How the Steelers defense woke up from its deep sleep

Steelers found the recipe for success against Falcons (0:36)

Jeff Saturday breaks down how getting James Conner into a rhythm and getting Antonio Brown a lot of targets were instrumental for the Steelers in Sunday's victory over the Falcons. (0:36)

PITTSBURGH -- Cam Heyward entered the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs room last Monday to deliver what corner Mike Hilton called "a fun little spiel."

Well, not that fun.

"It woke us up a little bit," Hilton said.

Teammates say Heyward, a defensive end and team captain, stressed that the Steelers can’t be a defense that gives up 400-plus yards a game, and only supreme focus would change things, so no one will be above criticism.

Something had to give. The Steelers’ 1,682 yards and 12 passing touchdowns allowed were franchise worsts through four games.

After holding the high-powered Atlanta Falcons to 324 yards and 17 points Sunday, Heyward downplayed any special meetings or pep talks during the week, simply conceding the level of detail had to be better.

"And it was," said Heyward, who finished the game with 1.5 sacks. "You didn’t see 12 men or 10 men on the field. It was communication from a whole lot of people. It’s not one person. Everyone had to execute."

The Steelers were jarred by communication breakdowns during the 1-2-1 start, particularly from the secondary. Among the convenient talking points for one of the league’s worst defenses statistically in Weeks 1-4: bad tackling, lack of splash plays, letting receivers run inside and upfield too often, lack of quarterback pressure.

Six sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown redirected that conversation Sunday. T.J. Watt was dominant in his matchup with right tackle Ryan Schraeder, beating him for three sacks and many more pressures. The inside linebacker play was tight, with Jon Bostic looking more comfortable and L.J. Fort acquitting himself well on passing downs.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan missed a few big plays downfield, and Mohamed Sanu got free up the middle for a 43-yard score, but overall coverage busts were minimized. Corners kept receivers in front of them for the most part, and safeties Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis were rangy.

Several Steelers cited energized practices, but Hilton said the renewed edge ran deeper than that.

Pride -- and a potential 1-3-1 record -- was at stake.

"Everyone was expecting a shootout. We took it to heart," Hilton said. "We knew the type of offense that was coming in here. We took the challenge and rose up."

The result was a pedestrian 62-yard day for Julio Jones and 3.3 yards per rush for the Falcons. With linebacker Vince Williams sidelined by a hamstring injury, the Steelers started Tyler Matakevich and played Fort on money downs alongside starter Bostic. That trio responded with 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Coaches told cornerback Joe Haden during the week that he would follow Jones, a challenge he embraced.

"That’s what you look forward to. That’s what I do it for," Haden said.

From Heyward’s pop-in to intensified practice sessions, the Steelers felt they were getting a much-needed reboot that’s a month late but right on time.

Defenders emerged knowing self-criticism isn’t personal, but necessary.

"You’ve gotta get it done or we’re not going to be where we want to be," Haden said.