Defense will be tested by Falcons' running game

The Steelers have improved their rushing defense dramatically from a year ago when they finished dead last in the NFL in that statistic.

That improved rushing defense will be put to the test Sunday when the Steelers (4-7) travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons (5-7).

Atlanta boasts the league's fourth-rated rushing offense, averaging 160 yards per game. The Steelers, on the other hand, have the league's sixth-best rushing defense, allowing 104.0 yards per game.

But unlike stopping some other rushing attacks across the league, the Falcons run the ball differently than most. They boast four runners with 300 or more rushing yards this season, making them the only team in the league that can say that at this point.

Wide receiver/return man Cordarrelle Patterson has been converted to a running back in the Falcons' offense and is essentially the team's lead runner. He has 506 yards and five touchdowns despite missing four games due to injury. Rookie Tyler Allgier leads the team with 552 yards rushing, while quarterback Marcus Mariota has 421 rushing yards and rookie running back Caleb Huntley has 347.

"I think the No. 1 thing is you have to stop the main runs," said Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "The main runs, they do all the time. They're going to have some quarterback runs they do that they mix in or sprinkle in to keep you honest. The bottom line is that the main run game is the main run game. And you'd better defend that. They have a really good run game. They have that stretch where they're getting guys on the ground, they're cutting you and getting holes and seams. And the guys run hard. 

"They're one-cut runners and they get vertical. That's the one you had better defend. You've got a plan for quarterback mobility. But you had better defend the main things first."

That makes defending the Falcons a little different than defending, for example, a team such as the Ravens, whose primary runner is quarterback Lamar Jackson.

One of the things the Falcons will do differently is use a lot of pre-snap motion to dress up their running plays. Because they run so much – their 390 attempts is second only to that of the Bears – the Falcons will move guys all over the place in an attempt to confuse the defense.

Not falling for that window dressing is critical.

"You're going to have to be ready for it. They're going to move," Austin said. "They're going to make you adjust. They're going to make you communicate on defense. But eventually, they're going to line up and be in a formation where, we know what it is, we're just going to have to play from there. But they're going to make you adjust pre-snap. They're not going to allow you to line up and say, 'Hey, this is what we've got. This is what we're calling. This is what we're doing.' They're going to make you work."

One thing working in the Steelers' favor is that while Atlanta's rushing attack is heavy on its volume of runs, the passing attack isn't particularly explosive. The Falcons and Bears are the only teams in the league that have not produced at least 250 passing yards in a single game yet this season.

That's happened, at least in part, because the Falcons have attempted just 276 passes this season, giving them a run-to-pass ratio of 58.6 to 41.4, something unheard of in recent years in the NFL.

Atlanta will continue to run the ball, even when behind, trusting that its rushing attack, which averages 4.9 yards per carry, can keep it in games.

"They have a way of playing that makes them successful," Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "They have a lot of QB runs, as well. Cordarrelle Patterson does a great job out of the backfield. It's their style of play. They feel like if they stay on track and keep running it, it will bring them back in the game. It's going to be a four-quarter battle."

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That means the Steelers had better be prepared to stop the run regardless of the score of the game, whether it be one of the running backs carrying the ball or Mariota tucking the ball and running with it.

The style of rushing attack might not be all that different from what some other teams employ in today's NFL, where multiple teams have quarterbacks who are effective runners and use that to their advantage. But the volume, that is another matter.

"No. I think we've all, because we've faced those running quarterbacks, guys that are athletic that can run and throw, I think we're better prepared as staffs, as teams, to handle those guys," said Austin. "Now, each guy gives you a unique challenge based on who they are. But I think we're more prepared and ready to handle those things nowadays than we were before, when you'd see one of those guys maybe once a year, twice a year. You see that more often than not now."

Stopping it will come down to execution.

Play the defense as it's designed, and the Steelers feel they'll be fine. Don't do so, and you could be in for a long day.

"It's assignment football. Guys shedding blocks, getting off and making the tackle," Heyward said. "Now, they have an extra blocker when the quarterback runs it. It takes the front line, the back end. All have to be responsible and have good rules and assignments, because if you don't, the quarterback can hit his head on the goalpost (after scoring a touchdown)."