The 4-7 Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a much-needed team win and hopefully are able to carry some recent positive trends into this Sunday’s matchup on a short week against the 5-7 Atlanta Falcons.
Let’s get right into the matchup, starting with the quarterbacks. Here are the passing leaders through week 12:
Both quarterbacks land below the mean in both datapoints out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has played in all 12 games this season and is just below average in yardage (2052) on 276 attempts. This is only ten more attempts (265) than Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett in eight games played (essentially seven with two of his games only being a half). This emphasizes their strong and frequent running game that Mariota contributes to (more on this in a bit), which is second in the NFL in attempts and total yards through week 12. Pickett now has 1600 yards on the season, which is over 450 less than Mariota, highlighting a big difference in their average pass distances.
Here is a visual to highlight this, viewing quarterbacks intended and completed air yards averages on the season:
Right away we get context to Mariota’s passing yardage this season, with the third ranked 9.8 IAY (ironically just behind Pittsburgh quarterback Mitch Trubisky) paired with a respectable 6.7 CAY number that ranks fifth in the NFL. With Pittsburgh’s defense likely wanting to stop the running game first and foremost, which they’ve done well since the bye week overall, and hopefully the secondary can keep everything in front and tackle the catch considering their struggles giving up explosive plays. Pickett lands well below the mean with a 7.4 IAY (29th) along with a CAY of five (27th), and would really like to see him above his season averages in pass distances considering the Falcons are susceptible to the explosive play on defense as well (more on this later).
I also wanted to see what type of windows the quarterbacks have thrown into, and here is Next Gen’s aggressiveness metric that measures the percentage of attempts a quarterback makes into tight coverage where the defender is within one yard or less at the time of catch of incompletion, along with the quarterbacks’ passer ratings for some quality context:
Here we see that both quarterbacks have thrown into tight coverage more than league average, with Mariota’s 16.7% being the eighth highest rate in the NFL, but has a pass 89.5 passer rating that is at the NFL mean. He has 14 touchdowns along with eight interceptions (T-4th most), and hopefully the Steelers defense gets similar opportunities on tight window throws from Mariota and add to their 13 interceptions on the season which ties for second in the league.
Pickett has also thrown into tight coverage at an above average rate (16.2), which is the 11th most in the league to date. This has gotten him into more trouble than Mariota, especially first five games where he threw all eight of his interceptions (that matches Mariota’s number). Encouragingly better as of late with no interceptions the last three games, but only one passing touchdown in that span as well (and only three on the season). The steady improvements have aided in an improved passer rating (73.5), which is no longer the worst in the NFL (see Jets quarterback Zach Wilson). Hopefully Pickett can continue to build on his improvements this Sunday, and very eager to see how his still league worst touchdown-interception ratio (-5, four less than any other QB) looks like in this game and moving forward.
Last thing for the quarterbacks, I wanted to look at and provide scrambling leaders which is an important element to the matchup:
Mariota has the sixth rank in rushing yards currently with 421, and the fourth most yards on designed runs (232) along with four touchdowns and including a long of 30 yards. This is clearly a huge element the Steelers defense will need to account for, and particularly hoping they can keep him out of the end zone and explosive play departments. This has contributed to the sixth longest time to throw number as well, so hopefully Pittsburgh’s pass rush can get home against the ninth most sacked quarterback (27). Pickett currently ranks 11th with 195 rush yards along with three touchdowns (matching his passing touchdowns) and a long of 23, providing some quality plays in this regard but is looking to pass first in most cases. We have seen a few designed runs as of late, and curious to see if that continues this week. For comparison, Pickett has the 13th longest time to throw number and is tied for 17th most sacked (23).
Now for the running backs starting with rushing leaders through week 12:
Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris leads the outlook with 158 attempts and 585 yards. He still has the lowest yardage total of running backs with 150 attempts or more, but has trended positively the last three games since the bye and is now slightly above the mean out of 48 players on the chart along with three of his four touchdowns on the season. Harris also leads the outlook comfortably with 36 targets, 29 receptions, and 142 yards in the pass game. He did not practice earlier in the week and was limited on Friday along with no status designation, so appears he will play. Fellow running back Jaylen Warren has practiced in full after missing last game but is listed as questionable, so it will be interesting to see if he is able to go. Warren has 38 attempts and 190 yards this season along with 18 targets, 16 receptions, and 137 yards through the air which is second in the outlook. Running backs Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped up in their first opportunities last week, and hopefully can do the same if called upon this week.
The Falcons have used a committee approach at running back this season, with three qualifying players out of the 48 players on the chart. Tyler Allgeier has played in 11 games and leads the team with 121 attempts and 552 yards, with the latter very close to Harris, highlighted by a double explosive run of 44 yards getting outside, cutting and break tackles down the sideline against the Chargers, along with a touchdown. Cordarrelle Patterson has 97 attempts in eight games played, and also tops 500 yards (506, the most yards of players with less than 100 attempts) along with an outlook high five touchdowns, a long double explosive run of 40 yards against the Seahawks showcasing his elusiveness, and uses that great ability as an awesome kick returner to boot. Patterson also leads the team at the position as a receiver with 16 targets, 11 catches, along with 87 receiving yards. Caleb Huntley has 71 attempts for 347 yards, and also has an explosive run of 30 yards on an outside run, which will likely be a key concept Pittsburgh will need to account for in hopes of limiting the backs across the board.
Next, I wanted to provide very important context to the Falcons rushers, looking at who has faced the most men in the box on the season:
Some expected names make the top ten, and all three Atlanta running backs as well. This highlights their commitment to the ground game and defenses playing accordingly against them, which adds impressive context to their stats this year. Very telling in comparison the rest of the NFL, and will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh decides/has to do the same and how that perhaps effects the deeper passes from Mariota.
One last thing for the position, I wanted to see how the backs fared in Next Gen’s Rushing Yards Over Expected (RYOE) along with their average rush yards as well:
Wow. All three Falcons rushers are above the mean in both data points, with Patterson topping the average rush yards at 5.2 which ranks seventh in the NFL. Huntley has a 4.9 average which is 11th, and Allgeier at 4.6 for a league rank of 16th. Their RYOE are very similar, with Huntley at 14th, Patterson at 15th, and Allgeier coming in at 17th in the league respectively. Their offensive line obviously has much to do with their success and deserves a ton of credit, which I will get to in a bit. Harris lands at the extreme lower left of the graph, still with the last rank in RYOE due to a slow start this season and is well behind the pack. He has improved his average rush yards since the bye week to 3.7, but that is still the fifth lowest mark of the qualifying players.
Let’s move to the wide receivers, starting with receiving stat leaders through week 11:
This visual gives us more context to how much the Falcons have leaned on the running game. Rookie wide receiver Drake London is a big-bodied receiver that leads the team with 69 targets, but last in the outlook in yards (438) and has played all 12 games this season. He has aligned out wide 83.7% of the snaps this season and has four touchdowns, along with a 31 yard catch over the middle with YAC. He is also a threat in the red zone, and hopefully Pittsburgh’s defense will be able to limit him on Sunday. Fellow wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus has been targeted the least in the outlook by far with 39, but tops the team at the position with 465 yards. He has aligned 63.6% in the slot this season and has two touchdowns that came earlier in the season.
Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson has the most targets (94) in the matchup by far which is now eighth out of 86 qualifying players, and has 505 yards which is the least of players with a minimum of 80 targets and below the league mean. STILL no touchdowns, could this finally be the week? He is also yet to have a 75-yard game, with his best outing at 74 yards coming all the way back in week three when quarterback Mitch Trubisky was still at the helm. Here’s to hoping Johnson and Pickett can get more going this week and to close out the season. Pittsburgh aligned him in the slot more last week than the previous two outings, so hopefully we see more of that to aid his production compared to his predictable 89% wide alignment average on the season.
Fellow receiver George Pickens leads the outlook with 510 yards, which is five more than Johnson on 35 less targets (59), which is third in the matchup. Pickett has clearly had a stronger connection with him as of late, and has two touchdowns on the season. He has aligned out wide 87.9% of the time, and here’s to hoping both receivers can capitalize in the red zone/end zone after missed opportunities with Pickett last game.
Next, I wanted to look at and provide cushion (distance between the receiver and primary defender at the snap) and YAC averages for 2022:
The cushion results highlight how defenses have played the receiver rooms, with Pickens and Johnson seeing the third and tenth least cushion on the year. With defenders playing this close, along with the frustrating terminal routes we have largely seen this season, the YAC results have suffered. The numbers are trending positively with a bit more variety in route concepts that hopefully continues, particularly for Pickens who now has 2.43 YAC that has slightly improved to seventh least in the NFL, and Johnson moving up to 1.95 but is still third least in the league. Atlanta’s receivers have been given ample amount of cushion, with London seeing the fifth most while Zaccheaus has seen the ninth most. The latter has capitalized the most in the YAC department, at a healthy 5.42 average that ranks 22nd in the NFL. Hopefully Pittsburgh is ready to limit this facet of his game. London has a 3.42 YAC number which ranks 62nd.
Last bit of context for the wide receivers, here are the numbers for separation and catch percentages through week 12:
Zaccheaus has clearly stood out in both regards near the top of the league, with the NFL’s sixth rank in separation along with an impressive third ranked catch percentage (76.9). While his lower number of opportunities are important to note, he has been making the most of them which presents a challenge with Pittsburgh tending to allow secondary options free for big games. The other wide receivers in the matchup land below the mean in both data points, with Johnson second in the outlook in separation and 48th league-wide but a low 59.6 catch percentage that is third in the matchup. Pickens has the second ranked catch percentage in the outlook (61) but a matchup low 73rd in separation. London is 52nd in separation which is third in the outlook along with a matchup low 59.4 catch percentage.
Now let’s look at the tight ends, beginning with the receiving stats leaders:
Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth is continuing to build on his strong season, and has been on the receiving end of some impressive throws by Pickett as of late. He is comfortably above the NFL mean at the position with 71 targets and 521 yards which each rank fifth in the league among the 29 qualifying tight ends. Freiermuth and Pickett have yet to connect for a touchdown (only one from Trubisky early in the year), and here’s to hoping that they can perhaps connect on one from the red zone, an area the team is looking to improve on.
Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts is the most targeted (59) at the position for the team and had 356 yards before Atlanta placed him on injured reserve, and what a big loss that I will highlight further in a bit. He missed his first game last week, and three tight ends got involved in the pass game. The most targeted was MyCole Pruitt with three, with two receptions and the only receiving touchdown from the red zone. Parker Hessee got two targets with one reception, and Anthony Firkser caught his only target for 16 yards, and 34 yards between the three. It will be interesting to see if the usage is similar or if they are relied on more with another week to prepare following Pitts absence.
Both primary tight ends are below the mean in each data point. Freiermuth has the ninth most cushion on the season, but has been unable to separate comparatively with the second worst rank in the NFL. Hopefully the offense continues to build and create more open looks for their playmakers in the final third of the season. Pitts had been given the second most cushion at the position, but also was not particularly separating with the 23rd NFL rank. Curious to see how the rest of the tight end room looks in the matchup in his absence.
The last visual for the position shows just how much of a void Atlanta will be missing with percent of teams air yards, along with catch percentages for the position:
Pitts has the second rank in TAY and was a huge part of the offense, accounting for nearly 30% of the Falcons yards through the air. The connection was a different story, ranking dead last in catch percentage at an extremely low 47.5%. Very telling visual. In comparison, Freiermuth has an above the mean sixth rank and accounted for 18.1% of the Steelers air yards and a 66.2 catch percentage that ranks 21st that slightly improved from last week.
The offensive lines are always key to any matchup, and let’s see how the two teams have fared thus far with PFF grades:
Here we can see the Falcons are very strong as a team in the run blocking department, leading the strong rushing attack highlighted earlier. Right guard Chris Lindstrom leads the run blocking grades and ranks second in the NFL, along with a 72.3 pass block grade that ranks fourth in the outlook. Right tackle Kaleb McGary also has a +85 run block grade (86.5) that ranks sixth in the league, highlighting the dominant side of their line in the ground game, which could make for a long day for Pittsburgh’s defense, especially if edge rusher T.J. Watt (questionable) is unable to go with a rib injury that limited him in practice all week. McGary has an at the mean 65.7 pass block grade for the outlook, so hopefully the pass rush from the defenses’ left side is able to get home.
Left tackle Jake Matthews leads the outlook as a pass blocker (74.4) along with ranking eighth in ESPN’s pass block win rates, so it will be interesting to see him battle with edge rusher Alex Highsmith, who has been playing well and reached his double-digit sack goal last week. Here’s to hoping he can have a dominant performance in this matchup. Center Drew Dalman has struggled compared to the aforementioned starters, with his lowest grade of 55.1 as a pass blocker with a team high 15 hurries though not charged with a sack, along with a 67 run block grade that is one of five Falcons that lead the outlook in run block grades. The left guard position has seen its share of injuries, with Elijah Wilkinson having the most snaps at the position from weeks one-eight, with a 68.3 run block grade and a below the mean 63.6 pass block grade. Colby Gossett has played there most recently, but has the lowest grades for the team, with a 62.4 run block but particularly struggled as a pass blocker with the lowest 46.9 grade in the outlook. Chuma Edoga (questionable) has also played the position, but only able to suit up for one game.
All five Pittsburgh starters are below the outlook mean as run blockers, but largely fare well comparatively in the pass game. Guard Kevin Dotson now leads the pass blocking grades (74.1) for the Steelers and second in the outlook, surpassing fellow guard James Daniels (72.8) who has trended down after a strong start to the season. Daniels does have the stronger 64 run block grade which is second on the team, and Dotson third on the team at 57.8. Center Mason Cole is near the mean in both data points in his overall steady season, and leads the team in run blocking (66.5) along with a 65.3 pass block grade. The tackles are up next, with Dan Moore ranking third on the team with a 67.2 pass block grade, and fourth as a run blocker (57.7). Chukwuma Okorafor is now last in both data points (64.6 pass block, 54 run block) with a similar downward trend to Daniels on the less formidable right side in comparison to Atlanta.
One of the biggest takeaways for the matchup is explosive plays of 20+ yards, and here are the results through week 12:
The defenses jump out right away, not in a good way with Pittsburgh ranking 31st with a whopping 52 of these plays. Atlanta is the only team that’s fared worst, dead last with 54 such plays. Most of these come in the pass game obviously, and really hoping this matchup aids the hope I’ve been clamoring for, Pickett throwing with more quantity and quality in the intermediate and explosive range. Also, would be nice if Pittsburgh can get at least one on the ground considering Atlanta has allowed more (nine to Pittsburgh’s seven) and seem likely to win that facet of the matchup overall. On offense the Falcons are near the mean with 41 which ties for 15th, compared to Pittsburgh tied for 29th with 33.
Let’s look at the defenses from a player stats perspective to close, starting with Pittsburgh. Linebacker Myles Jack has been dealing with a knee injury but was able to practice in full Friday, so it will be interesting see how he fares considering some noticeable struggles as of late. He still leads the team with 88 combined tackles now, three passes defensed, two tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit. Fellow linebacker Devin Bush is second on the team with 62 combined tackles and has really played well overall as of late, also with two passes defensed, a tackle for loss and quarterback hit. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is third in combined tackles with 55, tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) with one of those a house call, seven passes defensed, and a quarterback hit. Hopefully he can play a key role and play closer to the line of scrimmage against this run heavy Falcons squad.
Highsmith impressively leads the team with ten sacks (comfortably), 15 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles, along with a pass defensed. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has come on strong as of late, and is second on the team now with 12 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, and four sacks, along with 42 combined tackles, a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and a pass defensed. Here’s to hoping he and fellow defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi can continue their strong play and provide a stout interior where the Falcons offensive line is weaker. Ogunjobi is third on the team in quarterback hits (eight), along with 28 combined tackles, two for loss, and half a sack. Cornerback Levi Wallace has played better in coverage recently, leading the team with 11 passes defensed and tied with Fitzpatrick with a team leading three interceptions, along with 30 combined tackles.
For Atlanta, linebacker Rashaan Evans is a quality player that leads the team with a whopping 119 combined tackles which is third in the NFL, along with five tackles for loss (T-2nd), four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, a sack, and a quarterback hit. Fellow linebacker Mykal Walker is second on the team with 93 combined tackles and six passes defensed, along withfour tackles for loss, two interceptions (T-1st), a sack, and a quarterback hit. Safety Richie Grant is third on the team with 82 combined tackles, leads the team with seven passes defensed, also has two interceptions, two tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit. Fellow safety Jaylinn Hawkins is fourth in combined tackles (62), two interceptions, four passes defensed, a forced fumble and recovery for a touchdown, and a quarterback hit.
Defensive lineman Grady Jarrett leads the team in sacks (5.5), quarterback hits (13), and tackles for loss (ten), along with 44 combined tackles and three passes defensed. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter is tied for second with five tackles for loss, along with 38 combined tackles, seven quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, two passes defensed, and an interception return for a touchdown. Edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie (questionable) is second on the team with 11 quarterback hits, along with 28 combined tackles, three for loss, 2.5 sacks, two passes defensed, and one forced fumble. Cornerback AJ Terrell is a quality cornerback that is tied for second on the team with six passes defensed, along with 34 combined tackles, and a fumble recovery. Atlanta has allowed the most yardage of any defense through week 12, and hopefully this holds true for Pittsburgh’s offense looking to continue their positive trend for a fingers-crossed second straight victory.
How do you think the game will play out against Atlanta? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!