Return of Falcons’ Devonta Freeman troubling news for Steelers defense
If there’s one thing the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t need to encounter Sunday at Heinz Field, it’s another offensive playmaker to challenge their No. 30-ranked defense.
It’s bad enough the Atlanta Falcons will bring former NFL MVP Matt Ryan and perhaps the league’s hottest trio of wide receivers into the matchup between one-win teams.
The Falcons, considered a Super Bowl contender much like the Steelers at the beginning of the season, are expected to have two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman in the backfield for the first time in four games.
Freeman, a 1,000-yard rusher in the 2015-16 seasons, provides another potential source of frustration for a defense that has allowed an average of 452 total yards since the season opener.
“You’ve got to acknowledge the presence of Freeman as a significant one,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “This is a guy with a tremendous, downhill, one-cut run demeanor that’s good for a unit. He’s a physical, combative runner. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. If he’s available to them, obviously, he’s a significant contributor.”
Inactive since the season opener because of a right knee contusion, Freeman returned to practice last week and was upgraded to a full participant Thursday, another indication the Steelers will have to account for him in their defensive game plan.
“I think he’s a really great back, he’s a home-run hitter,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “If he gets to that edge, he’s got blazing speed to take it the distance. You don’t see a lot of cutbacks, but he’s got that available. His speed is one of a kind, and I think they love having that 2-3 back system. It really benefits them if he plays.”
Without Freeman, the Falcons averaged almost 35 points a game the past three weeks -- and somehow lost twice while scoring 36 and 37 points. Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith have picked up the slack and figure to be part of the Falcons game plan as change-of-pace options.
Coleman leads the Falcons with 210 yards rushing. He also has 10 receptions for 84 yards. Smith has 75 rushing and 62 receiving yards in limited playing time. Freeman had just 36 yards on six carries before he was injured in the opener against Philadelphia.
“The running backs are collectively one of the best (groups) in the NFL,” Heyward said.
The Steelers enter the game with the No. 21-ranked run defense. The Baltimore Ravens, with 96 yards rushing, came within four yards of being the third team to put up 100 yards against the Steelers in the first four weeks.
For this matchup, the Steelers might have to contain Freeman and company without their leading tackler. Inside linebacker Vince Williams hasn’t practiced this week because of a hamstring injury he sustained in the fourth quarter against the Ravens.
If Williams can’t play, the Steelers could have Tyler Matakevich, who has never started an NFL game, and newcomer Jon Bostic in the base defense, with backup L.J. Fort playing in sub-packages. Rookie undrafted free agent Matthew Thomas also has taken snaps with the first team in sub-packages this week.
“Our guys have been in training camp and all that stuff. We’ve got guys here who can play,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We’re gonna put them on the field and see what they can do. We’ve got to find out about them anyway, and I think we will be OK.”
The Steelers have yielded an average of 115.8 yards rushing. That’s a number Heyward, the defensive captain, said can’t be repeated if the Steelers (1-2-1) hope to climb back to .500.
“It’s staying consistent and staying true to our gaps, using our hands and being a more sound defense all the way around,” he said. “If we do that, we’re a much better defense. That will affect our passing numbers, too, because then we can key in on the pass. Too many times they have been in manageable downs where they haven’t been stressed a lot on offense.
“We look forward to changing that around.”