“If you aren’t able to convert third downs, you aren’t allowing your offense a chance to win games,” said Mariota, who went 13-of-24 passing for 167 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Leading 16-6 to start the second half, the Steelers continued to do what worked well in the first two quarters. After forcing the Falcons to punt, Pittsburgh ground up the field and the clock on a 75-yard, 14-play drive that lasted 7:36 and ended with a 33-yard field goal that gave it a 20-6 lead in the third quarter.
And then things began to change in the Falcons’ favor.
The Falcons found some consistency with their rushing attack and answered with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that was capped with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to tight end MyCole Pruitt, one of three players filling in for the injured Kyle Pitts, to cut the Falcons’ gap to 19-13. The Falcons rushed for 63 yards, including 45 by Cordarrelle Patterson, on the drive, surpassing their total of 28 yards rushing in the first half.
The Falcons thought they had forced a fumble by wide receiver Diontae Johnson on the Steelers’ next drive, but the call was reversed to an incomplete pass after a review. Smith said he didn’t think Johnson had possession.
Still, it was a third-down stop, just the fifth in 11 attempts for Atlanta’s defense, and more momentum to try to neutralize a very pro-Steelers crowd.
The Falcons picked up a crucial first down on fourth-and-1 at Pittsburgh’s 36 on a 2-yard run by Tyler Allgeier around the left end. Three plays later, Mariota hit Anthony Firkser, another one of the tight ends combining to fill in for Pitts, for 15 yards to the 10-yard line.
Two penalties, a holding and a false start, among the next three plays set up second-and-22 on the 22-yard line. Mariota hit London for 12 yards and then overthrew him in the end zone on third down. Younghoe Koo hit a 28-yard field-goal attempt to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 19-16 with 5:27 left.
“Penalties put you in bad spots,” Mariota said. “When you’re getting negative plays and putting yourself in third-and-longs, or second-and longs, they can pin their ears back and do what they want and dictate how the game is played.”
Pittsburgh then ran out most of what was left of the clock.
“We got down there around there twice and stalled out in the fringe,” Smith said. “We are moving the football at a decent level but not playing well enough to win these games.”
It was very different than in the first half.
The Steelers used a lot of the clock and made small dents on the scoreboard in kicking 46-yard field goals on their first two drives. The drives totaled 12 minutes, 50 seconds and limited the Falcons to one unsuccessful possession in the first quarter.
The Falcons appeared to be driving well on their second possession. Mariota found London for a 13-yard reception to set up first-and-10 at the Steelers’ 22. Patterson, playing as a running back, was stopped for a 3-yard loss on first down. Mariota threw behind London on second down. Cameron Heyward beat left guard Colby Gossett to sack Mariota on third down. Koo kicked a 50-yard field goal to cut the Steelers’ lead to 6-3 with 9:15 remaining in the first half.
Smith said the Steelers really packed the box to try to make it difficult for the Falcons to run. Atlanta attempted six rushes for 28 yards in the first half.
Pittsburgh wasted no time on its next drive, needing four plays to go 75 yards in 2:19 to take a 13-3 lead. The big plays were a pass from quarterback Kenny Pickett to tight end Pat Freiermuth, who ran through tackle attempts by A.J. Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins for a 57-yard gain to the Falcons’ 12-yard line. Pickett then hit Connor Heyward, who ran past safety Richie Grant, for a 17-yard touchdown pass.
The Falcons answered with a 51-yard field goal by Koo. It was Koo’s sixth successful field goal of at least 50 yards this season and cut the Falcons’ deficit to 13-6 with 5:05 remaining in the half. It was another drive that started well with Mariota hitting London for 37 yards on the first play. But it was stopped quickly with the Steelers again dropping Patterson in the backfield to set up a second-and-long play that the Falcons couldn’t solve during the next two downs. It was the fourth negative (not counting penalties) play for the Falcons through three drives.
The Falcons’ six points marked just the second time in their past eight games the team was held to so few points in the first half. The Steelers had the ball for 19:04 compared with 10:56 for the Falcons. Atlanta didn’t help itself by going 0-for-4 on third downs. The Steelers were 5-of-8.
The Falcons finished with 53 plays, tied for second fewest this season, for 306 yards.
“Not a lot of plays, not a lot of possessions,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things we need to get fixed.”
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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule
Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26
Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27
Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23
Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20
Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15
Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14
Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17
Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT
Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17
Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15
Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24
Nov. 27 Commanders 19, Falcons 13
Dec. 4 Steelers 19, Falcons 16
Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD
Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD