FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons have only beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers twice in the all-time series between these two teams (both times in Atlanta), but they have the opportunity to add to that total on Sunday. Both the Falcons (1-3) and the Steelers (1-2-1) are in need of a win to add some momentum early in the season.
Like the Falcons, the Steelers have a plethora of offensive weapons even without Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell. Both defenses continue to establish their identities, so there could be plenty of points scored at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Here are the three key matchups that could shape how this game unfolds:
1. Falcons cornerbacks vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster
It might be wrong to not include Antonio Brown among this weekend's key matchups, but the player who might tip the balance of this game the most is Smith-Schuster. Last week, the Falcons held Bengals star receiver A.J. Green relatively in check (four catches for 78 yards), minus the game-winning touchdown, but No. 2 receiver Tyler Boyd caught 11 passes for 100 yards. Boyd's ability to make plays and keep drives alive helped the Bengals keep pace in the shootout.
Smith-Schuster is among the very best No. 2 receivers in the game, and he currently leads the Steelers with 31 catches for 416 yards and a touchdown. The injuries in the secondary has caused a re-shuffling for the Falcons on the back end. While Robert Alford or Desmond Trufant can still cover a player like Brown, the changes forced one of them inside in nickel packages and rookie Isaiah Oliver to play a substantial role on the outside. Smith-Schuster is the player who could benefit from that shuffling.
2. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley vs. Steelers secondary
If this game does indeed turn into a shootout, the Falcons will need the two players who are currently leading the league in yards and touchdowns to come through against a susceptible secondary. With six touchdowns over the last three games, Ridley has proven capable of beating man coverage with relative ease. Will teams risk providing help to the defender covering Ridley at the cost of doubling Jones? We've seen what happens when teams try to leave a player on an island with the All-Pro receiver. Not to mention what Mohamed Sanu can do as well.
The Steelers' secondary hasn't been a strong point for them this season. Pittsburgh's defense is currently 29th against the pass, allowing about 305 yards per game through the air. The Ravens, who have the eight-best passing attack in the league, threw for 363 yards against the Steelers and hit on a number of big plays. The Falcons have the sixth-best passing game thus far, and they could have another big day in Pittsburgh.
3. James Conner vs. interior of Falcons' defensive line
Bell's replacement has been held in check in recent weeks, but Conner proved what he's capable of in Week 1, when he gained 135 yards on the ground and scored two touchdowns. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has already been ruled out for the game, and his loss could be a big one. Jarrett's ability to penetrate into opposing backfields often disrupts running lanes and sets offenses back.
Without Jarrett, the Falcons will rely on a rotation of players that will include Deadrin Senat, Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain. A majority of the Steelers' run plays have occurred between their two guards. Pittsburgh has 53 rush attempts this season between the guards, compared to 23 attempts outside of the guards. The Falcons' depth on the interior of the defensive line will be tested this week, and they don't want to let Conner get going.