Mike Tomlin displayed unwavering determination when he chose to field quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Pittsburgh starters, despite Atlanta coach Arthur Smith opting for his backup squad.
“I just think it’s difficult to box without sparring,” Tomlin said.
In the end, it was Pickett and the Steelers who landed the early knockout.
Pickett masterfully led two touchdown drives, proving that he and the Pittsburgh starters are primed for the real games ahead as they overwhelmed the Falcons 24-0 in the final preseason showdown for both teams.
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren found the end zone to cap the only drives led by Pickett, who completed all four of his passes for 86 yards during his brief yet highly productive appearance. The Steelers (3-0) managed to score touchdowns on every one of their five preseason possessions under Pickett’s guidance.
“I think it’s proof that the hard work we put in paid off in the preseason,” Pickett said, reflecting on their exceptional performance.
Tomlin emphasized that his decision to stick with Pickett and the offensive starters for two series was not swayed by Smith’s choice to keep his starters sidelined.
“I don’t care what the Joneses do,” Tomlin asserted. “We’re going to do what we do.”
In his second year as quarterback, Pickett executed passes beautifully, including a 33-yard connection with Diontae Johnson and a 35-yard toss to George Pickens on the opening drive, culminating in a one-yard touchdown run by Harris. Pickens, the former standout from the University of Georgia, made a spectacular sideline catch inside the 5, despite tight coverage from Falcons cornerback Natrone Brooks.
“They’re both great players,” Pickett commented on Johnson and Pickens. “I wanted to make sure I did my part and put the ball out there for them.”
Pickett also connected with Harris for a 16-yard pass before Warren punched in an 8-yard rushing touchdown to cap Pittsburgh’s second drive.
The Falcons’ backups struggled to contain Pittsburgh’s first-team units on both offense and defense. Nevertheless, Smith expressed confidence in his team as they head into the regular season.
“I feel the team has got an impressive feel to it in all phases,” Smith remarked. He attributed the unfavorable outcome to the Steelers’ early big plays and a late red-zone turnover by the Falcons, which created “a bad recipe.”
With Desmond Ridder observing from the sideline, backup Taylor Heinicke was sacked by T.J. Watt for a 7-yard loss on Atlanta’s first possession. Running back Godwin Igwebuike faced a similar fate, being dropped for a 4-yard loss on Atlanta’s initial snap.
After building a 14-0 lead through two drives, Mitch Trubisky replaced Pickett. Backup running back Anthony McFarland Jr. delivered a 31-yard run, setting up Chris Boswell’s 38-yard field goal on Pittsburgh’s third possession.
McFarland’s 5-yard rushing touchdown extended the lead to 24-0 in the second quarter. Pittsburgh’s first punt of the game didn’t occur until less than two minutes remained in the half.
The Falcons (1-1-1) missed a scoring opportunity in the third quarter when running back Carlos Washington Jr. lost a fumble, recovered by Steelers free safety Kenny Robinson at Pittsburgh’s 8-yard line.
A Push for Roster Spots:
Logan Woodside made a final bid to secure a spot on the Falcons’ roster as the third quarterback behind Ridder and Heinicke. Woodside took over in the second quarter and played the entire second half, completing 24 of 31 passes for 196 yards, although he was sacked four times.
“I thought he played well,” Smith noted.
Late in the game, Woodside fumbled when hit by linebacker Quincy Roche, with Toby Ndukwe recovering for Pittsburgh at the Atlanta 25. All NFL teams must reduce their rosters to 53 players by Tuesday.
A Runaway Victory:
The first-half statistics revealed the Steelers’ dominance, especially with their starting lineup on the field. Pittsburgh outgained Atlanta 253 yards to 55 in the half, with a staggering 128-5 advantage in rushing yards.
McFarland carried the ball 10 times for 55 yards, and the Steelers finished with a 310-199 lead in total yards, including a 175-40 advantage in rushing yards.
Bergeron Observes Like a Starter:
One significant Atlanta player on the field was rookie left guard Matthew Bergeron, although he remained on the sidelines, confirming his status as a starter. The second-round draft pick from Syracuse moved into the starting lineup after Matt Hennessey suffered a season-ending knee injury on August 16.
Another question mark for the Falcons’ offensive line is who will serve as the swing tackle behind starters Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary. If Jalen Mayfield, who can also play guard, doesn’t secure the swing tackle position, the Falcons might explore options following next week’s roster cuts.
Pittsburgh will kick off the regular season against San Francisco on September 10.
Atlanta, on the other hand, will host Carolina on September 10 in the first of two home games to commence the regular season.