The Pittsburgh Steelers are riding a three-game winning streak right around the time of the year that in recent seasons has seen them go on long runs, but if they have a team that is going to break it up, it might be the 5-3 Los Angeles Rams, who are in town today.
The Rams are one of three teams on their remaining schedule who currently have a winning record, the others being the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens, so this is an important tentpole in their second half of the season. They went 1-4 against teams with winning records in the first half of the season, finally getting over the hump last wee against the Indianapolis Colts.
For me, this game will come down to two things: the nickel defense’s ability to contain Cooper Kupp, and the offensive line’s ability to handle the Rams’ pass rush, consisting of, among others, Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler.
The nickel defense, at least, has its full complement of performers at its disposal, and both Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have been playing well as of late, but Kupp might be the best slot receiver that they see all season. He has 58 receptions for 792 yards and five touchdowns on the year, on a pace to make JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2018 season look almost pedestrian in comparison.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ offensive line is understaffed, in part voluntarily. The curious decision to move Matt Feiler to left guard in place of the injured Ramon Foster, rather than B.J. Finney, could prove to be a pivotal one, but that might be more due to who is playing right tackle. Feiler would normally be there, but instead it’s second-year Chukwuma Okorafor, who hasn’t played a snap yet this year.
Donald is going to win some reps, but for the most part, I think the line will be able to give Mason Rudolph a pocket clean enough to get the ball out, if he does so quickly. That means that his processing and decision-making speed has to pick it up, because he’s been holding onto the ball too long, without even getting much out of it.
Getting virtually anything out of the ground game will also be a big deal, as they only have Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, and Tony Brooks-James available to them. How much will Brooks-James play? While he only had one touch, he did play three or four snaps last week. Mike Tomlin said that he offers them a different look with his speed. We could even see that on kickoffs.
Last, but not least, we have the edge rush of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Coming off of their best game as a duo (combining for three and a half sacks and a forced fumble), can they have similar success? Andrew Whitworth is past his prime, but still a stout pass protector, but Rob Havenstein is a winnable matchup.