Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Falcons

Two games, two wins in a row using the same formula for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s what they call a winning streak, folks.

Once again, the Steelers ran the football at an impressive clip with Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and Benny Snell Jr. The offensive line opened up holes and protected rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett rather well, and the defense did just enough in key situations, which led to a hard-fought 19-16 win for the black and gold, improving the season record to 5-7 on the year.

Let’s check out some grades and move on to Week 14 against Baltimore.

QB — B-

Another week, another solid showing for Kenny Pickett. He’s really coming into his own as the starting quarterback of the Steelers.

Against the Falcons on Sunday, Pickett completed 16-of-28 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown to Connor Heyward in the red zone. He made some big-time throws, hit receivers in stride for yards after catch opportunities and avoided the turnover-worthy plays once again.

However, he did have some tough misses, including the red zone miss up the seam to Pat Freiermuth that should have been a walk-in touchdown, and missed Freiermuth on third down that caused the opening drive to stall, leading to a Matthew Wright field goal.

Overall, he continues to be smart with the football, is pushing the ball down the field with success overall and is really playing the exact type of football at the position that Mike Tomlin was hoping for this season: smart, consistent football, making the necessary plays, not turning it over and creating plays with his legs when those plays arise.

RB — A-

Najee Harris is all the way back.

So too is the depth chart at running back.

Harris has been very good since the bye week. He continued his strong run of play on Sunday against the Falcons, finishing with 86 yards rushing on 17 carries. He created a bunch of yards after initial contact, ran exceptionally hard overall and was a force downhill for the Steelers.

He also had a highlight-reel stiff arm against Falcons safety Richie Grant, which helped him convert on a third and short. When he’s healthy and right, he’s a real force in the run game.

Pittsburgh did a great job rotating in Snell and Warren, too. Snell finished with 24 rushing yards on six carries, picking up tough yards inside to help move the chains. He also added a key 11-yard reception that drew a 15-yard horse collar penalty, which moved the chains. He received a larger role Sunday and took advantage.

Warren added 5 yards on one carry, but he was a good lead blocker overall on some jet sweeps, throwing his body around.

WR — B-

While he was much better running forward after the catch, Diontae Johnson was rather frustrating on Sunday. Even though he led the Steelers with five catches for 60 yards, he had two crucial drops on third downs, one of which left a potential touchdown on the field.

He continues to create a ton of separation as a route runner, but he’s in his head too much overall when he makes a mistake and lets things snowball from there. He did bounce back though with a huge catch on 2nd and 8 with under 2 minutes to go to move the chains for the Steelers.

George Pickens had a day to forget. Just one catch for 2 yards on two targets. He was visibly frustrated throughout the game and was screaming at the sideline to get him the football. I appreciate his passion and desire to be great, but he needs to mature a bit. Cameron Heyward had to talk to him on the sideline one week after Johnson and Pickett needed to calm him down. Can’t let your emotions get the best of you. This isn’t the first time with Pickens either.

Steven Sims has shown time and time again he’s nothing more than a special teams player. He had a huge drop on the first drive of the game on a route up the seam that should have been an explosive play. Then he went out of bounds on his own and then caught a pass from Pickett on third down, which was negated.

He was solid on jet sweeps, picking up 19 yards on three carries, but overall he’s providing very little in the passing game.

TE — A

Pat Freiermuth is a YAC monster. He showed that once again on Sunday, breaking two tackles on a 57-yard catch-and-run from Pickett down the left sideline. He is starting to really become a force with the football in his hands. On the day, he finished with three catches for 76 yards, moving the chains on all three receptions.

Freiermuth struggled in one pass protection rep though against Lorenzo Carter, giving up a hit on Pickett that caused the ball to hang in the air longer than anyone felt comfortable with.

Zach Gentry was really good in the run game, helping create lanes on the outside for the Steelers. He has really grasped his role and is running with it.

Connor Heyward and the end zone inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium have quite the relationship. In an emotional return home, Heyward scored is first career NFL touchdown, hauling in a 17-yard pass from Pickett for the score on a beautiful Y nod route. He’s a good No. 3 tight end. Football player.

OL — B+

Going up against a smash mouth football team, the Steelers offensive line played some smash mouth football of their own on Sunday.

Though the penalties continued with Dan Moore and Kevin Dotson, the Steelers offensive line helped run the football at will for 154 yards on 37 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The run game helped possess the football, which made things difficult for Atlanta’s offense with limited opportunities.

In pass protection, the Steelers allowed just four quarterback hits on 28 drop backs, one of which was attributed to Freiermuth. They really controlled the line of scrimmage on the ground and through the air, and it showed throughout Sunday’s game.

Hats off to the offensive line for continuing to get better and better each week.

DL — B-

In the first half the Steelers defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage rather well and forced the Falcons to throw the football. Things changed in the second half as the Falcons placed an emphasis on running the football and had a ton of success, climbing back into the game.

Cameron Heyward recorded a sack in his homecoming and added a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. He was all over the place in the first half, but like the rest of the defensive line in the second half was negated by the Falcons running downhill.

Larry Ogunjobi had a strong first half too, recording a tackle for loss on Cordarrelle Patterson, but in the second half he was pushed around a bit. Same for Montravius Adams and Tyson Alualu, who couldn’t really get much going in the trenches in the second half.

You’d like to see the group play a full game against the run, but overall it was a sound day.

LB — C+

T.J. Watt was “pretty banged up” according to Mike Tomlin and it showed. He was mostly non-existent throughout the game against the Falcons, finishing with just three tackles in the win. He didn’t generate much of a pass rush and was really limited throughout the matchup.

With Watt clearly not himself, the Falcons threw a lot of attention at Alex Highsmith, chipping him with an extra tight end throughout the game. With extra attention paid to him, Highsmith couldn’t make much of an impact, recording just one tackle.

The play of the day from the outside linebacker room was likely Malik Reed drawing a holding call on Cordarrelle Patterson’s touchdown run, which wiped the score off the board and eventually forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal. That was pivotal.

Inside, Myles Jack was sound against the run, recording six tackles in the win. He wasn’t asked to do much in coverage this week after struggling last week and was allowed to play fast and free downhill and it showed. Devin Bush added three tackles and a key quarterback hit on a third down blitz that forced Mariota to misfire.

Robert Spillane added one tackle and one quarterback hit in the win in limited action.

DB — B-

The Steelers struggled to slow down Drake London, but overall it was a good day for the Steelers’ secondary.

Levi Wallace finished with six tackles and broke up a pass in the win. He struggled at times with London’s size and speed combination but overall held his own. Cameron Sutton was terrific on the other side, breaking up a would-be touchdown and was sticky in coverage throughout the matchup. He took away one side of the field.

Arthur Maulet got away with one in the end zone late in the game in coverage on London. It probably would have been a holding or pass interference call if the ball from Mariota was a bit more catchable.

At safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds were terrific once again. Fitzpatrick took away the middle of the field, drove on a lot of throws and was sound coming downhill against the run, leading the defense with 7 tackles. Edmunds was clutch on Fitzpatrick’s game-sealing interception, getting just enough depth in his drop to force a high throw that Fitzpatrick was all over.

Special Teams — A-

After struggling in his first week as a Steeler earlier in the year, Matthew Wright has been money in the kicking game. On the road against Atlanta Sunday, Wright went four-for-four on field goals, connecting on three from 45+ yards, bouncing one in off the upright as well. He’s become rather steady for the Steelers in place of Chris Boswell.

Wright also did a fantastic job keeping the ball away from Cordarrelle Patterson in the kicking game, taking that weapon away from the Falcons.

Punter Pressley Harvin was very good in his return to Atlanta. The former Georgia Tech product dropped a beautiful punt inside the 5 yard line late in the game that led directly to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception to seal the win. Arguably the best punt of his career.

Sims has become a mess in the return game as of late. He muffed a punt Sunday but was fortunate to recover it quickly. He has to clean up his technique or those problems will continue.

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