With the loss of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to an ankle sprain, the Falcons’ revamped defense will remain in the spotlight this week.
The unit, which was already trying to replace three key starters and one reserve, gave up 407 yards and 37 points to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who’s never won a playoff game.
Now, the Falcons’ beleaguered unit must face a Super Bowl winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and one of the league’s top wide receiver tandems in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster when they face the Steelers at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field.
Jarrett is the latest starter to go down. Rookie Deadrin Senat will take most of his snaps and newly signed Michael Bennett will be rushed into a reserve role with the release of Justin Zimmer.
The Falcons had some success playing the Bengals man-to-man in the third quarter. That could be dangerous against the Steelers, where Robert Alford would likely have to take Brown. Rookie Isaiah Oliver could take James Washington and Desmond Trufant could play Smith-Schuster.
That would leave Brian Poole on tight end Vance McDonald, who stiff-armed Tampa Bay’s Chris Conte onto injured reserve.
“The adjustments that we made in Cincinnati might not be the adjustments we are going to make in Pittsburgh,” defensive end Takk McKinley said.
But the players clearly enjoyed playing more man-to-man.
“We definitely got a lot of pressure,” linebacker Duke Riley said. “The (defensive) line definitely was getting a lot of pressure. We just have to stay detailed and locked in on the back end.”
After giving up four straight touchdown drives, the Falcons got three straight stops after the switch.
“You could see from the second half that it was a whole different game,” Riley said. “Just in those winning opportunities, just do what we do.”
The defense, which is reeling from the losses of middle linebacker Deion Jones (broken right foot), strong safety Keanu Neal (knee) and free safety Ricardo Allen (left Achilles), is trying to recreate an identity. The unit was also without reserve defensive end Derrick Shelby against the Bengals.
“There was a lot of good on the tape,” Riley insisted. “It wasn’t all bad. We are always one play away.”
The unit, which has Poole at strong safety now, Riley at linebacker and Damontae Kazee at free safety, knows that it must make improvements quickly.
“Just growth,” Riley said. “You can either do two things from those games. There is beauty in the struggle and there is ugliness in the success ... just take those losses and just grow from them. Come together as a unit. We can’t make the excuses that we don’t have the guys. We have the guys in the room. We just have to own up to it and be closers.”
2. Falcons sign Bennett: With Jarrett out with an ankle sprain, the Falcons signed Bennett.
Jarrett went down with 3:19 left in the third quarter against the Bengals and did not return. He played only 37 snaps in the game.
Bennett, 25, who’s 6-foot-2 and 287 pounds, was a sixth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2015. The former Ohio State Buckeye was recently released.
He has played in 14 NFL games, but has no starts.
The Falcons also worked out defensive tackle Karl Klug and defensive ends Robert Ayers and Kony Ealy on Tuesday.
3. Series history: This will be the 17th meeting between the Steelers and the Falcons. The Steelers lead the series, 13-2-1. The Falcons have never won in Pittsburgh, where they are 0-6-1.
4. Film review: Check on the film review report card from the Falcons 37-36 loss to the Bengals.
5. Freeman closer to returning: The Falcons’ offense could receive a boost from the return of running back Devonta Freeman, who has been out with a contusion on his knee since the season opener on Sept. 6.
The Falcons (1-3) play at Pittsburgh (1-2-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field. The franchise has never won a regular-season game in Pittsburgh as they have a 0-6-1 record against the traditional AFC powerhouse.
“Yeah, I think the guys we're hopeful to get back would be Devonta, and I think we've got a real shot with ( defensive end Derrick) Shelby,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. “We'll take a look at those two and see if they can come back into it. Yeah, because of the work Devonta did in practice last week, we're very hopeful.”
Freeman was very limited in practice last week before he was ruled out of the game on Friday.
The Falcons’ rushing attack has struggled for most of this season.
The Falcons are averaging 96 yards rushing per game, which ranks 21st in the league.
While replacing Freeman, Tevin Coleman rushed for 107 yards in the win over the Panthers, but was held to 33 yards by the Saints and 51 by the Bengals.
The Steelers’ defense is giving up 115.8 yards per game, which ranks 21st in the league.
The Falcons need to run the ball better in order to keep the defense, which is giving up 403 yards per game (28th) and 30.5 points per game (30th) off the field.
In the opener against the Eagles, Freeman has six rushes for 36 yards before taking a helmet to the knee.
6. Poor defenses: Both defenses are playing so poorly that a 60-58 score seems rather plausible.
The Steelers have allowed 449 yards or more in each of their last three games.
The Falcons allowed over 500 to the Saints and 407 to the Bengals in their last two games.
The Steelers ranked 30th in yards allowed (420.5 per game), 21st in rushing yards allowed (115.8 yards per game), 29th in passing yards allowed (304.8 yards per game.) and 26th in points allowed (29 per game).
The Ravens ran the ball 30 times for 96 yards, which helped them win the time of possession – 35:03 to 24:57 -- and keep Brown and the other offensive weapons off the field.
The Ravens also shut down the Steelers rushing attack and made them one-dimensional. They held running back James Conner to 19 yards on nine carries. Roethlisberger attempted 47 passes.
7. Steel peaches: The Steelers defense starts three players from Georgia in defensive end Cameron Heyward (Whitefield Academy/Pleasant Ridge), Stephon Tuitt (Monroe) and Bud Dupree (Wilkinson County). Safety Morgan Burnett (North Clayton/Georgia Tech) was inactive last week with a groin injury.
8. Penalty, fine corner: The Steelers have committed 50 penalties, eight have been declined. The total of 42 penalties leads the NFL.
The Falcons are the seventh most penalized team in the NFL. The Falcons have committed 38 penalties, but six have been declined. The
In addition to Pittsburgh, only Philadelphia (35), Jacksonville (35), Indianapolis (34), Houston (34) and Kansas City (34) have had more accepted penalties than the Falcons.
The Steelers have had 10 pre-snap penalties and the Falcons have committed eight pre-snap penalties. The Steelers have three too many defensive men on the field which just points dis-organization on the coaching staff.
“I believe it was at least four or five of those were pre-snap,” Quinn said. “Number one, those are things you can control with your focus and your discipline.”
Falcons defensive back Brian Poole has been fined more than $40,000 for roughing the passer penalty and an horse collar tackle that he made in the 43-37 overtime loss to the Saints.
Poole is also likely to hear from the league office for an unnecessary roughness penalty he received after a helmet hit on Bengals running back Mark Walton in the third quarter of the 37-36 loss on Sunday.
He was fined $20,054 for roughing the passer hit on Drew Brees and $20,054 for the horse collar tackle of backup quarterback Taysom Hill after he gashed the Falcons for a 35-yard gain.
9. Depth chart: In the depth chart released by the team on Tuesday for Sunday’s game against the Steelers, the Falcons list Damontae Kazee and Jordan Richards as their starting safeties, but Brian Poole started at strong safety against the Bengals.
Here’s the rest of the depth chart:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall
LT 70 Jake Matthews,74 Ty Sambrailo
LG 71 Wes Schweitzer, 63 Ben Garland
C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 68 Zac Kerin
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 32 Brian Hill
FB 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 90 Derrick Shelby, 56 Steven Means
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 96 Michael Bennett
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed
LB 42 Duke Riley, 36 Kemal Ishmael
LB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 55 Bruce Carter
LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 28 Justin Bethel
FS 27 Damontae Kazee, 35 Keith Tandy
SS 29 Jordan Richards, 41 Sharrod Neasman
K 3 Matt Bryant
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 17 Marvin Hall, 18 Calvin Ridley
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall
LS 47 Josh Harris
H Matt Bosher