Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers

Falcons at Steelers: What’s gone wrong for both contenders?

Both the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers have stumbled out of the gates in 2018. Which team gets well on Sunday afternoon?

There was more than one prognosticator around NFL circles that picked either the Atlanta Falcons or Pittsburgh Steelers to reach and/or win Super Bowl LIII. In fact, there are those who had Dan Quinn’s club and Mike Tomlin’s team squaring off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the first Sunday of February.

That still could happen. But after four games, each club has only one victory. The struggles for each team have come from different directions but do have a couple of common themes. Both are missing their primary running back and neither can stop the opposition from doing just about anything they want.

Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman has been out of action the last three games due to a knee injury. But Quinn thinks there’s a good chance he returns this Sunday. “The guys we’re hopeful to get back are Devonta – and I think we’ve got a real shot with (Derrick) Shelby and we’ll take a look at those two,” explained the head coach to Kelsey Conway of on Monday. “Because of the work Devonta did in practice last week, we’re very hopeful.”

As for the Steelers, Le’Veon Bell continues his holdout. But there was some news that he could be back in a few weeks. “It sucks having to sit out football,” said the five-year pro to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler on Monday. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs. But I’ve gotta take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”

For Tomlin’s club, the bigger issue is now and a ground attack that ranks 28th in the NFL after four weeks. But the elephant in the room for both the Falcons and Steelers is each club’s defense. Neither unit has answered the bell (no pun intended) on that side of the ball this season. For Atlanta, safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones are all on injured reserve. In their last three games, the Falcons have allowed a combined 104 points, 80 of those in home losses to the New Orleans Saints (43) and Cincinnati Bengals (37).

As for coordinator Keith Butler’s unit, the problems started late last year. Including that wild 45-42 home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars back in January, the team has allowed 302 points (27.4 average) and a disturbing 37 offensive touchdowns in their last 11 outings. The Steelers own a 6-4-1 overall record in their last 11 contests over that span. Last season, Tomlin’s club won eight of its first 10 games and allowed only 16.5 points per game and 16 offensive TDs.

As for Sunday’s clash in the Steel City, Pittsburgh is coming off a 26-14 Sunday night home loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens in which the team’s offense was shut out in the second half and gained a mere 47 total yards in the game’s final 30 minutes. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked frustrated in those last two quarters. But could he as the Steelers turn things around against that battered Atlanta defensive unit?

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