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Tabeek: Steelers may have exposed another issue for these Falcons

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PITTSBURGH – We all knew what the formula for Falcons success would be – now and into the foreseeable future: Atlanta’s star-studded offense has to carry this team.

At least until some key players return on defense.

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Well, it didn’t exactly go down that way here at Heinz Field on Sunday as the Steelers cruised to a 24-point win and the Falcons offense failed to find any rhythm whatsoever.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made a blunt assessment after the game.

“We ran the ball. They didn’t,” he said. “We protected our quarterback. They didn’t.”

The Steelers defense answered the bell, holding the Falcons’ high-octane offense in check when it counted. Led by defensive end T.J. Watt’s three sacks, Pittsburgh sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a season-high six times.

And Ryan, who was under duress for much of the game, understandably failed to find any sort of rhythm. While the Falcons’ signal caller completed 26 of 38 for 285 yards and a touchdown, the offense converted just six of 14 third-down attempts (43 percent) and made just one of three fourth-down attempts (33 percent).

Ryan wasn’t the only one on offense who couldn’t find his groove, either. Running back Devonta Freeman, back after missing three games with a knee injury, ran it only eight times for 32 yards. Tevin Coleman had seven carries for 15 yards. As a team, the Falcons had 62 total yards rushing on 19 attempts.

On the flip side, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger certainly didn’t have his best day, completing 19 of 29 for 250 yards and a pick, but he did toss three touchdowns – the back-breaker a 47-yarder to Antonio Brown midway through the fourth quarter to put Pittsburgh up 34-17.

And, as Tomlin noted, the Falcons’ pass rush failed to get to Roethlisberger once.

The Falcons’ defense had no answer for Steelers running back James Conner, either. Conner, who ran for 135 yards in the Pittsburgh’s season-opener, had rushed for only 97 yards since. Against the injury-ravaged Falcons, Conner ran it 21 times for 110 yards and added another 75 yards receiving.

So where does it leave these Falcons moving forward? Climbing out of a 1-4 hole won’t be easy at all, but it has been done before.

Look no further than 2016. While the Falcons were putting together would eventually be a Super Bowl run, the Miami Dolphins managed to overcome a 1-4 start by going 9-2 down the stretch – good enough to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Right now, all Atlanta can do is take it one game at a time. They return home to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2), which is also important because it’s a division game.

And the Falcons had better fix some things in a hurry if they’re going to have a chance. While the injuries on defense have been well-documented, the Steelers may have exposed another glaring problem for these Dirty Birds: winning at the line of scrimmage.

If the Falcons can’t protect Ryan, they won’t be able to turn this thing around.

The Falcons won’t look beyond the Bucs – they can’t afford to – but we certainly can. The following four opponents are the Giants (1-4), Redskins (2-1), Browns (2-2-1) and Cowboys (2-2). That’s one team with a record above .500.

Those are all winnable games. And don’t forget, the soonest Deion Jones can return is that Week 10 matchup against the Cowboys.

For now, the Falcons must take it one game at a time – and beat the Buccaneers.

That’s all that matters for this team right now.

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