Steelers’ Defense Struggles, Backups Salvage The Day In 17-13 Win

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ first team defense took on water today. If that continues into the regular season, Keith Butler is going to need a bigger boat.

The Atlanta Falcons’ first team offense marched over the Steelers’ defense, getting off to a hot start in a 17-13 win Sunday afternoon. On their first drive, Atlanta moved the ball 91 yards on ten plays, capped off by a Terron Ward rushing touchdown from five yards out. Matt Ryan found Austin Hooper on 3rd and 10 for a 14 yard gain, aided by a William Gay missed tackle. It was the only third down Atlanta encountered on the drive.

Following that was a 14 play, 76 yard excursion that resulted in a Matt Bryant field goal. The offense, started by Ryan and finished by Matt Simms, attacked the middle of the field. The whole unit struggled but Robert Golden and Ross Cockrell were picked on the most. Cockrell was beat on a slant on 3rd and goal but the pass was dropped, saving a little bit of face.

Nose tackle Javon Hargrave left the game to be evaluated for a concussion. He did not return.

Ryan finished the day 4/6 for 57 yards for the Falcons.

“We didn’t do well enough on possession downs,” Mike Tomlin told Missi Matthews at halftime. “You gotta win possession downs to put yourself in position to win.”

The Steelers offense had trouble getting going in the first half. Josh Dobbs got his second start but struggled with accuracy on short to intermediate routes. By the end of the first half, the Steelers were 1/6 on third down, one of the only highlights coming from a nice back shoulder grab by Martavis Bryant.

James Conner seemed to deal with first game nerves, stumbling over himself as a runner and dropping a 3rd and 4 pass that would’ve resulted in an easy first down, taking his eyes off the ball before securing the pass.

At halftime, the Steelers were outgained 259-76. Roosevelt Nix ended the first half on a high note, blocking a Matt Bosher punt as time expired. At half, Atlanta led 13-3.

The second half wasn’t much more fruitful for the Steelers’ offense. Even when given good field position, starting at the Falcons’ 38 on a third quarter drive, they couldn’t move the ball. Another Conner third down drop didn’t help matters. Conner did rip off an 11 yard run early in the third quarter, his best play of the afternoon.

The best offense was the Steelers’ special teams. Trey Williams brought back a punt 64 yards for a score late in the third quarter, juking two defenders before cutting upfield and running through another Falcon as he crossed the goal line. Williams had been limited in camp with a hamstring injury but clearly made today count. His touchdown cut the Falcons lead to three, 13-10.

After a three and out by Atlanta, the Steelers’ offense stumbled again. Dobbs booted to his left on 3rd and 1. Under pressure, he tried to flip the football underhanded to Jake McGee but the pass was intercepted by Quincy Mauger. Jordan Dangerfield bailed him out, picking Simms the ensuing play.

It wasn’t until, of all people, Bart Houston took over the offense did they start to chug. He led the team on a seven play, 53 yard drive. James Conner found his groove, busting off runs of 17 and 19 yards. After Houston caused a delay of game on third and goal, he hit Justin Hunter on a curl, diving in over the goal line for the score and 17-13 lead.

The Steelers’ defense responded in turn with sacks by Roy Philon and Farrington Huguenin. With one last possession late in the game, Brandon Dixon broke up a 4th and 15 heave down the right sideline.

NOTES: In addition to Hargrave, Steven Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Ducre (ankle) left with injuries….Conner finished the day 20 carries for 98 yards….Sammie Coates caught three passes for 20 yards…Anthony Chickillo recorded a pair of sacks…seven of Jordan Berry’s eight punts landed inside the 20…Pittsburgh begins the preseason 2-0 for the first time since 2010…the Steelers will take on the Colts next Saturday at 7:30 PM/EST.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • SteelersGeek4Lyfe

    Dobbs is… not ready to make a contribution this year. It might be crazy, but if we put him on practice squad do you think he would be poached?

    Also, Gay really needs to be replaced. Any chance Mike Hilton takes over as starting slot corner at some point this year? The dude just makes plays. Big ups to Jordan Dangerfield too! Golden got torched early but came out hitting in the second half, which I liked to see.

  • CP72

    Not going to overreact….but our 3rd down defense seems to be an Achilles heel of this defense. Guys like Dupree, Shazier, Mitchell certainly would have an impact in that area.

    Our offense….no Ben…no AB….no Le’Veon…enough said.

  • Chris92021

    My takes:
    1. I can’t wait to see 7, 26 (whenever he returns), 84, 53, and 10 in the lineup at the same time. My goodness, it will be like the Beatles reuniting as far as I am concerned.
    2. I don’t care if it is preseason. Ross Cockrell was flat out bad. I can take Tyler Matakevich and Robert Golden looking bad because honestly, neither one of those guys will get more than 100 snaps total on defense this season (barring injury of course). But Cockrell is expected to play a lot and if he’s getting his lunch eaten by scrubs like Reggie Davis, we are in for a long season. Drafting Artie Burns and Sean Davis last year was smart but we need more help in the secondary.
    3. James Conner is going to be a very strong backup for us this season. Kid runs with a lot of conviction. He can’t catch but he can hit the corner pretty well and accelerate into the 2nd level. Gonna love seeing him in week 2 when we host the Vikings for the home opener and I hope the Steelers will introduce him with the starters.
    4. Justin Hunter vs. Sammie Coates battle will be decided by Big Ben next Saturday. Whoever 7 likes more is going to stay. I am going to predict it will be Coates, who still won’t/can’t catch the ball above his head. I am frustrated by big guys who won’t use their length to their advantage.
    5. TJ Watt wasn’t bad but he wasn’t good today either. James Harrison is still a better option right now but Watt will get every opportunity to start.
    6. Joshua Dobbs did nothing to make Landry Jones worry. Jones might play scared but Dobbs looks lost. A season of being inactive and taking all the notes from 7 will be helpful but if Dobbs has to play this season, we are beyond screwed.
    7. I want Mike Hilton to start but I have a feeling the team will give Ross Cockrell more chances to win the starting job. Hilton played well again. Now he has to do it for two more preseason games to make this team. Right now though, he is not going to clear waivers. The Ravens will pick him up just to spite us.

    I am going to enjoy this win since I live in Atlanta and lots of Falcons fans have been talking trash (even in preseason). We played like garbage but the effort in the 3rd quarter by the backups was outstanding. Special teams play was excellent. I can’t wait until next Saturday for our dress rehearsal game. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, y’all!

  • Ross McCorkle

    Sutton will come back and contribute! Don’t worry

  • Chris92021

    Steelers always carry 3 QBs. Dobbs isn’t going anywhere but he won’t receive a game day helmet this season barring injury.

  • Ross McCorkle

    Not to mention Mike Hilton. Looking like a 100-200 snap season for him

  • Chris92021

    Sutton has missed so much time already though. I like him too but man, he’s got a steep climb ahead.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Wait,what?. I thought people were warming up the sculptor in Canton for a Matekevich bust already lol.

  • SteelersGeek4Lyfe

    I agree with you that I think Harrison has to start this season. Watt has looked good, but he’s striking me as more of an effort guy like Dupree than someone that can really overpower a tackle or bend the edge… Watt and Dupree will make you pay if you hold the ball for too long or try to scramble (like Matt Moore in the playoffs last year), but pocket passers that get rid of the ball quickly like Brady, Rodgers, or Ryan are going to eat our lunch all day if we can’t blow their tackles off the ball.

  • John Phillips

    Hilton wouldn’t play the outside, and likely won’t start in the slot, with Burns and Cockrell likely playing outside, and Gay likely winning the slot corner spot.

  • Ross McCorkle

    True, but he is known for his “above the neck” play. A dedicated student of the film and playbook. Look at Artie last year. Hardly saw him in camp/preseason and then he was a stud down the stretch. Mike Hilton looks good all around, could be a hidden gem.

  • I agree re Gay. He’s a solid backup but shouldn’t be a starter. His upside is maxed, and he’s in definite decline. It’s time to groom a replacement, Hilton in the slot or Brian Allen outside, or look for a FA pickup. Cortez Allen is a first down waiting to happen. They need an uprade at outside #2 CB. Re our WRs, I think DHB is done. Hunter and Coates both proved they can contribute as WRs…even with Dobbs slinging the rock. I look for Sammie to take over DHB’s spot as a special teams demon, and Hunter to stick as Ben’s new ‘tall target’ toy. Also, with Johnson injured, it’ll be interesting to see if they go with only four ILBs or add Hugenin [SP?]. I think they’ll go with four and use the spot for a 7th CB or WR.

  • CP72

    Every time Dangerfield is on the field he impressed me.

  • Lee Foo Young

    Getting excited or depressed about the exhibition season is like doing the same for Spring Training. All I want out of our exhibition season is for nobody to get seriously hurt.

  • Chris92021

    Yeah, let’s hold up on that Dirty Red bust for a bit lol

  • CP72

    Don’t have to be a professional scout to see James Connor is significantly more talented than Fitz.

  • Ed Smith

    For sure!

  • Chris92021

    Do you Sutton (if healthy) can play outside because right now, I don’t want to see Cockrell doing anything except play special teams. I would also like the Steelers to consider a trade (not Trumaine Johnson because that is flat out insane for 17 million dollars).

  • Biggie

    Won’t say much more then thank God there is two more weeks of preseason because they need every minute of it. Cockrell especially, he has looked horrible so far.

  • Chris92021

    Conner played MUCH better once McGee was in the game. McGee is a flat out road grader of a run blocker. I want to see him in the 1st team offense.

  • melblount

    “…Cortez Allen is a first down waiting to happen…”

    Where’s (sic) Cortez playing these days?

  • Chris92021

    Except I think this is who Cockrell is. You have to be good enough to get to the point where you can “struggle”. If you “struggle” all the time, that pretty much means you are not good. Cockrell fits this category in my opinion.

  • Joseph Shaw

    I’m a huge fan of Watt, but I’m nervous. He played well last week, and he was around the ball a lot today. But he gets gobbled up by blockers a lot. Rookie, I know, but I see few flashes of dominance. Color me a little worried. Not too much. Just a little.

    Cockrell is a serious weak spot.

  • CP72

    I actually thought TJ looked pretty good against the run.

  • Ross McCorkle

    He doesn’t “struggle all the time” had an above average season last year. Far from bad

  • melblount

    Agreed. The Watt criticism is kind of funny. Last week…Canton bust. This week…Draft bust. It’s two PRESEASON games. (Read it s-l-o-w-l-y and try to understand it.)

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Not worried about the starters and I am impressed with our depth. So even though the 1st stringers really P/O me I have a lot of high expectations this year.

  • CP72

    Listen…do I think Cockrell is one of the least talented guys on our defense? Yes I do. That still doesn’t mean I think he’s a bad player. I just think there’s a lot of talent on this defense and Cockrell is an easy target for criticism.

  • Dofdmp

    Cockrell Gay & R Golden looked VERY Suspect…

  • Michael Conrad

    I really think MT needs to grow some B’s and dump Gay and Cockrell and play the young guys if they are healthy. Gay and Cockrell just are not getting it done and I’m not sure about Mitchell and Davis as the safeties together maybe Davis and someone else. The WR’s are open from the start of the play and through the play . No pass rush can solve that problem. They will both be sitting at home if needed.

  • SteeltheKing

    Nobody can drop third down throws quite like him. Honestly wasn’t impressed in the 1st half. He was taken down on first contact, and that contact was usually an ankle tackle. At that point I believe he was averaging 3 yards per run, not exactly lighting it up. In the second half, when the third team defense came in, Conner started producing much better. It’s his first game and I think he’ll get better. I’m hoping nerves contributed to the drops. Definitely made me hope Bell comes back soon.

  • T3xassteelers

    You do realize this is Cockrells like 3rd year right? He is one of the young guys. And Mitchell didn’t even play… How can you judge him when he wasn’t even in there???

  • John M.

    Well last years NFC Champions looked the part in the first quarter. Gay and Cockrell played terrible today. Let’s all hope this is not what’s ahead in the coming season. Dobb’s rookie but yikes! That’s just not fun to watch. If our secondary doesn’t get better anytime soon we will all be posting on the Steeler Depot Sunday afternoon.

  • H.K. northern cali

    Steelers first rd pick next yr will be a q.b. calling it now!!

  • Joseph Shaw

    He did look decent against the run. And I never brought up “bust,” in either usage. Just saying.

  • Zarbor

    I encourage anyone to go look at Dobbs at TN and you will see the same guy. He is a bad fit for what we do currently on offense and he’s not a very good pocket passer. I have more hope for Houston than Dobbs. Dobbs isn’t going anywhere this year but if he was, no one will be poaching for him.

    Yes, Gay needs to be replaced like yesterday. Golden needs to be replaced as well. We need speed and these guys are too slow. Gays knowledge makes him savvy since he will be in the right place but he does not have the ability to keep up with the better players.

  • SeventhHeavan

    I’ve been saying this about Cockrell for a while. Still do not understand why this guy is starting. Tomlin & co. did not do anything significant to address the secondary in the off season. They drafted a CB in the 3rd round and picked up Sensabaugh?? and oh by the way, I miss Timmons already. Good news is that it’s only the second pre-seaeson game and let’s not forget the offense did not help the defense with 3 and outs most of the 1st half. Dobbs sucks. My goodness. Ben should have played at least a series today.

  • jsteeler

    Stop it. Or you’ll get banned. This is blasphemy.

  • Jim Foles

    McGee was wide open in the end zone on Hunter’s TD

  • Josh

    It’s funny that certain guys like Grimble get the “inconsistent” tag in every mention of him on the podcast but Cockrell is better than most of us think. Hmmmmm.

  • HiVul

    No way. Vast majority of this board curses Cockrell’s name 3 times before lunch. Just take a look at the thread