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Steelers' first-team defense frustrated in win vs. Falcons

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, 7:21 p.m.

Turns out the New England Patriots aren't the only participant from last year's Super Bowl that knows how to frustrate the Steelers' defense.

Seven months after the Patriots dismantled the Steelers in the AFC championship game, the NFC Super Bowl representative met little resistance as well Sunday — at least while the starters were on the field in the second preseason game.

The Steelers, playing their healthy defensive starters late into the first half, allowed the Atlanta Falcons to move up and down the field. Only when both team's reserves were in the game did the Steelers rally for a 17-13 victory before 48,809 at Heinz Field.

Facing a defense that wants to develop a stronger pass rush and play more press coverage, the Falcons got a touchdown and two field goals in three drives against the Steelers' first-teamers en route to a 13-3 halftime lead.

“There were plays we need to get better on, it's as simple as that,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We're not a finished product. … There is much that needs to happen.”

Coach Mike Tomlin sounded like it wasn't his intention to keep the first-team defense in the game until 3 minutes, 33 seconds remained in the half. He said the situation was out of his hands.

“We weren't getting off the field,” Tomlin said.

In the second half, the Steelers used a 64-yard punt return from Trey Williams and Bart Houston's 6-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter to pull out the win. Former Pitt star James Conner, making his preseason debut, rushed for 98 yards on 20 carries.

On defense, the Steelers played without linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree and safety Mike Mitchell. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave left early in the second quarter with a concussion and did not return.

Heyward, injured in the second half last season when the Steelers went on a nine-game winning streak (including playoffs), didn't use absences as an excuse.

“Whoever is out there has got to be willing to step up their game. There were plenty of times last year where I was hurt and somebody else had to step up,” he said. “You've got to deal with the cards you're dealt and be ready for the moment.”

Against the Falcons, who had their third-string quarterback in the game by the second series, the Steelers yielded drives spanning 10, 14 and 13 plays and covering 244 yards. The Falcons had 16 first downs and converted 5 of 7 third downs while the Steelers' starters were on the field.

“The blame is on not winning possession downs,” Tomlin said. “It's a combination of rush and coverage. It always is. There were too many escape lanes, not enough pressure, not tight enough in coverage.”

The only sack among first-teamers came from Anthony Chickillo, who started in place of the injured Dupree. Chickillo added another in the second half. Farrington Huguenin and Roy Philon added sacks in the second half, and Jordan Dangerfield intercepted two passes.

Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, went 4 of 6 for 57 yards on his only series, a 91-yard drive that ended with Terron Ward's 5-yard touchdown run. The drive was aided by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness foul against cornerback Artie Burns.

That drive, which lasted 4:37, was the shortest of the three against the Steelers' first-team defense. The field goal drives lasted 6:52 and 6:47.

For the half, the Falcons possessed the ball for 19:41.

“We have to get off the field,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “This week we're going back to our (South Side) facility, and we're going to work on that.”

Backup quarterback Matt Schaub completed one 10-yard pass before yielding to third-stringer Matt Simms, who had 157 yards passing by intermission.

Matt Bryant kicked a 23-yard field goal early in the second quarter. He added a 26-yarder with 3:36 left to put the Steelers in a 13-3 hole. On that drive, cornerback Ross Cockrell was beaten in single coverage by Reggie Davis for a 44-yard gain.

“They are a good offense,” Heyward said, “but if we want to get to where we want to get to, we can't have tape on the field like that. It's a good learning lesson for a lot of guys, including myself.”

Rookie Josh Dobbs started at quarterback again for the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger resting and Landry Jones mending an abdominal injury. Dobbs was 10 of 19 for 70 yards and a 39.4 passer rating. He also threw an ugly interception late in the third quarter.

Houston took over after that and was 5 of 9 for 24 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

In addition to Conner, the game marked the preseason debut of wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Playing in his first game in 19 months because of a drug suspension, Bryant had two catches for 20 yards and lost a yard on a reverse.

“I don't feel like anything changed,” Bryant said. “I just have to get myself and my teammates better for the season. As far as the speed of game, it's still the same. I'm just happy after last year to be out there.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

Steelers running back James Conner with a second-quarter run against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner with a second-quarter run against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper gets past the Steelers William Gay in the first quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper gets past the Steelers William Gay in the first quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on during a preseason game against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on during a preseason game against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
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