Atlanta Falcons 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 41: Just How Good Is James Conner?

The Atlanta Falcons won the opening coin toss in Pittsburgh on Sunday and deferred. What followed was a pass completion to Jesse James from Ben Roethlisberger, a James Conner third-down conversion, a Conner big-time reception, a Conner big-time carry, a Conner five-yard scamper up the middle for six, another Conner touchdown in leaping fashion after his first score was overturned. If you didn’t watch a second of excruciating beatdown of the Falcons and just looked at the opening drive for the Steelers you’d know everything you really needed to know about this game: James Conner ended the Atlanta Falcons’ 2018 season today.

Sure, you could dive deeper and see that after the Falcons elected not to send Matt Bryant out for a 56-yard field goal attempt, instead opting to trust a defense that is now relying on the Jordan Richards and Duke Rileys of the world to not be atrocious *all* of the time, which resulted in the Steelers piecing together another drive that ended in six and started at the Steelers’ four-yard line. You knew the Falcons were going to regret not at least trying the field goal in that spot, or even just outright going for it on 4th-and-long because the Falcons no longer have the personnel to get the stops necessary against an above-average offense. It didn’t matter that the Steelers didn’t have LeVeon Bell here, Conner was at 17 carries for 104 yards early in the third quarter. With the kind of drive the Steelers had to open the game, the Falcons had to score points to keep themselves from falling into a inescapable hole early in the first quarter. Instead, the Steelers were up 13-0 faster than the time it takes Tevin Coleman to rush for two yards up the middle before falling to the ground.  

Once it was clear that the Steelers could always pitch it outside to Conner whenever they wanted for another back-breaking run, or utilize Conner in the check-down game, or just run a basic halfback dive up the middle for six yards a pop, you knew this was a recipe for the disaster for the Falcons. With a defense this depleted, their best chance at survival for the rest of this season is to play teams that have no interest or don’t have the bodies to control the clock and keep the Falcons’ wideout group off the field. The best way to ensure Mohammed “Mr. Yards After The Catch” Sanu doesn’t rack up the yards after a catch is to not allow Mr. Yards After The Catch to ever be on the field. Pittsburgh may not have a superstar in Bell at the moment, but what they do have is a do-it-all workhorse in Conner that is perfectly fine and capable of grinding teams to death in excruciatingly effective fashion. It didn’t matter that Big Ben overshot Antonio Brown on multiple passing downs early on this game, or that Pittsburgh committed all kinds of dumb penalties in this game because Mike Tomlin and the Steelers knew all they had to do was utilize their 6.7 YPC Assassin early-and-often and this Atlanta defense would crumble.

No Grady Jarrett? No chance at stopping James Conner and this Pittsburgh running attack.

***

Here are three other major takeaways I had after today’s loss to the Steelers.

  1. Maybe making Austin Hooper a priority in the passing game again isn’t the best thing? Look, I like Hooper, but maybe it was no coincidence that the Falcons’ offense only registered 17 points on the afternoon and Matt Ryan targeted Hooper -- checks notes -- 63 times in this game. Hooper is a quality safety net for Ryan when the offensive line plays as poorly as it did today. Ryan was under pressure early and often and was even gifted with a dirty shot from Jon Bostic at one point in this game. (On another occasion in the second quarter, Ryan was sacked on back-to-back plays and the Falcons had to settle for a 55-yard field goal from Ole Reliable Matt Bryant.) When Julio Jones doesn’t reel in his first reception until the fourth quarter after only registering four targets before then, that’s a problem. I’m not saying there is a direct correlation between a bad day for the Falcons’ offense and a good day for Hooper, but can we rule it out?

  2. Without Sanu, how much uglier would this game have gotten for the Falcons? One of the best things about Sanu whenever it becomes clear that Sark has called his number for a quick screen or short curl route is that you know the play isn’t ending where Sanu first catches the pass -- he’s getting more yards. The highlight of the day was Sanu’s 43-yard slant route that went for six, and it was really the last time you felt the Falcons had a chance of winning a shootout here, as it cut the lead to six and it looked like the Falcons’ superstar trio was just too much for the anemic Steelers’ secondary. (Important to note that Julio had not been targeted at this point in the game. Once he bobbled and almost gave away a Very 2017 Matt Ryan Bullsh*t Interception ball, all that optimism shifted back to panic.)

  3. Well, it was nice to have Devonta Freeman back for a few quarters of action. There were some moments where Freeman did his best James Conner Impersonation where he would bounce off one Pittsburgh defender and maybe up a couple more as he looked poise to have a big day. Just like the Steelers wanted to keep the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands all day, the Falcons wanted to establish the run with Freeman early on in an admirable attempt to keep Richards and Riley and Foye Oluokon and Robert Alford and Vic Beasley Jr. and everybody else on that Atlanta defense that does not include Takk McKinnley, Damontae Kazee and Desmond Trufant off the field, too. It didn’t work out that way as the Falcons’ offensive line imploded, the team fell behind, Freeman exited the game and Coleman continued his impressive streak of 55-straight carries up the middle for a gain of exactly two yards.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Is Bostic the Pittsburgh version of Duke Riley? He was atrocious in this game.

  • Speaking of Riley, I don’t know which was worse his 38-yard pass interference penalty that set-up the Steelers’ second touchdown, or the brutal stiff arm he received later on.

  • That Damontae Kazee interception in the end zone was wild, wasn’t it? Still baffled Big Ben chucked that one up at the end of the second quarter.

  • Hooper had eight receptions in the first half and the Falcons had seven points.

  • It was nice of Matt Bosher to have another punt blocked today to add more credence to my “Never Punt” opinion with this team.

  • Danny Smith of the Steelers chews the biggest piece of gum I have ever seen in my life and it was favorite visual of the afternoon. Insane.

  • Poor Isaiah Oliver. Just after an impressive pass breakup when he was matched up with Brown on the outside, Brown would later beat him on a touchdown. Welcome to the NFL, rookie.

  • Ryan really didn’t start force-feeding it to Julio until the fourth quarter. Big Ben was pushing it to Brown early and often. The latter scored 41 points.

  • Seemed like Ryan overthrew a lot of dudes today. Not Jarrett Stidham-level awfulness, but it did seem like a lot.

  • 1-4 sucks, but facing the Giants and the Bucs next definitely does not suck.