Steelers click on all cylinders in blowout win over Falcons
James Conner found some running room, Ben Roethlisberger found an open Antonio Brown and the defense found its footing Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
It all added up to the Pittsburgh Steelers finding their first win at home this season with a 41-17 victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
Conner and Brown scored twice each. The defense produced a late touchdown, and the special teams set up a score as the Steelers built a 13-point lead and then pulled away in the second half after the Falcons whittled the deficit to a field goal.
The win improved the Steelers to 2-2-1 and kept them from an 0-3 start at home for the first time since 1986. It also helped them keep pace with the first-place Cincinnati Bengals, who will take a 4-1 record into the matchup against the Steelers next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“We laid an egg the past couple weeks. That’s not Steeler football,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “Pounding the football, going downhill and making plays, that’s Steeler football.”
With Le’Veon Bell’s planned return to the team a week away, Conner ran like he didn’t want to give up his starting job. Conner had 99 yards from scrimmage in the first quarter en route to finishing with 110 yards rushing on 21 carries and touchdown runs of 1 and 2 yards. He also caught four passes for 75 yards -- a dual-threat effort that would envy Bell, whose absence heads into a sixth week.
“I think James was tired of hearing about Le’Veon so much,” Roethlisberger said, “so he put on a heck of a peformance today.”
Conner was the focal point of the opening series, touching the ball on seven of eight plays and finishing the 78-yard drive with a 1-yard leap into the end zone. He also helped the Steelers run off more than seven minutes on their first drive of the second half. Brown’s first touchdown catch finished off the 12-play drive and increased the Steelers’ lead to 20-10.
“I was ready to go,” Conner said. “I was trying to set the tone early. We just tried to start fast.”
The fast start didn’t include Roethlisberger, who had a 64.6 passer rating and one ill-timed interception in the first half.
Roethlisberger rebounded to throw for 250 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, he completed 10 of 12 attempts for 155 yards and touchdowns covering 9 and 47 yards to Brown.
Brown had one catch for 3 yards at intermission, which the Steelers entered with just a 13-10 lead. Roethlisberger tried to build on it late in the second quarter, but he threw an interception into double coverage in the end zone while trying to find Brown, who finished with 101 yards on six receptions.
“I wasn’t playing well enough,” Roethlisberger said. “Not saying that I played great today, but we made enough plays, and I thought we did what we had to do.”
The Falcons averaged 35 points in their previous three games, but the Steelers’ much-maligned defense held them to less than half that total and just seven points in the second half.
The Steelers continually applied pressure on former NFL MVP Matt Ryan and sacked him six times. T.J. Watt had three sacks, his final one forcing a fumble that L.J. Fort recovered in the end zone for an insurance touchdown with 3:35 remaining.
The 324 yards for the Falcons represented a season low for the Steelers defense, which had given up at least 449 yards in each of the previous three games.
“This is us. This is a big turning point for us,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “I know a lot of people probably were expecting a shootout. For us to come out here and dominate the way we did defensively, is a big step for us.”
NFL reception yardage leader Julio Jones was held without a catch until the fourth quarter as cornerback Joe Haden followed him all over the field. By the time Jones caught his first pass, the Steelers had built a 27-10 lead.
Even the special teams, despite another missed extra point by Chris Boswell, chipped in. Roosevelt Nix blocked a punt that set up a short field and led to Conner’s second touchdown that put the Steelers ahead by 17 points in the third quarter.
“I don’t know if it’s a turnaround game, but it’s a game we needed for sure,” Haden said. “We know how talented we are. We went out there and played and executed. Everybody was on the same page the whole time.”