Steelers 19, Falcons 16: What we learned

After losing 19-16 to Pittsburgh on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons have an extra week to figure things out in an attempt to, in coach Arthur Smith’s words, get back on the winning side.

The loss was the fourth in the last five games and the sixth by less than six points. The team fell to 5-8 in a very tepid NFC South and will have a bye week before the Dec. 18 divisional matchup with the Saints in New Orleans.

ExplorePlayoff hopes take a hit with loss to Steelers

Like many others, the Falcons did more than enough to frustrate before providing enough hope to make the pain hurt just a bit more.

“I think as a team, there’s a lot of things we can improve on, and we need to,” coach Arthur Smith said. “It’s going to be hard when you have low-possession games and you’re playing in the teens. That’s not what we want. We want to get back in the winning side. We’ve had a lot of close games.”

Here is what was learned:

1. Marcus Mariota may not start the next game against New Orleans. Asked specifically about Mariota, who completed 13-of-24 passes for one touchdown and one interception, Smith said every position would be scrutinized as soon as he and his staff convened on Monday.

Mariota threw an interception on the Falcons’ final drive. The team failed to convert any of its four third downs in the first half. It converted just 3-of-10 in the game.

“We’ve got to get over this hump, so we got to look at everything and we got to get back to the other side of winning,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of reasons why, like I said, it’ll be good to be able to take a step back. There will be changes made. We got to look at everything.”

Mariota said he wasn’t focused on his status as a starter after the game. He was still processing the defeat.

A part of Smith’s issue is this: His team is still in the running to win the division and make the playoffs. If he benches Mariota in place of the rookie Desmond Ridder, who has yet to play this season, what message does that send?

At least one of Mariota’s teammates expressed support for him after the loss.

“We riding with our guy we riding with Marcus,” tight end MyCole Pruitt said. “He’s gotten us to this point. We still feel like we can win games and I got Marcus’s back until the end so I hope they will too.”

ExploreCunningham: ‘Every job open’ now for Falcons, including Marcus Mariota’s

2. Not enough possessions. This was something Smith said a few times after the game. His team had just eight drives, including just one in the first quarter, and 53 plays.

Smith said it’s hard to get into a rhythm when not on the field.

“We got the only down there twice and we stalled out in the fringe, we were moving the football at a decent level, but not well enough to win more of these games,” Smith said. “Everything right there: we need more possessions. Let me be clear, and we need more opportunities down there. We got down there twice today. We scored on one and then we had the penalty after the touchdown and then had to kick the field goal. We need to get down there more, and we need to possess the ball more, so we’ll start there.”

As noted, part of the issue was the team’s inability to convert third downs. Smith said too many were third-and-long. In the first half, the team faced third-down distances of 15, 20, 13 and 14 yards. It had eight first downs and 143 yards.

It converted 3-of-6 in the second half, as well as one fourth down, which is when it scored all of its points. The third-down distances in the second half were 6, 11, 1, 3, 1 and 10. The fourth down was 1 yard.

“If we’re not able to convert third downs, we’re not getting any more plays, we’re not allowing ourselves opportunities to score points,” Mariota said “So, it always kind of starts there for the quarterback position. If you’re not able to convert third downs, you’re not allowing your offense a chance to score points.”

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

3. Ill-timed penalties. The Falcons had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Cordarrelle Patterson ran around the left end for a 10-yard touchdown. But it was pulled back because Parker Hesse was flagged for holding.

First and goal at the 10 became second and goal at the 18.

On second down, tackle Jake Matthews was flagged for a false start. Mariota said it was a miscommunication. Second and goal at the 18 became second and goal at the 22.

The Falcons eventually had to settle for a 28-yard field goal instead of a touchdown.

4. Defense can’t get off the field. Among the Steelers’ nine drives were campaigns of 16, 12, 9, 14, and 9 plays. Pittsburgh was able to capitalize with just 12 points from those long drives. But they did take almost 30 minutes off the clock.

The Steelers converted 6-of-12 third downs.

The most galling drive for Falcons supporters may have been the Steelers’ second to last.

Atlanta had momentum after kicking the field goal to cut its deficit to three.

Pittsburgh then went on a nine-play drive that took 4:45 off the clock. The Steelers were forced to punt but former Tech standout Pressley Harvin dropped it on the 1. The ball bounced back and was downed at the 2.

“We have to do better,” cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “We held them to 19 but there’s some things we left on the table. We can limit that and not beat ourselves. We have to get back in the lab after the bye week, get away for a little bit and get ready for New Orleans.”

5. The bye week. The Falcons are ready for an off week - for lots of reasons.

“It’s been a long time, a lot of football games but I mean it’s our job and we love it,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter. “You still have to love it and we’ll enjoy the bye week until we get back.”

When the team returns, it will play at New Orleans, at Baltimore and will host the Cardinals and Bucs. Of those teams, only the Ravens have a winning record.

There’s still a chance for the Falcons to finish with a winning record.

Much depend upon what Smith and his staff decide to change, if anything.

“We’ll evaluate everything, every job,” he said.