Mistakes in the red zone have proved costly in a number of the Atlanta Falcons' tightly contested games this season.
In the Falcons' 19-13 loss to the Washington Commanders on Sunday, a Marcus Mariota pass intended for Cordarrelle Patterson was tipped by Daron Payne and intercepted by Kendall Fuller in the end zone for a touchback with a little over a minute left to play.
But one positive that Arthur Smith's team can take from the loss was its ability to run the football effectively against one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.
Behind tailbacks Tyler Allgeier and Patterson, along with Mariota, the Falcons ran the ball 29 times for 167 yards for an average of 5.8 yards per carry. Entering this week's home matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta (5-7) ranks fourth in the league in rushing (160.0 yards per game).
"We feel like we're building something here up front in our mentality with our offensive line," Smith said. "There aren't moral victories, but it does give you confidence week after week that these guys have stepped up. And we've played some good fronts.
"It is the NFL, and everybody is good, I got that. But we've played some of the better ones. Played (the 49ers), and I know they didn't have Bosa, but that's a damn good front. And then yesterday, they are playing as well as anybody in the league. Low-possession game, I thought we moved the ball really well. Thought we had some good pockets."
Despite a revolving door at left guard due to a knee injury to starter Elijah Wilkinson, the play of Atlanta's offensive line has been strong. Right guard Chris Lindstrom and left tackle Jake Matthews are playing at a Pro Bowl level. Center Drew Dalman and right tackle Kaleb McGary have been solid, especially when run blocking.
This week, Atlanta faces another challenge when it meets a Pittsburgh team that ranks sixth in the league in run defense (103.4 yards per game). The Steelers (3-7) rank 31st in the league in pass defense, however, so Mariota could be poised for a big day through the air.
But don't expect Smith and the Falcons to go against what's worked best for them all season long. Patterson and Allgeier have formed a dynamic one-two punch, and Caleb Huntley has been solid despite just one carry for 12 yards against the Commanders.
"It was a function of the game, yeah, and he had one good run," Smith said about Huntley's lone carry. "That's a good problem to have because Tyler is playing really well, and we know the impact CP has on the game. We got to make sure he gets it more because he's earned the right to carry the football for us."
--Outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie left in the second quarter in the loss to Washington with a wrist injury. Smith is hoping Ebiketie will be able to return Wednesday.
"Obviously, AK, hopefully he'll be alright," Smith said. "He's dealing with a wrist injury. We'll see how it responds on Wednesday. But day-to-day on all those guys."
Smith also said Wilkinson "has a shot" to be activated from IR if "he's ready to practice Wednesday."
--Atlanta wideout Olamide Zaccheaus had season highs in receptions (five) and yards (91) in the loss to Washington. His 45-yard reception on the team's final possession got the Falcons into Washington territory with just more than three minutes to play.
--Field Level Media