The NFL slate in Week 5 is jam-packed with intriguing matchups.
Want to see one of the NFL's best offenses take on one of its best defenses? Go watch the Chiefs play the Jaguars. Want to see if Aaron Rodgers can somehow move the ball without any of his top receivers? Check out Packers-Lions. Are you looking for an NFC title game rematch? Well, the Vikings and the Eagles are ready to do battle.
But perhaps no game this weekend is more interesting than the battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are off to worse-than-expected starts, with Pittsburgh at 1-2-1 and Atlanta at 1-3. Both defenses are struggling badly amidst injuries and error-filled play, and both teams have been dealing with the absence of a No. 1 running back.
Week 5's showdown is not exactly a "loser leaves town" match, but it might be pretty close. A loss would drop either team pretty far back in their respective division races and put them far behind in the wild-card chase as well. A win would not necessarily be a sign that great things are coming any time soon, but it would at least stop the bleeding.
Can the Steelers even their record? Will the Falcons get back on track? We'll find out Sunday (1 p.m., FOX). But before we get to the game itself, let's take a look at what we should be watching out for once the two teams hit the field.
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When the Steelers have the ball
The Steelers still have to weather two more games and a bye week without Le'Veon Bell before the All-Pro running back returns. Without Bell, the Steelers' offense has been a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, the Steelers rank sixth overall in yards and 10th in points, but they sit at just 10th in yards per play, 23rd in points per drive, 29th in the percentage of drives that end in points, and 17th in offensive efficiency, as determined by Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA.
The Steelers hung 888 combined yards and 67 combined points on the terrible Chiefs and Buccaneers defenses, but struggled to find traction against the far more respectable Browns and Ravens units, totaling 756 yards and 45 points in those games even though they included a full 10-minute overtime period against Cleveland. Luckily for the Steelers, they're about to face another one of the handful of worst defenses in the league, as a Falcons team that has been ravaged by injuries (Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen are all out with long-term ailments) ranks 28th in yards allowed, 30th in points allowed, 23rd in yard allowed per play, 32nd in points allowed per drive, 31st in percentage of drives that end in points, and 30th in defensive efficiency, as determined by defensive DVOA. (The Chiefs and Bucs are 31st and 32nd in DVOA, respectively.) They're one of three teams that ranks in the bottom six of both rush defense and pass defense DVOA.
So, it would be reasonable to expect Pittsburgh to work out some of the kinks this week and get going offensively. And, well, there are actually quite a few kinks to be worked out.
First there's the Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown connection. Brown has been the NFL's best receiver for some time now, recording at least 101 catches, 1,284 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in each of the past five seasons. Just seven players in NFL history have recorded more than one such season. Brown has five in a row, and those five are more than anyone else has ever had. And of course, he has far exceeded those catch, yardage, and touchdown totals in several of those seasons, posting an average line of 116-1,570-10.
And during that dominant five-season run, Brown has not just been a volume king. He's also been wildly efficient, catching 68 percent of passes thrown his way and averaging 13.5 yards per reception. This year has been different. Brown is working on a career-low 55 percent catch rate and a career-low 9.4 yards per reception. The biggest issue has been an inability to connect with Roethlisberger on downfield passes -- typically a strength for that duo. Among the 109 pass-catchers that have been targeted on at least five throws 10-plus yards downfield, Brown ranks an incredible 101st in passer rating on the throws in his direction on those plays. He and Roethlisberger have connected on just four of 22 tries, totaling 79 yards (77 in the air, so not much going on after the catch) and two scores.
Then there's the running game. James Conner started off the year splendidly, slicing through the Browns for 135 yards on 31 carries in the season opener. Since then, he has carried 32 times for just 97 yards. He failed to crack even 20 yards on the ground against both the Chiefs and the Ravens. Conner has also gained progressively fewer yards through the air with each passing game, seeing his receiving yardage total dip from 57 to 25 over the course of four weeks.
Luckily for Conner's sake, the Falcons are yielding 5.0 yards per carry and have given up an incredible 42 catches for 310 yards to running backs so far this season. Even removing the monster games from Alvin Kamara (15-124) and Christian McCaffrey (14-102), they have still allowed 13 grabs for 84 yards (and a touchdown) to the other running backs they've faced. Without Jones, Neal, and Allen, Conner should be able to make some noise on swings, pivots, and check-downs.
When the Falcons have the ball
While the Steelers still have to wait, the Falcons will see their No. 1 running back return this week.
Devonta Freeman has missed the past three games with a knee injury, during which time the work has been split between Tevin Coleman and rookie Ito Smith. The duo exploded for 153 combined rushing yards on 25 carries against the Panthers in Week 2, but totaled just 113 yards on 34 carries over the past two weeks. Freeman's return will provide the Falcons a consistency on the ground that they have lacked, while also allowing Coleman to resume the important role in the passing game that he vacated while stepping into the primary ball-carrier role over the past few weeks. (He had just nine catches for 58 yards while Freeman was out.)
Pittsburgh's defense hasn't been quite as friendly on the ground as Atlanta's, yielding only 4.2 yards per carry, but that includes a game where the Bucs totaled just 63 rushing yards. Both the Browns (177 yards) and Chiefs (127 yards) gashed Pittsburgh on the ground, but those games featured strong contributions from either the quarterbacks (Tyrod Taylor ran for 77 yards and Patrick Mahomes for 18) or the wide receivers (Sammy Watkins took a jet sweep for 31 yards). The Falcons don't seem likely to get a monster, Taylor-esque rushing performance out of Matt Ryan, and they're not necessarily a jet sweep kind of team, but they are able to threaten the perimeter with stretch plays to Freeman or Coleman, and Pittsburgh's lack of discipline can be taken advantage of with cutbacks from those players as well.
Pittsburgh's pass defense, meanwhile, has been incredibly porous. The Steelers are giving up 8.1 yards per attempt through the air, and have seen 7.5 percent of opponent passes turn into touchdowns. The latter figure ranks third-worst in the NFL. After struggling to produce points in Week 1 against the Eagles, the Falcons have been on an incredible run, with Matt Ryan connecting often with both Julio Jones and rookie Calvin Ridley. Ridley, in particular, has had a nose for the end zone, catching six touchdown passes in the past three games. Even Mohamed Sanu is coming off his best game in years, having nabbed six balls for 116 yards last week against his former team, the Bengals. Sanu does a lot of work in the slot, and if Steelers slot corner Mike Hilton can't go on Sunday (the Steelers are hopeful that he'll play but nothing is definitive just yet), he could feast on routes over the middle of the field.
Where the Falcons have had the most airborne success the past few weeks, though, is finding Jones on downfield routes. In the above section we quoted a statistic about how poorly Antonio Brown has performed on throws of 10-plus yards in the air; on the same types of throws, Jones has been phenomenal. Only Brandin Cooks and DeAndre Hopkins have more catches on throws that traveled 10 or more yards in the air. Only DeSean Jackson has more yards. The Steelers have been especially vulnerable to deep passes both over the middle and to the left side of the field (i.e., away from Joe Haden), and it would not be a surprise to see the Falcons test them vertically with Jones.
There's going to be even more pressure on this unit than usual to put up a ton of points, because the offense they're going against is also one of the best in the NFL.
Prediction: Steelers 34, Falcons 30