Steelers go for first winning streak of season vs Falcons
By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing out the season with some very un-Steelers-like goals.
A winning streak would be a start.
Perhaps a late spurt to avoid coach Mike Tomlin's first losing season.
The Steelers (4-7) will try to put together their first back-to-back wins of the season when they travel to Atlanta on Sunday to face the Falcons (5-7).
"It's important, obviously, that we work our tails off to stack this victory, man, and move on in our journey," Tomlin said.
Three games out of both the AFC North lead and the wild-card race, Pittsburgh would need a remarkable turnaround to make the playoffs for the 10th time in Tomlin's 16-year tenure.
In fact, the Steelers must win five of their last six just to avoid a losing record, which hasn't happened in Pittsburgh since 2003 under Bill Cowher.
From a record standpoint, the Falcons (5-7) aren't much better off than Pittsburgh.
But some fortuitous geography gives Atlanta a far better chance of making the playoffs. The Falcons are just a half-game behind Tampa Bay in the pitiful NFC South, where none of the four teams has a winning mark.
"These situations don't come around very often," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "To be able to progress and be a team that's consistently playing games like this, you've got to understand the situation and play with a little bit of urgency."
While the Steelers knocked off Indianapolis this past Monday night, the Falcons are trying to bounce back from a hugely discouraging 19-13 loss at Washington.
On second-and-goal from the 4 in the final minute, Mariota's deflected pass was picked off in the end zone to deny Atlanta a chance to win the game.
The Falcons could've gotten the ball back one more time, but Ade Ogundeji ran into Commanders punter Tress Way with 32 seconds left to seal Washington's victory.
It was another setback for Atlanta in a game that came down to one possession. The Falcons dropped to 4-5 in those situations, compared to a 7-2 a year ago.
"We look at it in a positive way," Mariota said. "We've put ourselves in these situations, we've gotten ourselves out of holes, we've gotten ourselves to have opportunities to play meaningful football. Now it's like, `OK, let's just find ways to do it for four quarters and put forth our best game.'"
HIGH ON HIGHSMITH
Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith is doing more than just serving as a complement to reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. He's become a consistent threat in the pass rush in his own right.
Highsmith already has a career-best 10 sacks in addition to setting the edge against the run.
"He's rounded into a really complete football player," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
PITTS IS DONE
The Falcons already knew they wouldn't have tight end Kyle Pitts this week.
Now, they know the 2021 Pro Bowler is done for the season.
Two weeks after being hurt in a victory over the Bears and going on injured reserve, Pitts underwent surgery on his right knee.
He's expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2023 season. Until then, the Falcons are making do with a group that includes Parker Hesse, MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser.
Mariota played with Pruitt in Tennessee, and now the Falcons are hoping the journeyman can provide some of the explosive plays that were Pitts' forte.
"It's tough," Mariota said. "You go through 10 weeks, 11 weeks, and you're not really filling that role, and then all of sudden things happen and now you're kind of thrust into that role."
Steelers receiver George Pickens will be returning to some familiar surroundings on Sunday.
The rookie played his college ball at Georgia, about 75 miles east of Atlanta, and returned from a knee injury to take part in last season's Southeastern Conference championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Bulldogs lost that game to Alabama but bounced back to beat the Crimson Tide in a national championship rematch, with Pickens making a key 52-yard reception.
In his first season with the Steelers, Pickens is developing a growing rapport with another rookie, quarterback Kenny Pickett.
"He's so unique and I think that's what makes his play out there great," Pickett said. "He is just himself and he has that ultra-confidence, and I'm ultra-confident that he's going to make the play."
RUNNING DOWN THE BIRDS
The Falcons must stiffen up against the run, having allowed an average of 189.3 yards on the ground in the past three games.
It was more of the same against the Commanders, who ran the ball 34 times for 178 yards and controlled the time of possession.
SPREADING IT AROUND
Pittsburgh's running game is starting to show the kind of consistency that's been difficult to come by in recent years.
The Steelers have topped 100 yards rushing in four straight games and are up to 21st in the league in rushing, a significant step forward after ranking 32nd in 2020 and 29th last season.
It's not just Najee Harris pulling the load. Backup running back Jayln Warren has been a revelation at times, and when both Harris and Warren were unavailable in the second half last week against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony MacFarland combined for 92 yards to take some of the pressure off Pickett.
"I thought they stayed within their skillset," Tomlin said. "Benny is a deliberate, one-cut downhill runner, AntMac (McFarland) is bursty and explosive and good in space. I just thought they leaned on their strengths."
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
Updated December 1, 2022