Steelers-Falcons: Numbers Add Up To Nothing

Steelers, Falcons in meaningful, late-season game that could alter division races in both conferences.

The 8-5 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 5-8 Atlanta Falcons have some flip-flop to the records, but the Steelers are hoping to flip-flop each team's divisional standing with a win today in Atlanta.

If the second-place Steelers win, they could move into first place in the AFC North Division, and the first-place Falcons could move into second place in the NFC South.

That's the topsy-turvy nature of the league when a team from the strongest division meets one from the weakest.

Not that the Falcons are weaklings.

"I think the significant thing about these guys," Mike Tomlin said of the Falcons, "In their last five games, they are 3-2."

In their last five games, the Falcons have beaten Tampa Bay, Carolina and Arizona, lost to Cleveland as time expired, and last Monday night rallied but fell short at Green Bay, 43-37.

In the Green Bay game, star wide receiver Julio Jones set a career-high with 259 receiving yards to pass Antonio Brown as the NFL's leading receiver in yardage with 1,428.

And Jones today will be going against a Steelers secondary that ranks near the bottom of all of the important defensive coverage categories after allowing A.J. Green to catch 11 passes for 224 yards in the win last Sunday over Cincinnati.

The 6-3, 220-pound Jones is similar to Green in size and pedigree. Jones came out of Alabama and was the sixth pick of the 2011 draft. Green came out of Georgia and was chosen two picks earlier. Jones is the more powerful player while Green is the more agile and acrobatic pass-catcher.

"It was just 'Who do I want first for my team?'" Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said of their differences to NFL teams. "Do I want a Julio, who's going to fit this system? Is it going to be Julio or is it going to be AJ? You couldn't lose with either one of them."

Taylor watched both in college, and not because he's just a fan of the SEC.

"I'm a college fan," he said. "I feel like I can be a scout."

That might just have been a shout-out to the Rooneys by a player who's probably looking at the next stage of "his life's work," as Chuck Noll might've said.

Taylor is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers, and at age 34 may have played his last football game after pulling himself out of the lineup in the second half in Cincinnati with shoulder, forearm and knee injuries. He also likely suffered a bruised ego from getting beaten so badly by Green.

Taylor hasn't practiced this week and will likely give up his spot on the active roster to B.W. Webb. That would give the Steelers three opening-day players -- along with Antwon Blake and Brice McCain -- who did not see snaps at cornerback but are now playing in the Steelers' top coverage packages with William Gay.

That doesn't bother Taylor, a team leader who said "I think the concrete is settling with the secondary. I feel like everybody understands now what we need to do, point blank period."

The group could get a break today because Jones was injured late in the Green Bay game. He suffered a hip pointer and couldn't finish.

Jones hasn't practiced this week and is listed as questionable today.

While not completely debilitating, a hip pointer can cost a player his explosiveness, and it can't be helped by a pre-game injection.

"I think he’ll be there," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He’s a great competitor. If there’s any way he can play he’ll play. We have to get ready for the strong possibility that he will play.

"If he doesn’t, it doesn’t make any difference. We have to stop who’s there. But I think he’ll play."

Quarterback Matt Ryan has warmed up in the second half of the season. In the last six games, Ryan's passer rating is 100.2 with a TD-INT ratio of 12-4.

Even without Jones, Ryan can attack the Steelers' secondary with Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Two weeks ago Douglas caught nine passes for 116 yards, and three weeks ago White caught nine passes for 96 yards.

But the Falcons are also vulnerable on defense, the worst-ranked unit in the league. The Falcons are ranked 32nd overall and against the pass due mainly to a pass rush that's tied with the Bengals for last with 15 sacks.

The Falcons have only two sacks in their last three games, both by LDE Kroy Biermann, a 6-3, 255-pounder. He leads the Falcons with 3.5 sacks and will line up against now-healthy RT Marcus Gilbert of the Steelers.

Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked only once in the last two games, so he should have time to throw. And running back Le'Veon Bell should also find success against a run defense that allows 4.3 yards per carry.

Bell is looking to become the first player in NFL history to gain over 200 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive games, and the Falcons present a golden opportunity. Unless, of course, the Steelers suffer some type of a letdown.

"Nope. Nope," Roethlisberger said to what has become a daily question. "We're coming to go to work. They're a division leader, so they've got everything to play for as well."

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