Positional Grades: Steelers Vs Rams

Watt Dupree

For the second straight week the Pittsburgh Steelers had to win ugly. No matter how it looks in between the painted lines, it all counts the same when the Steelers come out on top, and that’s just what they did on Sunday at Heinz Field, holding off the visiting Los Angeles Rams for a 17-12 win to move in to the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture.

Once again, the revamped defense came through time and time again, allowing just 3 points to a high-powered Rams attack that had two full weeks to prepare.

Minkah Fitzpatrick continues to be a turnover machine, while Joe Haden turned in arguably his best game ever as a Steeler. It’s a ton of fun watching this defensive unit dominate week to week.

Offensively, Pittsburgh did just enough, scoring a touchdown and a field goal. Mason Rudolph and James Washington proved to be quite the connection for the second straight week, but the offensive line and the run game left much to be desired on Sunday.

As I said earlier though, a win is a win and the Steelers will take them any way that they can.

Side note: hats off to the job Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler did on Sunday. Tomlin continues to get his men ready for action and even won a challenge for the second straight week, while Butler did a masterful job matching Sean McVay round for round on Sunday. I never thought I’d type that last sentence, but here we are….your 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers.

QB — B

The box score might not look great, but I saw a much more decisive, confident Mason Rudolph on Sunday afternoon. He pushed the ball down the field consistently and gave his guys chances to make plays on the football, namely on the touchdown pass to James Washington.

The safety wasn’t his fault this week. I’m not sure why the Steelers called a play-action pass from their own 5-yard line knowing the offensive line had really struggled to that point, but that’s a topic for another day.

What I really liked seeing from Rudolph was the cut down on interceptable balls for the second straight week. Yes, he floated one while being hit and was ultimately bailed out on by a flag, but I counted just 3 total throws that were “interceptable.” I’ll take that.

I’d like to see a bit more pocket presence as he still slides into pressure and doesn’t get enough of a drop at times, but the footwork and the pocket presence can be cleaned up.

Overall, I was really pleased with him cutting it loose down the field a handful of times, taking advantage of large throwing windows outside the numbers and over the middle against the Rams.

RB — D+

I don’t want to hammer these guys too much, but the running backs were nothing short of abysmal on Sunday, especially on the ground.

A lot of that has to do with the lack of push up front, but these guys weren’t making anyone miss, weren’t picking up yardage after contact, and generally forced the Steelers to be almost one dimensional throughout the day.

That said, I thought Tony Brooks-James looked the best of them on the ground. He had real burst, good vision and ran through a couple of tackles. Unfortunately he had a big run called back for a holding, which led to just a 6 carries, 11 yards stat line.

For the second straight week Jaylen Samuels was really disappointing as a running back, and this time he followed it up with a less-than-ideal day as a receiver, dropping a third-down pass that would have gone for a first down.

Trey Edmunds showed off his hands on both sides of the ball (more on his defense later), hauling in a short throw for Rudolph on fourth and 1 deep in their own territory to convert, draining more clock in the process.

WR — B-

Washington is starting to get the targets and is starting to show the fan base just what he can do. It’s fun to watch.

One week after a breakout performance against the Colts, Washington one-upped himself by turning in a career-high 6 catches for 90 yards and a spectacular toe-tap touchdown over Troy Hill to get the Steelers on the board.

He has a real connection with Rudolph and it’s starting to play out in the NFL.

However, Washington fumbled away the football after his longest catch of the day. He had poor ball security there and it cost him. He has to clean that up.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson had drops on the day, both of which came on third down. That said, both cleaned it up and turned in decent days. Johnson hauled in four balls for 64 yards, while Smith-Schuster hauled in three for 44 yards, including gains of 20 and 15 yards that helped spark scoring drives.

TE — D

I don’t know what’s going on with Vance McDonald, but he has real ball issues right now. I counted one drop from McDonald on the day, which is the third time he’s dropped a football in two weeks. That drop against the Rams came on third down.

Then, on his final catch of the day McDonald fumbled the football near midfield. Thankfully Smith-Schuster was there to recover.

Nick Vannett had one catch for 11 yards that moved the chains and drew an early 15-yard penalty for a hit on a defenseless receiver.

As blockers, both were mediocre. McDonald failed to get much push at all, while Vannett struggled at times on the edge, drawing a holding penalty.

These guys are veterans. They have to get this going in the right direction here.

OL — D

So much for putting the best pass protectors on the field on Sunday.

Switching up the starting lineup with Ramon Foster out with a concussion, the Steelers offensive line regressed in a major way on Sunday.

Alejandro Villanueva was tagged with two holding calls, while Chukwuma Okorafor was called for one.

Outside of the penalties, Maurkice Pouncey gifted the Rams a touchdown on the third snap from scrimmage thanks to a horrendous shotgun snap that was high and wide right of Rudolph, allowing Dante Fowler Jr. to scoop and score, while David DeCastro was smoked by Aaron Donald for a sack on Rudolph for the safety.

Overall, this group failed to get any push up front in the run game, allowed eight tackles for loss, gave up three sacks on Rudolph and allowed another eight quarterback hits.

That’s absolutely unacceptable.

DL — B

Aside from a few big runs by Todd Gurley, Pittsburgh’s defensive line had a whale of a game.

Javon Hargrave forced the fumble on Jared Goff that resulted in Fitzpatrick’s 43-yard touchdown return, while Cam Heyward was nearly unblockable throughout the game, batting down a pass, sacking Goff, and generally reeking havoc in the backfield.

Tyson Aluala and Isaiah Buggs flashed in the game a few times as well.

Just watching through the game twice though, Hargrave was an absolute monster. He finished with 7 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a QB hit on the day. I’d sure love to find a way to keep him around long-term.

LB — A-

Once again, TJ Watt and Bud Dupree are absolute forces off the edge. Watt recorded yet another sack, proving to be a handful for Rob Havenstein and David Edwards all afternoon, while Dupree was terrific against the run and rushed Goff on the final throw of the game.

Inside, Devin Bush was rather quiet, but had a huge run stop on Gurley deep in Steelers territory that ultimately led to a field goal try for the Rams on a drive that appeared to be ticketed for a touchdown.

Mark Barron was pretty darn good on Sunday, aside from some struggles in pass coverage. He played the run well, was a solid tackler and generally had the Steelers’ defense lined up correctly. That’s a big, big win for him in a revenge game.

DB — A+

As I said earlier, this was arguably Haden’s best game as a Steeler. The veteran cornerback broke up an astounding five passes and had a tremendous interception of Goff on a deep shot. He also played a key role in breaking up a fourth down throw into the end zone for Robert Woods that turned the ball over.

Fitzpatrick continues to be quite the player. Along with his game-clinching interception, thanks to a tipped pass by Haden, he now has five interceptions on the year. He also has touchdowns in back-to-back weeks, thanks to his fumble return for a score.

Steven Nelson bounced back in a huge way on Sunday, highlighted by a massive open-field tackle on Rams tight end Gerald Everett that forced a third and long late in the fourth quarter.

Mike Hilton is proving to be on the best nickel corners in football once again. He was all over the field Sunday and played a huge role in holding standout slot receiver Cooper Kupp catchless.

Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in pass coverage, allowing a first-down catch to Woods while also drawing a pass interference penalty earlier in the game. However, he is coming downhill well against the run and seemed to tackle quite well in this one.

Special Teams — C-

Robert Spillane had a rough first game for the Steelers in the regular season. He had two pre-snap penalties on punts that forced re-kicks. That’s poor attention to detail.

Johnson nearly fumbled away a punt return due to poor ball security, and then Williams pushed the Steelers deeper into their own end on a personal foul penalty while fighting to recover Johnson’s fumble.

The return game continues to be disastrous. Ryan Switzer can’t find any room and can’t break a tackle, while the Steelers gave up a 30-yard kick return to JoJo Natson in the second half.

The positive here is Jordan Berry continues to have a career year. He is punting the heck out of the football and helping the Steelers flip the field.

Chris Boswell drilled his lone field goal on the day, but it did come after he had a false start.

It was a sloppy, sloppy day in general on special teams.

However, the Steelers’ special teams can hang its hat on Trey Edmunds’ interception of Johnny Hekker on the fake punt in the third quarter. Everyone and their mother knew the Rams would try a fake punt in this one, and the Steelers were prepared as Edmunds capitalized.

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