Big Ben, Antonio Brown connecting again in Steelers' win

PITTSBURGH -- At the most critical time, the Pittsburgh Steelers came through with the throwback performance built on defense, the running game and a few moments of brilliance between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

And not many outside the Steelers' locker room expected it all to come together at once.

Fueled by two touchdowns apiece for James Conner and Brown, the Steelers' 41-17 win Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons eases the tension surrounding the 2018 season and injects life into a defense that badly needed it.

"The Wi-Fi was lit," said Brown, who during the week compared his connection to Roethlisberger to Wi-Fi that's sometimes poor, sometimes great, but always connected.

The Steelers' offense was dropping back to pass on 73 percent of its downs entering Sunday, one of the highest clips in the league. But against the Falcons' 24th-ranked rushing defense, Pittsburgh (2-2-1) controlled the pace with a balanced attack.

Before Ben Roethlisberger's 47-yard touchdown strike to Brown down the sideline with 9:41 to put the game out of reach, the Steelers epitomized balance with 25 rushes and 25 passes.

When Conner goes off, he really goes off. He has sandwiched pedestrian numbers through Weeks 2-4 with a combined 377 yards in Weeks 1 and 5, including a tone-setting 72 yards by himself during the opening drive Sunday.

After Conner punctuated that drive with a leaping 1-yard score, he put his hand to his ear to cue a Heinz Field crowd that let him hear it.

"I was trying to set the tone early," said Conner, who finished with 110 rushing yards on 21 attempts and 75 receiving yards on four catches.

Several teammates say Conner's punishing running style enlivened the entire offense.

"I think James was tired of hearing about Le'Veon [Bell] so much, so he put on a heckuva performance today," Roethlisberger said.

The defense gave Pittsburgh every chance to win with six sacks, more than Matt Ryan took at any point last season.

During the week, several players stressed the urgency and edge found in their practices. Staring down at a potential 1-3-1 start brought that out of them. They knew what was at stake, and only stopping Atlanta's high-powered offense would redirect the conversation.

"Everyone was expecting a shootout. We took it to heart," corner Mike Hilton said. 'We took the challenge and rose up."

The result was a unit that swarmed ball carriers with aggression and exploited matchups. T.J. Watt dominated right tackle Ryan Schraeder with a quick up-and-under move on his way to three sacks and many more hurries. Teammates Cam Heyward, L.J. Fort and Jon Bostic added sacks of their own. Four of Ryan's sacks came in the first half, during which star receiver Julio Jones had zero catches on three targets. Jones finished with five catches for 62 yards.

After a disastrous first three weeks, the Steelers' defense has gotten incrementally better in the past two. Giving up 26 points to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 was respectable, and Sunday they finally put everything together. Atlanta was forgettable on the ground (62 yards on 19 carries), which is exactly what the Steelers want. With starting linebacker Vince Williams out, Fort performed admirably as an inside backer on passing downs and recorded a fumble for a touchdown late in the fourth.

When the Heinz Field crowd chanted "de-fense, de-fense" early in the fourth quarter, it didn't sound forced or out of pity. It was warranted.

"The level of detail really picked up," Heyward said. "We just have to build on it. We got one. Now let's go get two."

The Roethlisberger-to-Brown connection finished with six catches for 101 yards on 13 targets, but the 9-yard touchdown with 3:42 left in the third was the best sign because of where the catch occurred: the sideline. The duo is at their best when working the sideline with precision and Brown's signature footwork. Brown cut in and flared to the thick white line for the easy catch. Those plays haven't been there for much of the season as Brown averaged 9.4 yards per catch through four games.

"We are always on the same page, always positive," said Brown about his relationship with Roethlisberger. "We know we got to stay together regardless of what's being said. All of my catches, all of my touchdowns are from him, and that's my guy."

Eventually, the long-distance connection presented itself, with Brown beating man coverage and catching the deep pass before the safety arrived. Roethlisberger and Brown collided helmets on the sideline for the celebratory culmination of an inconsistent past five weeks. It marked Brown's first 100-yard game of the season.

"It kind of shows that we're still on the same page," said Roethlisberger of the last touchdown.

If the duo has their way, the renewed timing will create many more.