Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers get on same page in 41-17 win over Falcons
The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a victory over Atlanta on Sunday at Heinz Field to avoid losing their first three home games for the first time since 1986.
To do that, the Steelers needed to get Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown on the same page while re-establishing their rushing attack and trying to hold Atlanta’s high-powered passing game in check.
That’s enough stress to send someone into childbirth, and JuJu Smith-Schuster was just the player to deliver.
It was quite the, um, interesting touchdown celebration.
1. Conner strong: After abandoning the run against Baltimore, the Steelers wasted no time establishing James Conner as a prominent part of the offense.
Conner had six carries for 43 yards on the opening drive, which spanned 78 yards on eight plays. He followed a 29-yard catch — sprung by tight end Vance McDonald’s brutal block on linebacker Foyesade Oluokun — with a 30-yard run to the Atlanta 8.
Conner appeared to score, but a video review ruled that his left elbow hit the turf before he crossed the goal line. No worry. Conner leaped over the line on the next play for a 1-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers a 6-0 lead.
After one quarter, Conner had 96 yards from scrimmage (62 rushing, 37 receiving). That’s the most in the first quarter by a Steeler since Jerome Bettis had 88 yards against St. Louis in 1996.
And Conner was just getting started.
2. Bad connection: Where Conner addressed another concern on the second series by twice converting third downs, a bigger issue became magnified.
The connection issues between Roethlisberger and Brown continued, as Big Ben missed throws on four consecutive open looks to his favorite target.
They spent some time talking while standing on the Steelers sideline. Then they had separate conversations with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
Roethlisberger found Brown for a 12-yard gain to the Atlanta 20 late in the first half, then ran a keeper 8 yards for a first-and-goal at the 7 to put the Steelers in position to score with 34 seconds left.
That’s when Big Ben made his biggest blunder.
On second-and-goal at the 7, linebacker Brooks Reed was in pursuit when Roethlisberger rolled out and threw a jump ball intended for Brown in double coverage in the end zone. Safety Damontae Kazee intercepted the pass to prevent the Steelers from scoring, and they went into halftime clinging to a 13-10 lead.
It marked Roethlisberger’s fourth interception while targeting Brown, the most in the NFL this season.
3. Finding balance: The Steelers continued to ride Conner in the third quarter. He ran four times for 24 yards on their first possession and turned a pass into a 28-yard gain to the Atlanta 26.
But Roethlisberger also completed passes to Brown for 15 yards, to Smith-Schuster for 3 yards and Xavier Grimble for 9.
When Conner fumbled out of bounds at the 9, the Steelers took another shot at Brown in the end zone.
This time, Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead at 3:42.
It was a sign of things to come.
4. Big blocks: Roosevelt Nix is known for his blocking, but that’s as a Pro Bowl fullback.
Nix made a pair of pivotal plays late in the third quarter
The first came when he blocked Matt Bosher’s punt late in the quarter. Bosher recovered and tried to run but was tackled by Tyler Matakevich at the Atlanta 18.
That set up Nix’s next big block.
Jesse James had a 14-yard catch to put the Steelers at the 4, and Oluokun was called for a personal foul after slamming Conner to the turf on the next play.
Conner followed as Nix plowed over a Falcons defender and ran untouched into the end zone for a 27-10 lead.
5. WiFi working: Brown drew headlines with his comment that his connection with Roethlisberger was like WiFi, that the signal could fade in and out.
After Matt Ryan led the Falcons on a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive to cut it to 27-17 with 12:28 remaining, the Steelers didn’t hesitate to go wireless.
On first down, Roethlisberger threw to Brown for a 15-yard gain. Conner, who rushed for 110 yards and had 185 yards from scrimmage, followed with runs of 6, 3 and 4 yards for a first-and-10 at the Atlanta 47.
That’s when Roethlisberger aired it out, throwing a deep pass along the visiting sideline to Brown over cornerback Robert Alford for a 47-yard touchdown and a 34-17 lead with 9:41 remaining.
It gave Brown six catches for 101 yards for his first 100-yard receiving game of the season.
It also served as proof that his statistics will come when the Steelers are winning, and vice versa.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.