Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) vs. Atlanta Falcons (5-8)
Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014
1 p.m.; CBS
SERIES HISTORY: Steelers lead, 12-2-1 (6-2 in Atlanta. The last three meetings have gone to overtime (2002, 2006 and 2010). The Steelers have won 10 of the last 12 (10-1-1).
LAST MEETING: Steelers 15, Falcons 9 (OT), Sept. 12, 2010, Heinz Field: RB Rashard Mendenhall scored the game's only touchdown on a 50-yard run in the extra session. QB Dennis Dixon made his second career start for the Steelers and threw for 236 yards (18-for-26, one interception). Mendenhall finished with 120 yards on the ground and WR Hines Ward had 108 receiving yards. Falcons QB Matt Ryan threw for 252 yards (18-for-26, one interception). WR Roddy White had 13 catches and 111 receiving yards. The Falcons received the kickoff in overtime but wound up punting from their 14-yard line. Mendenhall ended it one play later.
LAST WEEK: The Steelers rallied from a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Bengals, 42-21, in Cincinnati. RB Le'Veon Bell had 185 yards rushing, 235 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. The Falcons fell behind the Packers, 31-7, heading into halftime and rallied to within 34-24 early in the fourth quarter in what became a 43-37 loss on Monday night in Green Bay. WR Julio Jones had 11 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL**: They'll throw it Jones' way if his injured hip allows him to play.
Jones has 432 receiving yards in his last two games and 1,428 on the season, 53 ahead of Steelers' WR Antonio Brown for the NFL lead. Jones (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) is a matchup nightmare and the Falcons try to maximize that advantage by often lining him up in the slot against defenses' third or fourth cornerbacks. He's complemented by White and Harry Douglas at wide receiver, and they, too, can have their moments. Ryan has found 11 different receivers for touchdowns this season (Jones and White have six each).
The problem in Atlanta has been the offensive line. The Falcons have started three players at left tackle, two at left guard, three at center and four at right tackle. RB Steven Jackson is the NFL's active rushing leader (11,333 yards) and has six rushing touchdowns but averages less than 4.0 yards per carry (3.7). The NFL's No. 8 offense is No. 23 in rushing. The Falcons are tied for No. 3 in the red zone (they score touchdowns 66.7 percent of the time). On third downs they're No. 11 (43.5 percent) and will be tested against the Steelers' No. 3 third-down defense (35.3 percent).
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: They might find possessing it to be the best option against the Falcons' combustible offense (25.2 points per game, No. 10). The Steelers lead the NFL in time of possession (33:22) and rank second in total offense (427.0 yards per game) and sixth in scoring offense (27.8 points per game).
Atlanta's defense was especially vulnerable in the first two quarters against Green Bay. The Packers ran 43 plays and produced 22 first downs, four touchdowns and 296 total net yards (110 on the ground) in a first half that also saw Green Bay convert 5-of-6 third downs and go 4-for-4 in the red zone in 21:06 while building a 31-7 lead. The Packers' finished with 502 total net yards and became the sixth opponent to gain at least 472 on the Falcons (that's happened three times to Atlanta in Atlanta).
The Falcons are No. 32 in total defense (410.8 yards per game), No. 21 in run defense and No. 32 in pass defense. That could explain their desire to play Cover-2 against Green Bay, a tactic the Packers repeatedly exploited by running the ball or resorting to check-down passes. The Falcons also often resorted to sub-package sets (five and six defensive backs) in response to three-wide receivers formations that proved vulnerable against the run. The defense has produced 11 takeaways (nine interceptions, two fumble recoveries) in its last five games (none against Green Bay).
SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Falcons K Matt Bryant is 19-for-32 in his career on field goals of 50-plus yards (6-for-9 this season). WR Devin Hester has an NFL-record 20 career returns for touchdowns (14 punt, five kickoffs, and one missed field goal). The Steelers stopped a fake punt by the Bengals last Sunday and contained Cincinnati's highly-rated punting game. Atlanta leads the NFL in punt return average (15.3 yards per attempt).
THE X-FACTOR: Atlanta leads the NFC South at 5-8 and finishes with division games at New Orleans (5-8) and against Carolina, which makes its game against Pittsburgh something less than a must-win affair. How will the Falcons respond? They were competitive enough at Green Bay to rally from a 31-7 halftime hole to within six (43-37) with 2:11 remaining.
THEY SAID IT: "There are challenges. If you load up and roll the receivers and try to take the pass away, then you are light against the run. And the way they are running the football and checking down to Bell, it is quite problematic for defenses. That's why they've had the success they've had." – Falcons Coach Mike Smith on the Steelers' offense.
"We go in with a mentality that we need to win situational football and we need to take care of the football. We feel like if we do that we'll show our capabilities, we'll ring the scoreboard up. When we haven't played well this year offensively it's been because we've stalled in the red area and/or we've turned the ball over." – Coach Mike Tomlin on his team's offensive approach.