PITTSBURGH — When the 2018 NFL schedule was released in the spring, Atlanta's trip to Pittsburgh on the first Sunday in October looked like a potential Super Bowl preview.
Then September happened and the lofty preseason expectations evaporated, replaced by an unruly and unpredictable reality.
Pittsburgh All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell extended his franchise-tag induced sabbatical indefinitely, wide receiver Antonio Brown couldn't stop making headlines for things that had little to do with football , and the revamped secondary spent far too much time chasing opponents to the end zone. Atlanta, meanwhile, couldn't stop sending defensive starters to the trainer's room or finding excruciating ways to drop close games .
The Steelers (1-2-1) and the Falcons (1-3) both stress panicking with three quarters of the season to go is unwise even with both clubs in highly competitive divisions.
"(We) don't want to look down the road about things that are two or three weeks away," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "The mindset of just own now man, own this week."
Maybe Quinn should settle for his team owning the final minutes. Atlanta has led in the fourth quarter in each of its three losses. At least the Falcons have been close. The Steelers, not so much. Pittsburgh has not held the lead at any point in each of its last three games at Heinz Field.
"Last year we kind of started a little sloppy, too, so you know you guys can look at records all you want, we're not," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We're looking at this next week and trying to get a win because that's all that really matters."
Roethlisberger is right. Sort of.
The Steelers have been sluggish in September under coach Mike Tomlin but round into form as the days grow shorter and the temperature drops. Tomlin is 30-13 in October in his career, and a year ago Pittsburgh began a sluggish 3-2, then ripped off eight straight wins on its way to a second consecutive AFC North title.
Not that Tomlin's players are looking for comfort in the idea that they've been here before and gotten it together in time to reach the postseason.
"I want to be great all the way around," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "I don't even like assumptions like that."
Considering the state of Pittsburgh's defense, that might be wise.
The Steelers are 30th in yards allowed, 26th in points allowed and now face Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and breakout rookie receiver Calvin Ridley. It's the NFL equivalent of flunking an algebra test and getting thrown into trigonometry class anyway.
"They're a juggernaut," Pittsburgh defensive end Cam Heyward said. "I told my guys, what a way to start the second quarter of the season by beating a good team like that.'"
JULIO'S SCORING DROUGHT
Jones leads the NFL with 502 yards receiving. But he's still looking for his first touchdown catch. Meanwhile, Ridley leads the NFL with six scoring grabs and his three TD receptions against the Saints two weeks ago matched Jones' total for the entire 2017 season.
So where's the red-zone love for Jones?
"His production is through the roof," Ryan said. "... He's going to find the end zone. People are accounting for him and are continuing to account for him even with the production of other guys. So he stays unselfish when he gets his opportunities and makes plays; nobody plays harder than him. We'd love for him to get in the end zone, but we have to find ways to get into the end zone whoever it is, and he's 100 percent on board with that, too."
A DO RUN RUN?
While Bell told ESPN this week he plans to end his standoff by the end of the month, it will be up to James Conner and the offensive line to help get Pittsburgh's uneven running game in order until Bell eventually arrives. The Steelers ran 11 times for 19 yards last week against Baltimore, the fifth-lowest single-game rushing total in franchise history.
Running effectively — whoever is doing the running — would help the Steelers control the clock and take some of the pressure off Pittsburgh's defense.
"I know everybody wants to see the run game and trust me, as an offensive lineman, we want to see it too," Pouncey said. "It's early in the season, things will come along."
SACKS FOR TAKK
Falcons defensive end Takk McKinley is enjoying a breakout season with five sacks, including three for a loss of 29 yards in last week's loss to the Bengals.
"It's great to see a man who still loves just putting on his helmet and going after the quarterback," said defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who said McKinley's spirit "enlightens everyone."
McKinley ranked fourth among rookies in 2017 with six sacks.
COMING AND GOING
Atlanta expects to have running back Devonta Freeman available. Freeman missed the last three games with a sore right knee. Pittsburgh's secondary could get a boost from the return of cornerback Mike Hilton, who sat last week with a right elbow issue, and veteran safety Morgan Burnett, who has been slowed by a groin problem.