PITTSBURGH —In a game that put a premium on touchdowns, it was fitting that the first of the game was the only one and the deciding one.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, it came from the legs of the wrong running back — Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall's 50-yard overtime touchdown run was the game's final play and in many ways the only big play the Atlanta defense gave up all day.
Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith felt his defense had performed admirably against a Steelers team that he knew would want to come out and pound the ball on the ground with third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon under center. They allowed 143 yards rushing, but a huge chunk came on that final play.
Overtime is no time for mistakes, but Smith felt the defense gave up the game's biggest one in allowing that long run.
"We had eight-man spacing and I thought they had done a good job up to that point after the first drive," Smith said following the game. "I thought we weathered the scourge in terms of their run game. Absolutely mis-fit the run, and when you mis-fit in eight-man spacing, there's a chance for an explosive play. Unacceptable defensive play."
The run gave the Steelers a 15-9 win, but the Atlanta defenders showed they can hang with one of the league's most notoriously tough teams on the road. But the 2010 version of Falcons doesn't put much stock in moral victories and losing in that fashion was difficult to swallow.
"It was horrible," middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "It felt horrible. As a defense, I thought we played pretty good the entire game, and then to let them have a big play like that at the end just makes you sick to your stomach."
Despite giving up some chunks of yards through the air to the Steelers, Atlanta still managed to keep Pittsburgh out of the end zone for the entire game. Dixon ended the day 18-for-26 with 236 yards, but with no touchdowns and one interception.
Atlanta was also able to force pressure on the young quarterback, sacking him three times, including back-to-back times late in the fourth quarter.
As the game continued on, Atlanta continued to bend more, but never seemed to break. They came up big on third down, limiting the Steelers to only four conversions in 14 attempts.
But despite how tough they played, they still gave up one play too many.
"It's tough because you fight so hard the whole game," said rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "It was a tough game, and the last play of the game was when the first touchdown is scored. That's tough, man. We fought. We fought. Those guys made one more play than we made and that determined the outcome of the game."
Despite how strong the defense played all day, the Falcons offense couldn't muster much with the opportunities they were given against an equally tough Pittsburgh defense. Shut out on the ground (58 yards), quarterback Matt Ryan was able to generate some ball movement through the air.
In the end, the passing game couldn't offset the lack of a running game, despite a strong effort from wide receiver Roddy White, who finished the day with 13 catches for 111 yards.
"I think Pittsburgh's defense, and specifically the front seven, is really good," Ryan said. "They played really well today. Obviously, any game, you'd like to run the ball effectively. We didn't do it as well as we would have liked to today, but I thought our pass protection against them was pretty good. But at the end of the day, we needed to make some more plays and we just didn't."
With a heartbreaking loss in 2010 already in the pages, Atlanta will look to show an approach similar to what they showed in going toe-to-toe with one of the league's most respected franchises. The Arizona Cardinals are the Week 2 draw and Smith expects improvement.
"We have got to make sure that we go back and evaluate everything we're doing and make sure that we make the corrections," the head coach said. "From the first week to the second week, you see an advancement in what you're trying to do. We will improve from Week 1 to Week 2."