Job 1 for Steelers, Rams: Protect the QB ☕


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Steelers outside linebackers Bud Dupree (48) and T.J. Watt (90) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The NFL has gone out of its way to protect quarterbacks, but much like a sub-par offensive line, the protection doesn't always hold up.

It's a big reason why half of the league's 32 teams -- including the Steelers -- have been forced to use a different starting quarterback this season, as Ben Roethlisberger, the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, the Saints' Drew Brees and other star quarterbacks have all missed time.

Quarterback protection -- or lack thereof -- has been a big issue in the league this season and will be a factor when the Steelers (4-4) host the Rams (5-3) Sunday at Heinz Field.

The game will feature some of the best pass rushers in the NFL, as the Steelers currently have three players ranked in Pro Football Focus' top-20 pass rushers in 2019. The Rams only have one of the league's top 20, but that one, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, is the kind of generational talent who raises the level of play for those around him.

If you're tuning in to see quarterbacks get hit, this might be the game of the week.

The Steelers have T.J. Watt (3rd), Cameron Heyward (13th) and Bud Dupree (19th) in PFF's top 20. Donald, the reigning two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is second on that list, largely because he creates so much space for those around him.

While Donald has just five sacks thus far this season, he has created room for defensive end Donte Fowler to get 6.5 and linebacker Clay Matthews to get 6.0, despite the fact Matthews has missed three games with a broken jaw. He is expected to play this week against the Steelers.

"They move him around a lot," Mike Tomlin said of Donald. "All you’ve got to do is look at his sack reel, and it illustrates that. He’s got sacks against right guards, against left guards, against left tackles. I mean, this guy moves up and down the line of scrimmage.

"Regardless about how much they move him, we’re going to have to realistically work to get two people on him because that’s the type of player that he is, but it’s getting increasingly difficult because they supplement him with really quality players around him. Fowler and Matthews on the edge are a formidable tandem in their own right. Man, they’re dangerous people."

The Steelers have a few of their own.

While Folwer and Donald each have nine quarterback hits to go along with their sack totals, Watt has recorded 20 to go along with his 7.5 sacks. Dupree has nine hits and six sacks, while Heyward has eight hits and 4.5 sacks.

"They're physical," said Rams head coach Sean McVay of the Steelers. "They've always had that identity. They do a great job of aggressively mixing it up."

That could be a factor against the Rams. Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff has been sacked just 12 times this season, but opposing defenses have hit him 40 times. It's led to Goff turning the ball over 11 times this season -- seven on interceptions and four on fumbles.

The Steelers feel their pass rush can get to Goff, who has fumbled six times overall.

"We feel that every game as a unit," Dupree told me. "It’s the NFL, though, there are a lot of great players. There are a lot of great offensive lines. We just look forward to going against a good offensive line because it’s a bigger challenge. It brings the best out in you. People say, ‘Oh, they are good.’"

The Steelers have done a better job protecting their quarterbacks, despite being forced to use three different starters in their first eight games. Roethlisberger suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him midway through the Steelers' second game, while Mason Rudolph was knocked out of a game against the Ravens with a concussion a couple of weeks later, forcing the Steelers to turn to rookie Devlin Hodges for a week.

Rudolph is back and has been the league's best-protected quarterback in passing situations, as he's been sacked just six times all season. Overall, the Steelers have allowed an NFL-low eight sacks as a team and just 23 hits on their quarterbacks.

But they know they'll have their hands full with Donald.

"He’s just one of those guys who is extremely talented," All-Pro guard David DeCastro said. "Everybody is going to get a chance to block him. We’ve just got to stay on schedule and stay out of those situations where he can really tear it up."

But they will happen. The key is minimizing the damage.

Linebacker Mark Barron joined the Steelers as a free agent this season after spending the previous five years with the Rams. He's seen teams try everything they can to stop Donald.

Has he seen any of it work?

"No, I wouldn’t say so," Barron said. "People try to double him. Sometimes he beats them, sometimes he doesn’t. It’s one of those things that, at some point in the game, Aaron Donald is going to make a play. You just have to try and limit that."

The Rams will try to do the same with the Steelers' pass rush. But the Steelers feel they can do that regardless of the opponent, especially after getting five sacks and nine hits against the Colts last week.

"The whole week, coach kept saying this was the best o-line we were going to play to this point," said Dupree, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his two-sack performance against the Colts.

"It made us want to go out and dominate. This week, too, we’ve got another good offensive line. It’s a good back-to-back test for us."


If the Steelers are to win this game, it will be because they turn Goff over two or three times. That has been the key to success against the Rams. He's been intercepted four times and fumbled three others in the team's three losses.

Rudolph, meanwhile, has to get off to a quicker start. He's thrown interceptions on the Steelers' opening drive in each of his past two starts, though the pick against the Colts wasn't his fault.

He can't afford to do that against the Rams.

The Rams haven't allowed Goff to be sacked in their past two games, both wins, but that came against the Falcons and Bengals, neither of whom have good pass rushes. In a Week 6 loss at home to the 49ers, he was sacked four times, losing two fumbles as the Rams lost, 20-7.

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