Falcons Downed by Steelers in 27-20 Home Loss

The Atlanta Falcons’ 2014 record fell to 5-9 after a 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the second week in a row the Falcons fell behind early, as they were down 20-7 at halftime before failing to mount a successful comeback. The team’s record now guarantees a losing record for consecutive years under head coach Mike Smith. The Falcons will seemingly be forced to win both of their final two games to make the playoffs.

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Matt Ryan looked out of sorts throughout the game

Matt Ryan got off to a slow start, completing 26 of 37 passes for 310 yards, a pair of touchdowns but also threw a pick-six. Steven Jackson led the team on the ground with 46 yards on 11 carries. Devonta Freeman added 21 yards on four carries. In the absence of an injured Julio Jones, Harry Douglas led receivers with 10 catches for 131 yards. Roddy White added seven grabs for 58 yards and a touchdown, while Devin Hester added five catches for 85 yards with a touchdown. Matt Bryant connected on a pair of field goals from 28 and 22 yards away. Matt Bosher punted three times for an average of 48 yards with one punt placed inside the 20-yard line. Hester returned one punt for seven yards, while averaging 27 yards on three kickoff returns. Offensively, the Falcons totaled 407 yards and converted six of 11 tries on third downs.

Defensively, the Falcons were competitive as they stymied Le’Veon Bell and Pittsburgh’s rushing attack to just 45 yards while giving up 398 yards total. The Steelers converted six of 11 third-down attempts as well with Ryan’s interception being the huge difference in the game. Paul Worrilow led defenders with 11 tackles and also added a pass deflection and two quarterback hits. Joplo Bartu (seven tackles); Kroy Biermann (five tackles, one tackle for loss); Kemal Ishmael (nine tackles, one tackle for loss); Dwight Lowery (four tackles); Robert McClain (three tackles, one pass deflection); Prince Shembo (two tackles, 0.5 sacks); Paul Soliai (two tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Desmond Trufant (six tackles) had notable performances.

The opening Steelers drive began with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completing his first four passes for a combined 52 yards on the first six plays to move the ball deep into Falcons territory. Once the Steelers moved the ball into the redzone, the Falcons run defense tightened up by stopping Bell for no gain on 2nd-and-5. That set up a third down, where Biermann pressured Roethlisberger, who managed to elude Biermann but missed the throw to tight end Heath Miller over the middle. That led to the Steelers finishing the drive with a 38-yard field goal from kicker Shaun Suisham, giving them an early 3-0 lead with nine minutes remaining in the first quarter.

The Falcons moved on the ball on their opening possession thanks to a third-down conversion by Hester on a five-yard catch. Two plays later, Steven Jackson converted on 2nd-and-1 on a 12-yard gain to push the ball into Steeler territory. However, the Falcons drive stalled due to Ryan missing on a back-to-back throws to Douglas and White, leading to Bosher’s first punt. Bosher managed to pin the Steelers deep within their own territory, as their next drive started at the eight-yard line.

However, the Steelers quickly flipped field position thanks to a 44-yard gain by Bell on a quick checkdown on 3rd-and-2. Pressure up the middle forced Roethlisberger to throw into the flat to Bell, who eluded several Falcons defenders to get the large gain and put the ball in Falcons territory. Initially, officials called a block in the back penalty on wide receiver Martavis Bryant against Robert McClain, but later picked up the flag and the gain was good. Roethlisberger completed another pair of passes for a combined 17 yards before being dropped by the combined efforts of Shembo and Soliai on a sack. That set up a 2nd-and-17 from the Falcons’ 30-yard line, on which Roethlisberger attempted a pass to Bryant in the endzone. But McClain was there on the coverage to break up the pass before Bryant could secure it. On the ensuing third down, Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown on a slant, but he was stopped well shy of the sticks by Ishmael after a 10-yard gain. Suisham came out and attempted another 38-yard field goal, which again was good to give the Steelers a 6-0 lead with the first quarter coming to a close.

On the final play of the first quarter, Hester gave the Falcons favorable field position with a 43-yard kickoff return that set the team up at their 38-yard line to kick off their next drive at the outset of the second quarter. However, Ryan’s pass on first down to Douglas was picked off by cornerback William Gay, who made a nice cutback and was able to score on a 52-yard return. That lifted the Steelers lead to 13-0 with 14:46 left in the first half.

Douglas looked to redeem himself on the ensuing drive, making a catch for nine yards to convert on 2nd-and-8 on Ryan’s first pass of the series. However, the Falcons receiver was then flagged for offensive pass interference when trying to pick a defender on a quick throw into the flat to Jacquizz Rodgers for two yards. That backed the Falcons into 1st-and-20. Freeman was able to get 10 of those yards back with a nice run off the right side. But on the ensuing 3rd-and-6, Ryan’s pass to White over the middle was underthrown and behind the receiver. Bosher boomed a 51-yard punt, but Brown was able to elude the initial Falcons coverage and found a seam for a 31-yard return.

To start the next Steelers series, Ishmael came off the back side to help wrap up Bell for a three-yard loss. Tyson Jackson then was able to bat down Roethlisberger’s pass into the flat to Bell to set up a 3rd-and-13. Brown then made the catch on a crossing pattern and was forced out of bounds after an 11-yard gain. The Steelers looked to go for it on 4th-and-2, but instead tried to draw the Falcons offsides. The Falcons failed to bite and after the ensuing delay of game penalty, the Steelers punted the ball away with less than 10 minutes left in the second quarter.

After an 11-yard catch by Steven Jackson to give the Falcons a new set of downs, Ryan found White on a deep dig for a gain of 24 yards to spot the ball in Steelers territory just across midfield. Four plays later, Bear Pascoe whiffed on a chip of outside linebacker Jason Worilds who ran clean to deliver a big hit on Ryan for a sack for an 11-yard loss. Officials deemed the hit worthy of a roughing the passer penalty, a questionable call, and it gave the Falcons a first down at the Steelers’ 21-yard line instead of setting up a 3rd-and-19 at the 46-yard line. Freeman gained seven yards on the very next play, but then was stopped for a three-yard loss by Sean Spence to set up a 3rd-and-6. Ryan lobbed a throw into the back of the endzone, where Hester was able to extend to make the grab for a 17-yard touchdown to get the Falcons on the board for the first time of the day. The Steelers’ lead was now cut to 13-7 with 4:19 left in the second quarter.

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Antonio Brown (84) beat Desmond Trufant late in the first half for a critical play

The Steelers were able to move the ball to their 39-yard line on three plays before the two-minute warning hit. On 3rd-and-4, Bell was able to keep the chains moving with a five-yard catch over the middle. Roethlisberger then threw behind an open Lance Moore down the seam, but completed his next pass to wide receiver Markus Wheaton on a nine-yard gain. Bell converted on a two-yard run to convert another third down, causing the Steelers to burn their second time out with 1:14 left on the second-quarter clock. Roethlisberger then completed two quick passes to Bell and Wheaton before spiking the ball with 37 seconds left at the Falcons’ 29-yard line. On the next play, Brown was able to beat Trufant down the sideline with Roethlisberger hitting him as he went out of bounds. However, the officials deemed that Brown failed to get both feet in bounds as he was making the excellent over-the-shoulder reception. But upon review, it was seen that Brown was able to tap his second foot in bounds to overturn the initial call, resulting in a 28-yard gain to put the ball down at the Falcons’ one-yard line. Bell then punched the ball in on a run up the middle to push the Steelers’ lead to 20-7 with 27 seconds left in the half.

Ryan found three checkdowns on the ensuing drive, able to move the ball 25 yards in 26 seconds as the Falcons used all three of their timeouts to leave just a second left on the clock. Pressured flushed Ryan and linebacker Ryan Shazier was able to get the stop near midfield to close out the first half.

The Falcons received the opening kick of the second half, and Hester was able to get a big gain off a screen on the opening offensive play. He made a move in the open field and sprinted 46 yards before being brought down by Steelers safety Mike Mitchell at the Steelers’ 34-yard line. Ryan then hit Douglas on a deep comeback for a 16-yard gain. But guard Justin Blalock was called for a holding penalty on the next play, backing up the Falcons to a 1st-and-20. Ryan then completed a pair of short passes to White for a combined 14 yards, but on the latter catch the Falcons receiver was popped by safety Will Allen, which jarred the ball loose. Luckily, Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco was there to recover the ball and give the Falcons a chance to keep the drive alive with a 3rd-and-8. However, Douglas stumbled on the screen pass and fell shy of the sticks on a six-yard gain, leading to a field goal. Matt Bryant hit from 28 yards out to cut the Steelers’ lead to 20-10 with 11 minutes left in the third quarter.

After an eight-yard completion to Brown, the Steelers receiver was flagged for a face mask penalty when trying to stiff arm Trufant and then flagged once more for taunting after the play, backing up the Steelers to face a 3rd-and-16 instead of a 3rd-and-1. The Falcons blitzed and Roethlisberger could only throw up a duck that fell well shy of Martavis Bryant on the deep pass to prompt Wing’s second punt of the day.

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Matt Ryan’s overthrow of Devin Hester was a critical missed opportunity

Douglas made a big catch on a 19-yard corner route to convert a 3rd-and-7 to start out the Falcons ensuing series. Jackson gained 12 yards off a hard-charging run on the next play to push the ball into Steelers territory. Two plays later, Ryan scrambled up the middle for a 12-yard gain and was hit by linebacker Lawrence Timmons after initiating a slide, but no flag was called for a late hit. White converted two plays later on an eight-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 to put the ball at the Steelers’ 11-yard line. Hester gained nine yards on a screen on the next play, which was followed up by Jackson getting stuffed for a two-yard loss by Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward. The Falcons attempted a pick route and were able to get Hester open in the end zone, but Ryan overthrew his receiver. Douglas was again called for offensive pass interference for his attempted pick of cornerback Brice McCain. Rather than going for it on 4th-and-3 at the Steelers’ four-yard line, the Falcons opted to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Bryant, who nailed the kick. The Falcons cut the Steelers’ lead to 20-13 with 2:40 left in the third quarter.

But the Steelers answered quickly thanks to ample protection for Roethlisberger on the ensuing drive. The Steelers quarterback was able to connect with ease on his first three passes, all deep throws due to the ample time he received in the pocket. His first pass was a 15-yard dart to Brown, followed by a 26-yard pass to Miller to close out the quarter. On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Wheaton gained 30 on a crossing pattern to put the ball at the Falcons’ 13-yard line. Bell then finished the drive with his longest run of the day, a 13-yard gain that saw him dance along the sideline and go practically untouched for a touchdown. That pushed Pittsburgh’s lead back to two scores, as the scoreboard now read 27-13 with roughly 14 minutes remaining in the game.

The Falcons were able to convert their first third down of the ensuing series thanks to a nice 12-yard scramble by Ryan. He then targeted Douglas on his next three throws, connecting on two of them for a combined 54 yards. The latter connection was a 41-yard gain on a screen pass where Douglas got a nice block from tight end Levine Toilolo, springing him for the big gain before Mike Mitchell was able to chase him down and knock him out of bounds at the Steelers’ 11-yard line. On the next play, White was decked over the middle by Gay, who knocked the ball loose for an incomplete pass.  Jackson then gained seven yards on a carry to put the ball at the four-yard line. White then won on his next route, beating cornerback Antwon Blake for the four-yard score with a catch in the back of the end zone. That cut the margin back to one score, with the Steelers now sporting a 27-20 lead with 10:21 left in the game.

The Steelers were able to move the ball near midfield thanks to a 13-yard grab by Wheaton to convert a 3rd-and-7, as he outran McClain on a crossing pattern. Two plays later, Roethlisberger saw pressure and tried to flip a quick pass to Bell which was low and broken up by Worrilow for an incompletion. Lance Moore then got behind Javier Arenas on the wheel route, but couldn’t make the diving one-handed grab on Roethlisberger’s pass on third down. That led to another Steelers punt, giving the Falcons the ball back with 6:23 left on the game clock.

Ryan’s pass on first down to Douglas was overthrown and out of bounds. The Falcons the tried a quick slant to Douglas, but Gay read it all the way and limited it to a four-yard gain, setting up 3rd-and-6. The Falcons tried another shallow cross to Douglas, but linebacker Vince Williams read it again and made a nice open-field stop to force a Falcons three-and-out. The Falcons punted it back to the Steelers with less than five minutes remaining.

A three-yard run by Bell and short throw to Brown set up a 3rd-and-4 for the Falcons defense, but Trufant was flagged for illegal contact penalty against Brown, giving the Steelers a new set of downs. The Steelers looked to milk clock, forcing the Falcons to burn all three of their timeouts after the next three plays. After the two-minute warning hit, the Falcons had forced a 3rd-and-1 at their 39-yard line. Rather than run it, the Steelers opted for a play-action rollout and the Falcons defenders bit hard. Miller was able to sneak behind the Falcons defense and Roethlisberger found him on a 25-yard gain. That play essentially iced the Steelers win, as Roethlisberger knelt on the final two plays to end the game and get the Pittsburgh victory.

The Falcons hope to salvage their playoff hopes next week as they travel to face NFC South division rival, the New Orleans Saints in a must-win game on the road. The Falcons defeated the Saints at home in Week 1 this year with a 37-34 overtime win. Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 1-5 when facing the Saints on the road. Their lone win occurred in 2010 with a 27-24 overtime victory. However, the Saints have lost four straight home games this season after posting an 11-game home winning streak that extends back to their season-opening win against the Falcons in 2013.

 

 

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Aaron Freeman
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