Prelude to Steelers versus Rams Game
Injuries at the running back position and questions of how to contain Aaron Donald led Pittsburgh Steelers fans into a ball of confusion on just what the offense would look like Sunday.
Ramon Foster was declared out due to the concussion suffered against the Miami Dolphins. The normally stable group anticipated an offensive-line shuffle . Talks about Chuks Okorafor starting at right tackle and moving Matt Feiler to guard all to manage Los Angeles Rams standout Aaron Donald. In the past, Mike Tomlin resisted shifting multiple players on the line preferring to plug a player into one position.
The Steeler declared James Conner, Benny Snell and FB Roosevelt Nix out for Sunday’s game. These Injuries at running back force Randy Fichtner to be creative. Who is the next man up?
The Los Angeles Rams were 4-point favorites coming into Heinz Field Sunday and coming off a bye week getting players back like Clay Matthews. The Steelers are missing key pieces from their line-up. The one glimmer of hope I hold onto is that the Rams franchise originated in Cleveland.
The Steelers Forecast
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Rams. He boiled the game down to two factors. Can the Steelers secondary contain Cooper Kupp? The second was the offensive line’s ability to neutralize Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler.
Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch for this week. Against the Rams, Tom says scrutinize the Steelers offensive line versus Aaron Donald. A path to limit his damage is for the Steelers to vary their blocking schemes.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Rams prediction. Alex foresaw a Steelers if they free up JuJu Smith-Schuster by forcing the Rams into zone coverage, Mason Rudolph improves his awareness in the pocket, and the Steelers linebackers don’t bite on play-action plays. Conversely, he foresaw a loss if Rams successfully pull trick plays like a fake punt or flea flicker, if Rams specialists outperform Chris Boswell & Jordan Berry, and Steelers running backs can’t force misses and otherwise help the offensive line in the rush attack. Oh Alex! He predicted a 27-17 Rams victory. Can Alex miss twice in a row?
Dave Bryan identified the 7 keys to a Steelers victory. First, the offense must avoid third & long situations. Second, the defense must limit Kupp to 80 yards receiving and keep him out of the end zone. Plus, the offense must convert any red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Fourth, the defense must pressure Jared Goff and force a turnover or two. Then, Mason Rudolph should test Troy Hill with throws to Diontae Johnson or James Washington. Sixth, Steelers create an alternative running scheme such as WR screens or dump offs to the running backs to compensate for the injuries at the position. Finally, the Steelers must stop the 15-game turnover streak. Do all these and we may have a Steelers victory.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex Kozora’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The offense could not get off to a worse start. Maurkice Pouncey snaps the ball 14 yards past Mason Rudolph and Dante Fowler recovers the ball and runs in for a touchdown. We are just 14 seconds into the game. The next drive is three and out with a pass bouncing off JuJu’s hands for a drop.
The offense finally reached midfield on their third drive of the game. Diontae Johnson caught a short pass for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Unfortunately, the Rams dropped Jaylen Samuels for a 4-yard loss putting them in a 2nd and 14 hole. The Steelers punt from the Rams 44-yard line.
The Steelers started their longest drive at the 18-yard line. Two explosive plays and a defensive penalty negating an interception brought the Steelers to the 20. JuJu cradled a 20-yard reception to start the drive. Later, Mason Rudolph completed a deep 3rd and 7 pass to Diontae Johnson for 30 yards. They took a step back on a Chuks Okorafor holding penalty. On 2nd and 20, the Rams intercept Rudolph’s pass but referees flag Jalen Ramsey and Eric Weddle for separate defensive penalties. James Washington picks up 13 yards on a Rudolph toss. Then after a short run, Rudolph connects with Washington on the left edge of the end zone. Touchdown, it’s a tie ball game 7-7!
Following a punt that was almost lost, the Steelers ran 4 straight running plays. Samuels picked up a first down with an 8-yard run. A 3rd and 5 was set up after Trey Edmunds ran twice for 4 yards. The Steelers then tried four straight passes. Diontae got another first down with a 13-yard reception. But on 3rd & 2, Morgan Fox flushed Mason from the pocket and sacked him for a one-yard loss. Steelers punt again.
A short drive starts nice with a 15-yard passing play to JuJu but then three straight incompletions. The passes are getting there, the receivers are just not catching the ball. Steelers punt. Then Rams punt. The Rams punter shanked it giving the Steelers the ball at the 31 with 2:31 to go in the half. James Washington catches the ball and gains 34 yards before a Rams defender punches it out near the sideline and Rams recover. This is when the defense stepped in to score.
The Steelers get the ball one more time before the half ends. They still cling to a 14-7 lead. The offense cannot get a first down with 1:24 to go. On 3rd and 5, an incomplete pass to Vance McDonald stops the clock. The referees call Alejandro Villanueva for holding but Rams decline the penalty. The offense only burned 15 seconds off the clock before having to punt giving the Rams plenty of time to put some points on the board. Thankfully, the 56-yard field goal attempt is just wide left. Looked like he had he length.
The Steelers lead 14-7 but other than the one scoring drive, the offense turns the ball over twice and the Steelers must punt on the other 5 possessions. Not encouraging.
The Steelers gain possession of the ball following an interception. Tony Brook-Jones showed some speed and acrobatics on an 8-yard run to start the drive. He leaped over Pouncey, but Eric Weddle slammed him to the ground as he helicoptered in the air. Jaylen Samuels got the first down on a 4-yard run. The Steelers got another first down when Jalen Ramsey interfered with JuJu. They get as far as the Rams 45-yard line on an 8-yard pass to Nick Vannett but then start to go backward. Referees call Vannett for holding. Samuels dropped for one-yard loss. Incomplete pass. Steelers punt after Robert Spillane’s second special teams’ penalty.
The defense gets another turnover to give the offense the ball at their own 31-yard line. They are already in Boswell’s field goal range. They go backwards. Clay Matthews sacks Rudolph. A Vance McDonald pitchout run fools no one. Another punt from the 41-yard line.
The Rams score a field goal just before the fourth quarter. The Steelers receivers can’t catch a cold. Jaylen Samuels does catch a 3-yard pass but Diontae Johnson and James Washington come up empty on balls thrown in their direction. Steelers punt. Jordan Berry may need substituted for leg fatigue. Then disaster strikes.
The Steelers defense forced the Rams to punt and the ball ends up on the 5-yard line following questionable decision making by Ryan Switzer. The Steelers try a play-action pass with Mason Rudolph dropping back into the end zone. Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews swallow him up for a safety. The Steelers lead now just 14-12.
The Steelers respond with an 8-minute scoring drive albeit just a field goal. Rudolph completes a 1-yard pass to Washington to set up 3rd and 1. The Rams shutdown Samuels for no gain at the Steelers own 34-yard line. Conventional football wisdom says you punt in this situation. Sean McVay had attempted a fake punt in a comparable situation that Trey Edmunds intercepted. Rudolph rolls right and completes a 6-yard pass to Trey Edmunds. The announcer roars “That’s a Pittsburgh Steelers first down!” and it’s repeated by the crowd at Heinz Field. Vance McDonald fumbles on the next play but JuJu recovers it. James Washington converts two third downs into first downs. First with a 19-yard catch then a 9-yard reception. Mason Rudolph rifles a ball that JuJu snags at the 10-yard line but on 3rd and 2 a pass to Samuels is incomplete. Boswell kicks the final points of the game. Pittsburgh 17, Rams 12. A touchdown would have put the game out of reach, but we had to sweat it out some more.
The final drive was 3 straight runs that only burned 15 seconds from the clock and did not yield a first down. However, it did force the Rams to burn all three of their timeouts leaving just over a minute on the clock.
The offense had 14 possessions in this game. Two resulted in the Rams scoring a touchdown and a safety. Another drive turned over the ball as the Steelers entered Rams territory. Nine drives were punctuated with punts. The offense had two quality drives. The touchdown in the first half. The critical drive was for the field goal which also ate up precious time. So, the offensive drives resulted in 19 points, 10-9 just in the Steelers favor. The defense really bailed out the team. Yet, I never saw panic or people blaming one another for miscues. In these situations, you need to have no short-term memory and just focus on the next play.
The Steelers defense forced the Rams to punt on their first 5 drives. The big play on the first possession was a swing pass that ended up going backwards and out of bounds. The officials had ruled an incomplete pass but most folks in the stadium were urging Mike Tomlin to throw the red flag which he eventually did. Another successful Steelers challenge! On 3rd and 19 Jared Goff handed the ball off to Todd Gurley. If the Steelers had done that, fans would be screaming for Tomlin’s head.
Todd Gurley gashed the defense for 26 rushing yards on the next drive. But on 3rd and 6 Jared Goff threw an incompletion. Rams punt. After the Steelers offense tied the game, the defense responded by forcing the Rams to a 3 and out. Cam Heyward sacking Goff on third down got the crowd roaring.
The Rams offense did not reach Pittsburgh territory until midway through the second quarter. Terrell Edmunds tackled Josh Reynolds after an 18-yard gain. From the Ram 36-yard line, Goff targeted Cooper Kupp. The referees flagged Edmunds for pass interference and placed the ball at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line. Los Angeles could not move the ball and ended up punting despite the help from the officials. Spoiler alert: Kupp caught 7 passes for 220 yards & a TD his last game. The Steelers defense shut him out. His kuppeth didn’t runneth over.
The Rams fifth drive started on their 10-yard line. A 21-yard Goff pass to Josh Reynolds and an 11-yard pass to Tyler Higbee got he Rams to the Pittsburgh 49. That’s as far as they got. T.J. Watt sacked Goff and the Rams were back on their side of the field where they belong. Another Rams punt.
Five Rams possessions and five punts. How much better could the Steelers defense perform? Following Washington’s fumble and Rams recovery at the 38-yard line the defense outdid themselves. Javon Hargrave hit Jared Goff forcing a fumble that lurched forward like a wobbly pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick fielded the ball returning it 43 yards for a touchdown. Surprisingly, the folks running the Jumbotron inside Heinz Field did not show many replays. Honestly, I was unsure how a fumble could come forward like that without the quarterback propelling the ball. I will watch the replay, but it was an electric play. The sudden score stunned folks momentarily then they went wild.
The Rams get the ball back with 1:44 on the clock. Joe Haden defends Goff’s first two passes; Mark Barron defends the third. The pass defense is playing excellently and the Rams punt for a sixth time in the half. Frustratingly, the Steelers offense only shaves 15 seconds off the clock. The Rams offense gets a reprieve with 57 seconds to complete a final drive.
Jared Goff completes two quick passes for 25 yards. Fans are uncomfortable because the completions are all too easy and they are holding in their halftime pees. Two incompletions and a Rams holding penalty has the ball at the Ram 49 with 3rd and 20. Relief is at hand for the fans but then Goff completes a 13-yard pass putting the ball within Greg Zuerlein’s range. His career long is 61 yards and he has hit from 58 yards this season. The 56-yard attempt has the distance but is wide left. Ahh, no score and now we can all relieve ourselves.
Steelers up 14-7 at the half.
The Steelers defense continued to play exceptionally in the second half. The first two Rams possessions ended with interceptions. Joe Haden ended a Rams scoring threat on the opening drive by intercepting a pass at the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. The offense failed to capitalize on the turnover and the Rams had the ball back a few minutes later. The Rams had a 4th and 1 at their own 29-yard line. It was clear that the Rams were going to attempt a play instead of punting based on where the punter was standing. Trey Edmunds intercepted and the Steelers had the ball at the 31-yard line. A surprising call with lots of time to play. The offense could not put any points on the board despite starting just 31 yards from the goal line.
The Steelers defense finally bent on the third drive. The Rams drove 78 yards from their own 12-yard line all the way to the Steelers 8-yard line. The Rams mixed six running plays with four passes. Penalties negated two other plays. Terrell Edmunds tackled Gerald Everett to set up what we thought would be a fourth down. However, the referees called Cam Sutton for pass interference to give the Rams 1st and 10 at the 14. The decisive plays at the end of the drive were Devin Bush & Edmunds tackling Gurley for a 4-yard loss. Then Minkah Fitzpatrick defended a pass intended for Kupp forcing the Rams to kick a field goal instead of tying up the game.
A penalty and a swarming run defense set up a 3rd and 18 from the Rams 22-yard line. Goff completed a 16-yard pass just two yards short of the sticks and the Rams punted. Just 19 seconds later the Rams were getting the ball back due to the safety that made it a 2-point game.
The defense did not panic. Joe Haden batted a ball away from Cooper Kupp’s outreached hands. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave tackled Malcolm Brown for just a 2-yard gain. Then Steven Nelson solo tackled Gerald Everett who was isolated on him one on one. It looked like Everett had lots of room if he broke the tackle, but Nelson held on to bring him down and prevent a first down. The Rams punted for the eighth time.
The Steelers still had to defend two more Rams drives to preserve the lead. The Rams had a 30-yard return after the Steelers field goal extended their lead to five points. The stadium played Renegade just before the kickoff, but it did not work this time. There was 2:39 left in the game and the Rams had all their timeouts. Goff completed four straight passes but sure tackles by Sutton, Mark Barron (2) and Devin Bush limited yards after the carry and the Rams were at the Pittsburgh 30 at the two-minute warning. Goff then had four straight incompletions once play recommenced. Three of the passes were defended. Steve Nelson prevented one completion. Cam Heyward got his hand on one pass at the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds defended the fourth down pass that turned the ball over to the Steelers. Maybe Renegade had a delayed reaction.
The final defensive stand started with one-minute left. The Rams had expended their timeouts on the last Steelers possessions. The Rams needed a touchdown and were 60 yards from the goal line. Watt strip-sacked Goff but the Rams recovered the ball. But 20 seconds had elapsed. On 3rd and 7 Mike Hilton defended a pass to Kupp keeping him without a reception for the game. However, Goodell’s squad of striped flying monkeys struck again flagging Hilton for pass interference. I did not see the penalty on the replay shown in the stadium. But the penalty stopped the clock, gave the Rams a first down near midfield and new life. The referees called Austin Corbett for a false start on the very next play. I am convinced this was a make-up call. Again, I will have to watch a recording of the game or hear Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora’s analysis after they review the all-22 film to determine if Hilton did interfere with Cupp.
But it is moot, since Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Goff’s pass intended for Robert Woods and allowed the offense to finish the game in the victory formation.
A dominant performance by the Steelers defense. They accomplished their job and outscored the Rams offense 7-3. The defense allowed just one first down out of 14 third downs. The defense also prevented both the Rams fourth down conversion attempts. That is dominance.
Special teams play can be broken down into six phases: Field goals & blocking field goals, punts, punt returns, kickoffs, & kickoff returns. I’m not including points after touchdowns but will include the safety kick for this game.
Chris Boswell made his 33-yard field goal attempt. It would have been only 28 yards but Boswell false started. In any case the field goal gave the Steelers a 5-point lead which meant the Rams had to score a TD at the end of the game. I’d never seen a kicker false start before. Greg Zuerlein was 1 for 2. He missed the 56-yarder at the end of the first half. He did connect with a 30 yarder that cut the Steelers lead to 14-10. Advantage Pittsburgh.
Jordan Berry punted nine times averaging 42.6 yards a punt. Two punts from his own half of the field lowered his overall average. Berry had to re-kick once after Robert Spillane lined up in an illegal formation. JoJo Natson returned one punt 18 yards, but most were fair caught, downed, or went for short gains. Five put the Rams at the 20 or behind. Artie Burns was penalized on his last punt for illegal touch, but the ball hit him in the back. Johnny Hekker punted eight times averaging 47.4 yards a punt. His most significant punt was a 56 yarder that backed up Ryan Switzer to the 6-yard line. Switzer tried to return it to the left with one man to beat but turned back to his right and went down for a one-yard loss. The Rams scored a safety on the next play. Hekker did shank one punt for 24 yards and threw an interception on a fake punt. Half his punts put the Steelers behind the 20. A fifth punt that was a touchback put the Steelers at the ten when referees called Artie Burns for holding. Boswell punted very well overall but penalties and poor decision-making by a returner hurt the Steelers punting & punt return game. Advantage Rams.
Boswell kicked off four times. The Rams returned three of his four kicks. JoJo Natson returned his first kick 19 yards. The next kick was a touchback. Natson returned a kick from inside the endzone to the Rams 26-yard line. After Pittsburgh’s field goal, Boswell kicked the ball just 61 yards. Natson fielded it at the 4-yard line and raced 30 yards to the Rams 34 which gave the Rams decent field position. I’m not sure if anyone missed tackles but this was a miscue. Zuerlein kicked off three times. Two were touchbacks and Switzer returned one 20 yards to the 23-yard line. Advantage Rams.
Still looking for that long Steelers kick return. Diontae Johnson returned one punt 14 yards but fumbled another after no gain. Luckily Vince Williams recovered the ball.
Finally, the safety kick. Jordan Berry kicked the ball from his own 20 and it travelled 66 yards to the 14-yard line. JoJo Natson returned the ball 18 yards before Trey Edmunds and Kameron Kelly stopped him. A long return but it left the Rams with the ball at their own 32-yard line. Acceptable result.
Your Hot Takes During the Game
First Half Reader Comments
Steelers Depot readers commented 1276 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Well above the 1000 comment standard. I bet Depot readers posted half the comments right after the Steelers first possession was snapped away.
Wreckless posted the top comment of the first half: “If Pouncey didn’t air mail that snap, we’re up 14-0 on the defending NFC champs. Defense has been stellar so far.”
Thomas hmmm had one eye on the Steelers game and the other on results rolling in from other games that could impact their future: “If Miami holds and defeats Indy and Pitt wins then Pitt has the last Wild Card spot!!!!” Miami did hold on to win and the Steelers are currently the # 6 seed in the playoff hunt.
The Steelers coaches and general manager received credit from wvupittsburgh who opined, “Tomlin, Butler, Austin, and Colbert deserve so much credit for the transformation of the D. I’m sure you all will give credit where it’s due…” When challenged if it was the coaches or talent that deserved credit he continued, “Both. Top brass–i.e., Tomlin and Colbert–have made good moves to improve the D. Signing Haden and Nelson, trading for Fitzpatrick, picking up Dupree’s option, then some good drafting with Watt and Bush. The scheme seems to be working on top of it, generating tons of pressure and focusing on turning the ball over. It’s all coming together on that side of the ball.”
Minkah Fitzpatrick got a lot of notice. Super Sean observed, “The Dolphins front office right now: WTF were we thinking!?!?” Kevin Schwartz replied, “Hey, the 32nd pick in the draft isn’t a bad return.” Jason Vancil noted, “All Minkah does is score points.”
Second Half Reader Comments
A strong showing of 1392 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. I was at the game so did not contribute much to the conversation. But yinz carried the day. Someone pointed out that when Steelers fans have nothing to complain about, they just sit and pout silently.
Mr. KnowItAll led the way in the second half with “Hargrave does not get enough credit…playing very well.”
Many folks agreed with Kevin Schwartz who confessed, “Not gonna lie – I had this down as an L for us when gaming out the rest of the season.”
Chris92021 warned us that, “We are winning in spite of a hesitant quarterback, the worst offensive coordinator in the AFC, and Danny Smith.”
Drew 1914 expressed pleasant surprise, “I can’t believe we’re actually 5-4 after that start to the season.” Steelburg is still with us saying “I about died of a heart attack watching this game. But man is this defense good.”
Steven Small may have news for us once training camp starts: “I’m going to wake up the wife, make a baby and call him Minkah.”
A game that had us on the edge of our seats.
The defense played a magnificent game. The offense could only manage two quality drives. That will not be enough in future games. It was frustrating watching running backs running sideways instead of uphill. I hope James Conner’s shoulder healed enough to play effectively. Ryan Switzer return game is hurting the Steelers field position. Even though Diontae Johnson fumbled once, it may be time for him to field punts full time. At least he can break a tackle and gain some yardage. A big win going into three straight AFC North contests. Optimism for the season burning brighter than at any point in the season. Mason Rudolph passed accurately, this time it as receivers dropping the ball that hurt the air game.
The injury situation with the running backs and shuffling of offensive linemen was a ball of confusion. Ramon Foster’s return should stabilize the line. Did I mention Conner yet? This edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is no favorite to win the Super Bowl. It would be a challenge to even reach the playoffs. That said, I enjoy this season’s team. They have a lot of spirit and our focused on helping each other succeed rather than individual accomplishments. Give me more.
The referees called 23 penalties in this game plus more that were declined. I was not sure I saw everything they were calling and some of the explanations were confusing. Plus, play reviews seem to take more time than in the past. Lot’s of time with the players standing around on the field with no play clock running. Just waiting for the commercial to finish and the referee to announce what everyone knows happened minutes before.
I also did not understand all of McVay’s play calling. His genius must be beyond my comprehension. The Rams ran the ball on 3rd and 19 and again on 3rd and 17. Can someone who is smarter than me explain the Rams reasoning for this?
I attended the game with “Ags”, an old college rugby teammate from the 1970’s. We had a fun time. A pregame highlight was the Renegade tailgate. We met Mama JuJu and saw Anthony Chickillo’s pop hanging out there. It was great to meet a bunch of Steelers fans. Some local, others that had travelled from all over including the Carolinas & Indiana.
A special halftime treat was seeing Steelers Legends who beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl following the 1979 season. Ags got to shake hands with Franco Harris which thrilled the Vietnam veteran and longtime rugby player.
I hate Thursday Night football. The players have a really short recovery time. The coaches have a very short time to game plan. One day to rest, one day to prepare, then they travel. Big game with the Cleveland Browns who are favored despite their record. Here we go!