Steelers disruptive pass rush was the product of talent and scheme
Number one, they've got two premier edge guys in TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. Both of them are pretty quick off the ball. I didn't think it was a great game for Ryan Schraeder or Jake Matthews when it came to getting started at the snap. The crowd noise might have been a part of that, and the Steelers seemed to be doing a good job of timing the snap count.
And schematically, Pittsburgh is famous for the zone blitz, and they did come with some zone pressures where they were blitzing off the slot with the nickel back Mike Hilton, and they were dropping Bud Dupree off the ball. Atlanta's tackles were setting for the defensive end, and the slot blitz, usually Hilton, was coming off their shoulder. The Falcons weren't recognizing it quick enough to fan out. If your guy is not coming, you've got to recognize the next opponent jersey that shows, so they should have been blocking the nickel back coming off the slot.
Pittsburgh overloaded the Falcons with six man pressures a few times, but really the issue was Watt and Dupree just had a better day than Atlanta's two offensive tackles, and then schematically they created some problems with the slot blitz.
TJ Watt's combination of speed, power and leverage make him a tough block
Normally when you're talking about a pass rusher you're talking about his ability to come off of the ball. We talk about Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley as guys that can come off the ball quickly, and Watt has that ability. He's got a quick first step, he's strong enough, and he creates leverage with his body angle, so he can get around these bigger offensive tackles. It's the quick first step, and he can turn speed into power to blow through an edge block.
So the problem opposing offenses have with the Steeler is, who do you chip block? Do you chip block Bud Dupree, another dangerous rusher on the other side, or do you chip block Watt? It's a problem for opposing offenses.
Poor tackling overruled signs of growth
The past two weeks, there have been signs that this young group on defense is starting to make some strides as a group that is playing together for the first time. But then, just when you think they have the tackling issues ironed out, that issue shows itself again. This was a game where I felt the Falcons defense had themselves in position, there weren't a lot of blown assignments, but there were too many times when they didn't make the play when they were in position. There were too many missed tackles as a defense.
There was a sequence there where it felt like the defense got their feet underneath them. They got a couple of three-and-outs, and then Ben Roethlisberger game them a gift with a horrible pass in the end zone that Damontae Kazee intercepted to thwart one of their opportunities to score.
Pittsburgh ran the ball better, and it resulted in better third down situations
In their previous three games, the Steelers had converted just eight of 34 third downs, or 24 percent. You could see they made a commitment this week to run the ball with more effectiveness to get them into better situations. James Conner got going in the run game and that made them multi-dimensional, so play action became much more viable. Roethlisberger also did a good job of getting the ball out and they found guys on those short crossing routes.
And Pittsburgh will take those quick, easy throws, and Atlanta is willing to give up those quick, easy throws to the tight ends or backs. The next thing you know, you look up and it's third-and-2 or 3. The Steelers were consistently in third-and-short situations. It resulted in them converting 9-of-12 third downs in this game.
But teams aren't playing the Falcons that way. Atlanta has too many weapons, so teams are playing tighter coverage, and that means Matt Ryan has to hold the ball longer to wait for guys to come open. And on top of that the Falcons just didn't get enough out of the run game. Devonta Freeman ripped off one 20-yard run, but other than that they got very little out of the run game. Pittsburgh was eating Matt Ryan up, and the Falcons needed the run game to counterbalance that, and didn't get it. It resulted in too many negative plays on first down. On average, Atlanta needed more than eight yards to convert their third downs. That's tough when that's where you're living all day long.
Consistency will be tough, but necessary
The message from the coaching staff has to remain consistent. The Falcons have shown in the last two years that they're doing the right things. You've got to stay the course, and sometimes staying the course is the hardest thing to do. You've got to continue to work on your tackling, you need to learn your position, pour yourself into your playbook and know your opposition that much better next week.
There are guys on defense that are getting on-the-job training right now that are going to have to learn, just like that young core that had to learn in 2016. That team had to go through 10 or 11 games of rough defensive football, but they got better and all of sudden it clicked and they started playing well.
Now, the Falcons have dug themselves a hole at 1-4, so some guys are going to have to show growth pretty quick. They're going to have to do it next weekend against Tampa Bay.
This is a leadership moment
It's going to be really important for the leaders on this team that are still standing to circle the wagons. They're going to start being told they're not very good, they're not going to win, and the season is over. It's far from over. There's still a lot of things that can happen throughout the year to get back in it. Now, you've got to get on a winning streak, but you can't listen to everything outside the building. This team has been pretty good at that over the past few years, but it's going to be rampant in the next few weeks, and as long as they keep their resolve they're going to get better. But they can't buy in to what's going on on the outside because it's going to get nasty before it gets better.