FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons have one game standing between them and their bye week. And here's the thing about this one game: The outcome of it could alter how the Falcons feel about the rest of their season.
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Atlanta currently sits with a 5-7 record, and yet the Falcons are still in playoff conversations. They find themselves just behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South standings, it's the Bucs who have hung onto that No.1 spot for the last few weeks.
For the Falcons to continue to be in this playoff conversation, a loss to the Steelers would be a dagger. Therefore, it just can't happen. So, with this in mind, let's take a look at five things for you to keep your eye on come Sunday's must-win game for Atlanta.
(Oh, and did we mention red helmets are back? No? Well, they are!)
1. Arnold Ebiketie's status
If you've watched the Falcons defense play at all over the last few weeks, you likely wouldn't have been able to miss Ebiketie. Why? Because he's playing as good as we've seen him play throughout any point in time throughout his rookie year. It really does feel like Ebiketie is stepping into his own within this Falcons defense.
He's been doing so, too, while not at 100 percent.
For the last two weeks, Ebiketie has been working through a forearm injury. It came up during the Falcons Week 12 prep to face Washington last week. Ebiketie was limited throughout practice, and though he was originally listed as questionable ahead of last Sunday's game, he was active when the game began.
The forearm injury flared up again, though, and after only nine defensive snaps, Ebiketie was kept to the sideline.
Throughout this week's practices, Ebiketie was again limited during the week. He has been sporting a brace/cast during practice, though, to protect that left forearm.
Ebiketie was listed as questionable - again - for Sunday. We'll know about his Sunday status when inactives are released 90 minutes before kickoff.
2. Running the ball against another top-10 run-stopping defense
As Ashton Edmunds pointed out in his Thursday Falcons Daily write-up, the Steelers defense is more efficient than many teams in the league when defending the run. (Which - as we all well know - is something the Falcons offense must do to garner offensive success).
The Steelers currently have the sixth-best run-stopping defense in the league. Meanwhile, the Falcons offense sits as the No. 4 best rushing offense in the league. It'll be a battle of wills through and through at the line of scrimmage on Sunday.
A major part of the Steelers success in stopping the run stems from Cam Heyward within that Pittsburgh defensive front. Arthur Smith said during the week that he has a lot of respect for Heyward and "what he does anchoring the interior" of the Steelers defense.
On the other side of the run-the-ball coin is Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier. They're the ones primed to be on Heyward's radar. For as good an Heyward has been stopping the run, that's how good Patterson and Allgeier have been in producing the run.
Our Nerdy Birds report noted this week that Allgeier has been on quite the tear throughout the month of November, producing an average of 4.19 yards after contact per play. That was good enough for the highest mark in the NFL.
So, the Steelers want to stop the run and the Falcons want to accumulate run-game stats. This should make for quite the clash at the line of scrimmage.
3. Affecting a rookie QB
Kenny Pickett has had some significant highs and lows as his rookie campaign has matured. But all the while, he's been maturing, too.
As the year has gone on, the Steelers offense has seemed more and more comfortable with Pickett at the helm. His connection with wide receiver George Pickens has improved, as has his ability to extend plays in a productive manner. He also hasn't committed a turnover in the last three games the Steelers have played.
"I think the guy is just gaining experience and feeling more comfortable back there," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "It's like anything else... the more you play, the better you feel, the faster you play because I've seen it now a little bit. I think it's just him gaining experience."
Pickett is still a rookie quarterback, though, always one play away from making a rookie quarterback mistake. Forcing those mistakes to happen will be a key to the Falcons defensive plan, which ultimately boils down to making Pickett uncomfortable in the pocket.
If the Falcons can do that consistently it could be productive day for this defense on Sunday, particularly if they can halt the Steelers rushing attack. Speaking of which...
4. Who's going to suit up for Pittsburgh?
When asked about the Steelers' offense on Thursday, Pees immediately began talking about the running backs in Pittsburgh.
"First of all, they're a good running team," Pees said. "They have good backs. They run hard. Similar, I think, a little bit to last week with Washington. They're similar type guys – not just because they both went to Alabama – but they're similar-type guys, hard runners."
Of course, Pees is talking about Pittsburgh's Najee Harris and Washington's Brian Robinson, Jr.
The latter of the two ran for 105 yards against the Falcons defense last Sunday. The former's status for this Sunday - and how much of a green light he will have - has just been decided.
Harris has been working through an oblique injury, one that has kept him limited throughout this week's practices. However, multiple reports came in on Friday afternoon that Harris would suit up for the Steelers in Atlanta.
With fellow running back Jaylen Warren also working back to full health after a hamstring tweak, the Steelers could be back in full force in Atlanta if Warren is also given the green light like Harris. Warren was listed as questionable on the team's official injury report on Friday.
This Falcons defense will have to be on its game to defend either, or both.
5. Tampa Bay and Saints matchup on Monday Night Football
OK. I know what you're thinking: This doesn't have anything to do with what's happening on Sunday with the Falcons. And you're right. It doesn't. However, if you're not watching this NFC South showdown on Monday night that's gonna be a problem.
With the NFC South being so close at the current moment, this game could be a make-or-break moment for either team. As ESPN's Katherine Terrell wrote earlier in the week: "As it turns out, anything could happen."
Carolina and New Orleans are currently tied for the No. 3 spot in the division, with the Saints owning the tiebreaker. However, the Panthers are on a bye this week. So, if the Falcons were to lose to the Steelers and the Saints were to beat the Bucs, New Orleans would go from worst to first in the span of 24 hours.
Oh, and remember how I said the Falcons are on a bye next week? Well, so are the Saints. You want to know who each team plays after their byes in Week 14? Oh yeah, each other.
The chaotic entity that is the NFC south is going to continue to shift. And this next slate of games in Week 13 have the potential to move things around drastically if the Falcons do not take care of their own business on Sunday.
The guys put on their red helmets for another week of work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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