The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their ninth regular season game of 2019 at home Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Rams with a chance to get their fifth win of the season and over .500 for the first time this season. Below are seven key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the Sunday game to come away victorious for a fifth time this season.
Stay out of the shark-infested waters – Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did a great job on Tuesday of passing along what it is that the Steelers offense needs to make sure to do on Sunday against the Rams defense due to it being filled with talented players such as defensive tackle Aaron Donald, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, just to name a few. “You better stay on schedule,” Tomlin said. “You better be able to do that if you’re behind the chains, you’re swimming in shark-infested waters with this rush and the people that I just mentioned that comprise the back end.” In short, third and longs will be tough for Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph to convert via a pass on a regular basis because of the Rams great pass rush. Donald is a beast and no matter what offensive line grouping the Steelers put on the field Sunday, the Pittsburgh product is sure to break through more than just a few times during the contest. Keeping the Rams off balance is the only way the Steelers will be able to have success moving the football.
No Kupp runneth over Heinz Field – Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp is a very talented player as not only does he lead his team in receptions with 58 for 792 yards and five touchdowns, he also leads the entire NFL in explosive plays of 20 yards or longer with 15 and third-down receptions with 21. He lines up all over the place and that makes it even harder to defend him on a down-by-down basis. The Steelers might be wise to let cornerback Joe Haden try to travel some with Kupp early in the game to see how that goes and obviously some bracketing or help over the top would be advisable. If the Rams want to beat the Steelers through the air on Sunday, the Pittsburgh defense must make quarterback Jared Goff do that by throwing to somebody else other than Kupp most of the game. Kupp’s going to get his catches, but the Steelers defense can’t let him have more than 80 or so yards receiving, and they absolutely must keep him out of the end zone.
Get green in the red – The Steelers offense hasn’t been great inside the red zone this season. In fact, from Week 3 and on the offense is 5-of-16 inside the red zone and that’s not going to continue to cut it. The Steelers offense isn’t likely to have many red zone opportunities Sunday against the Rams, so the unit better make sure to convert whatever trips they do make inside the Los Angeles 20-yard-line into seven points. Failing to do so could wind up being the difference in this game. The Steelers have three red zone passing touchdowns so far this season and tight end Vance McDonald has been on the receiving end of all three of them. The Rams will be keying on McDonald inside the red zone and with running back James Conner sidelined again on Sunday by injury, Rudolph will likely have to throw for scores in this game so wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington must step up and help the young quarterback out by making a player or two.
Tear up the Goff course – Not only has Goff not been great passing this season on the road when under pressure, his third and long passing stats aren’t too hot, either. The Rams offensive line leaves a lot to be desired. Right tackle Rob Havenstein should be much of a match for Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Goff has already fumbled away the football three times this season on sacks and Watt already has two quarterback strips at the halfway point. Consistent Steelers defensive pressure on Goff from the opening drive is extremely necessary and it might just result in a turnover or two in the game.
Attack the Hill – With Ramsey likely to follow Smith-Schuster around most of the game, such tactics could result in either Washington or Johnson being matched up quite often on the other Los Angeles outside cornerback, Troy Hill. Hill, who took over as a starter several weeks ago, has yet to be really tested. Rudolph should go after Hill early and often on the outside as that’s the one defensive back the Steelers wide receivers should be able to have some success against.
Alternative running – Will the Steelers offense be able to run the football effectively against the Rams defense on Sunday without Conner? We’re about to find out and we might see a new offensive line combination as well. Regardless, the Steelers offense should use quite a bit of run-game alternatives on Sunday against the Rams complete with quick wide receiver screens and designed running back dump offs. Last week, running back Jaylen Samuels caught 13 passes for 73 yards and six of those were successful plays with a few even coming on third downs. Diminutive rookie running back Tony Brooks-James is expected to dress again and getting the ball to him out in space might have very positive results as well.
Stop streaking – The Steelers enter Sunday’s game against the having turned the football over at least in 15 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. That streak absolutely must end on Sunday against the Rams if the Steelers want to have any shot at beating Los Angeles at Heinz Field. In four games this season the Steelers have turned the football over two times or more. With the Steelers unlikely to win the explosive play battle on Sunday by two, they’ll likely need to win the turnover battle by two to come out victorious. Rudolph mist be careful with the football against the Rams and fumbles just can’t happen. Stop the turnover streak on Sunday at Heinz Field and there’s a good chance an upset happens.