PITTSBURGH — Falcons defensive end Ray Edwards had a quiet debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 34-16 defeat Saturday night.
The Steelers improved to 2-1 and the Falcons dropped to 0-3 during the exhibition season.
Edwards, the team’s prized free-agent signee, did not play in the first two exhibition games because he was recovering from offseason knee surgery.
Edwards, who played well into the third quarter, did not record a sack or a tackle, but his presence may have led to sacks by defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker.
“I don’t know if they were too happy with my performance today, but I’m going back to the drawing board to see what I can do,” Edwards said.
After Edwards signed with the Falcons on July 29, Falcons coach Mike Smith noted that his presence would help the entire defensive line and not just right defensive end John Abraham, who finished with 13 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries last season.
“We did get some pressure on the quarterback early there in the first half,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We got him on the ground. We had him running a little bit. . . I have to watch the tape, but I felt him out there. I certainly did.”
With Edwards in the lineup against the Steelers, Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was like a kid with a new toy.
“We got some good pressure, but there are some other things we need to work on,” Edwards said. “We have to get more pressure, get more sacks and get more quarterbacks down.”
Edwards played some left end, but frequently switched sides with Abraham. He also dropped into coverage three times while playing on the left side in the first half.
On his second drop into pass coverage, Edwards picked up Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall out of the backfield.
The Steelers seem to pay Edwards a great deal of respect early. On their first two plays, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled out to his left, away from Edwards, before he connected with tight end David Johnson for gains of 17 yards on each play.
On the Steelers’ second possession, the Falcons came up with a sack when they forced Pittsburgh into an obvious passing situation. On a third-and-17, Edwards had a strong rush from left end and appeared to be held by Pittsburgh right tackle Willie Colon.
Edwards flushed Roethlisberger to his left, where he was sacked by Babineaux. If Roethlisberger had scooted away from Babineaux, Abraham was waiting for him.
After a Falcons’ turnover and a hustle play by Harry Douglas to stop Lawrence Timmons from scoring on an interception return, Edwards didn’t take the field with the short-yardage defense. Playing without Edwards, the Falcons held the Steelers out of the end zone and forced them to kick a field goal.
Pittsburgh, on the strength off two long touchdown passes, held a 24-16 lead at halftime.
Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown connected on touchdown passes of 77 and 44 yards. The Falcons’ defense was playing with defensive tackle Corey Peters (knee) and starting right cornerback Dunta Robinson (hamstring).
“I’m concerned when you give up big plays,” Smith said. “You can’t give up explosive plays. We talk about it all the time.”
The Falcons’ offense moved the ball, but had to settled for three Matt Bryant field goals in the first half.
“Obviously we caught the ball well,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “I felt good about what we did. But when we get down there in the red zone, we have to score touchdowns. Especially against teams that have really good defenses down there. When you get down there, you have to score touchdowns. We just have to do a better job of that.”
After a scoreless third quarter, the Falcons were driving early in the fourth quarter, but backup quarterback Chris Redman’s pass intended for Kerry Meier was intercepted by Pittsburgh’s Crezdon Butler, who returned it 95 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-16.
Pittsburgh’s Swayze Waters added a 27-yard for the final margin.
Despite the margin of victory, the Falcon had their moments.
Rookie wide Receiver Julio Jones flashed his speed and got behind Pittsburgh’s star safety Troy Polamalu, but dropped the deep ball in the end zone. Jones caught five passes for 59 yards.
“Matt threw a great ball to me,” Jones said. “I’ve just got to make that play.”
White, who entered the game with just one catch during the exhibition season, had eight catches for 101 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass.
The Falcons wanted to unleash their running attack against the Steelers, but running back Michael Turner was held to 19 yards on seven carries (2.7 per carry). The Steelers led the league last season in run defense, yielding just 62.8 yards per game.
With the running game shut down, quarterback Matt Ryan threw 42 passes. He completed 22 for 220 yards, a touchdown, an interception and finished with a passer rating of 65.6.
The Falcons roster currently stands at 85. They must reduce their roster to 80 players by Tuesday as part of the NFL’s mandatory roster cut down. The Falcons must trim down to 53 players by September 3 and may establish an eight-player practice squad on September 5.
The Falcons host the Baltimore Ravens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome in their exhibition-season finale.
They open the regular-season on the road against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 11.
“We still have work to do,” Ryan said. “We still have some improving to do. We still have time to do it. We have these two weeks. We need to take full advantage of these two weeks so that when the regular season does roll around, when we go to Chicago, we are at our very best.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog