Mark Madden: Get ready for Steelers, Falcons in Bizarro World Bowl
Sports Illustrated projected the Steelers and Atlanta to meet in the Super Bowl.
They are. Months in advance. It’s the Bizarro World Super Bowl.
You need not be familiar with DC Comics’ inverted version of Earth to know the Steelers and Falcons stink: The latter mostly due to injuries that have crippled their defense, the former because their defense was lousy to begin with and because their star running back heaped no-show on top of chaos.
The Steelers are 1-2-1, Atlanta 1-3. The loser of this game is toast.
If that’s the Steelers, they and their fans have always done a good job imagining a situation can be salvaged. They will pretend Le’Veon Bell will rally the Steelers to nine wins in 10 games.
That’s unless we’re all pretending Bell is going to show up at all.
If you want confirmation the Steelers and Falcons reside on Bizarro World, consider:
No team had scored 37 or more points and committed zero turnovers at home, yet lost, since 1940. Until the Steelers did it Sept. 16 vs. Kansas City.
Then Atlanta did it a week later against New Orleans. That was the first leg of the Falcons scoring 36 or more points in each of back-to-back losses. That hadn’t happened since 1966.
Both teams have disappointed historically to date. But now one team has to win. (Probably. The Steelers already have one tie.)
The over/under is 58, the highest for this week’s NFL games by five points. But it still seems low: The Atlanta defense is allowing an average of 30.5 points, the Steelers’ defense 29. You do the math.
The game has interesting sidebars:
• Julio Jones and Antonio Brown are, in some order, football’s two best receivers. Jones and Brown are tied for ninth in receptions this season with 29. But Jones is tops in receiving yards with 502, a lusty 237 ahead of Brown. (JuJu Smith-Schuster leads Brown in both categories. That will eventually be a problem.)
Over the prior four seasons, Brown’s receiving statistics are: 472 receptions, 6,729 yards, 14.3 yards per catch, 44 touchdowns.
Jones’ numbers are: 411 catches, 6,317 yards, 15.4 yards per catch, 23 touchdowns.
Brown dominates every category except yards per. The difference in touchdowns is startling.
But a vast majority of NFL GMs and coaches would doubtless prefer Jones because he’s 6-foot-3 and Brown is 5-10. Jones is the prototype. Brown is the exception. Demand will always be higher for the prototype.
• The disconnect between Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is disconcerting and abrupt. Occasionally, Brown runs a bad route or quits on one. Occasionally, Roethlisberger misfires.
When either happened in the Steelers’ loss to Baltimore this past Sunday, the two pointedly did not communicate on the sideline.
There’s no tangible reason for such a brilliant passing combination turning impotent so suddenly.
But at 36, Roethlisberger has matured into an elder statesman and leader. At 30, Brown has not matured one bit. Despite Brown’s brilliance and his part in Roethlisberger’s excellence, it’s easy to imagine the quarterback being weary of the receiver’s non-stop anarchy.
Brown is in Roethlisberger’s ear constantly, demanding the ball. That doesn’t have to be imagined.
Or maybe Brown is still nursing the quad injury he had at training camp, and that limits his ability to get separation. (That’s not as sexy to talk about.)
• Vince Williams is doubtful, and it looks like L.J. Fort is the front-runner to replace him at inside linebacker. Fort is a ham-and-egger, as is Tyler Matakevich, another potential stand-in.
The Steelers don’t like to go out on a limb. But maybe they should, in this instance, by using Matthew Thomas, the undrafted rookie out of Florida State who has impressed non-stop since arriving at camp.
It’s a bit of a risk, but that Steelers defense badly needs some reward. Sometimes, it’s better the devil you don’t know.
• Defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt aren’t sparkling so far this year but are definitely two of the Steelers’ top talents on defense.
But new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar is benching Heyward and Tuitt for approximately 25 percent of the defensive snaps. Against Baltimore, each was on the field for 57 of 77 plays. Tyson Alualu was the primary sub.
Dunbar’s logic is to keep Heyward and Tuitt fresher for the fourth quarter, and for late in the season.
But the Steelers too often fall behind in the first quarter, so never mind the fourth. When you’re 1-2-1, it’s unwise to think too much about later in the season. Heyward and Tuitt should play every snap.