yards. The Steelers pass defense has struggled quite a bit this season and that unit needs to give Jones the kind of attention on Sunday that Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown gets from opposing defenses on a weekly basis. Jones will get his catches on Sunday at Heinz Field but the Steelers defense can’t let him have a monster day that ends with 150 yards and multiple touchdowns. That unit must make Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan beat them by using his other receiving options, wide receivers Mohamed Sanu, rookie Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper.
Gut the gut of the dirty bird – The Falcons defense won’t have defensive tackle Grady Jarrett on Sunday and he’ll be replaced mostly by Jack Crawford, who hasn’t played well against the run this season. The Falcons other defensive tackles, Terrell McClain and Deadrin Senat, have also struggled against the run so far this season. In the middle of the second level of the Falcons defense is linebacker Duke Riley, another backup forced into a starting role due to an injury. Additionally, the Falcons two starting safeties also started the season as backups and were forced into action due to injuries. The Steelers offense should be able to run the football up the middle against the Falcons defense with running back James Conner with great success starting early in the game. A successful running game should then also open up the passing game a little more for Roethlisberger and company.
Win these two differentials – The Steelers offense through four games has managed to convert just 30.6% of all third down opportunities while the team’s defense has allowed 36.7% of all third downs to be converted against them. That defensive stat would likely be even worse had the unit been able to even force more third downs in their first four games. These two percentages need to be swapped Sunday at Heinz Field against the Falcons. Additionally, the Steelers have already incurred 42 penalties for 401 yards in their first four games of the season. That’s an average of a full length of a football field a game and a thus a lot of hidden yardage. As a comparison., the Falcons have incurred 32 total penalties for 310 yards in their first four games.