When the Steelers started their current three-game stretch of home games, it was pretty much a given that they needed to win two of them to remain relevant in the AFC playoff picture.
Given that the team was floundering at 2-4 heading into the stretch against the Dolphins, Colts and Rams, nothing was considered a given, even against then-winless Miami two weeks ago.
That's the reality of the situation for a team playing without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the remainder of the season.
Two games and two wins later, the Steelers find themselves winners of four of their past five games to get to 4-4 heading into Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams (5-3) at Heinz Field.
Thing is, the first two games were more important, having come against AFC teams. With an NFC opponent coming in, the Steelers would like to win, but they also realize that while every game is important, some aren't quite as important as others.
"You want to win every game, don’t get me wrong — I just know it takes a couple wins (to get you going)," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "You’ve got to play the whole season and then it’s crunch time. You start riding at the end and see how it plays out, how the picture is and divisional rounds and everything like that. You’ve got to hone in. This time of the year, it’s no BS-ing around."
No BS-ing around, indeed.
And the Steelers showed by winning the past two games -- and even in their losses -- they're a team that should be taken seriously.
"If you look at the Steelers and what they've done, you have to be impressed," said FOX Sports' Chris Myers, who will call the game along with former Cowboys fullback Darryl Johnston. "If you look at the first three weeks of the season, they lost Ben Roethlisberger and then played the Patriots, Seahawks and 49ers. But give Mike Tomlin credit, they've rebounded, kept things together and they're remaining in the conversation."
A win against the Rams, the defending NFC champions, would send a clear signal to the rest of the league the Steelers can't be taken lightly. And considering the Rams are one of just three teams remaining on the Steelers' second half schedule that have a winning record, a win in this game would be huge.
But it won't be easy. The Rams come in also having won two games in a row. And like the Steelers, they're currently seventh in the conference standings, just on the outside looking in at a playoff spot. The Steelers will also being playing their second consecutive game without leading rusher and touchdown leader James Conner, who will miss the game with a shoulder injury.
With eight games remaining, that stretch run is about to start. And with a short week coming out of this game -- the Steelers play Thursday night at Cleveland -- the Steelers would rather take a chance on Conner being ready for that game.
The Rams know all about stretch runs. They are readying themselves for the same thing. Only in the NFC, the road to the postseason looks a little more rocky because the conference is deeper.
"You've got eight games left for sure," said Rams head coach Sean McVay. "The narrative is written every week, and we talk about that. We've got the ability to write our story, and this is chapter nine. We're guaranteed 16 chapters, but every week continues to get more important as you hopefully take care of your business. So much is to be determined over these next eight weeks based on teams playing each other, stuff like that. You drive yourself crazy going through all of the scenarios because the only thing we can do is to try and find a way to get our sixth win and go 1-0 this week."
When the Steelers fell to 0-3, they lost the ability to look at the long term and have been forced to live the cliché -- they've taken things one game at a time.
It's why Tomlin said -- and he couldn't believe he was saying it after beating the Colts — he was glad to be at 4-4.
"I don’t look at it from a big picture perspective. I’m just trying to meet the challenges week in and week out," Tomlin said. "At the turn, for a moment after that game, I paused just to take a look at where we were after eight games, but I immediately backed into my singular focus, as I expect our football team to be. We’ve got a good team coming in here this week off of a bye. We’ve got to keep the train rolling, and so we’re focused on that."
• Who: Steelers (4-4) vs. Rams (5-3)
• When: 4:25 p.m.
• Where: Heinz Field
• TV: WPGH, FOX
• Radio: 102.5 WDVE, ESPN Pittsburgh
• Satellite: SiriusXM 226, Internet 826
• Forecast: 42 degrees, 50% chance rain/snow
• Lots open: 12:30 p.m.
• Will call open: 2:25 p.m.
• Gates open: 2:25 p.m.
• Boxscore: NFL Game Center
• Odds: MyBookie.AG
THE INJURY REPORT
Steelers: RB Benny Snell (knee, out), G Ramon Foster (concussion, out), RB James Conner (shoulder, out), FB Roosevelt Nix (knee, out), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (foot, questionable)
Rams: WR Brandin Cooks (concussion, out), LB Bryce Hager (shoulder, out), WR JoJo Natson (illness, questionable)
THE KEY VARIABLE
Aaron Donald is the two-time defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year and will be playing in his first career NFL game back in Pittsburgh, where he grew up and starred at Pitt.
Needless to say, Donald is excited about the opportunity.
"It's going to be cool," Donald said. "Going back to Heinz Field where I played college at, and (against) a team I grew up watching and rooting for, to go out there and play in my hometown, too, it's definitely a good feeling."
He shouldn't be upset with the Steelers if they're not all that excited about seeing him return. After all, not only do they have to deal with trying to keep him from ruining their offensive game plan, they would like nothing more than to send him back to Los Angeles with a loss.
"He’s just one of those guys who is extremely talented," David DeCastro said. "Everybody is going to get a chance to block him. We’ve just got to stay schedule and stay out of those situations where he can really tear it up."
That means staying on schedule on offense. The Steelers can't afford to get into situations where Donald, who led the NFL with 20.5 sacks last season, can wreck their offense.
Donald got off to a slow start this season, recording just one sack in the Rams' first five games. But he's got four sacks in their past three games.
"It’s a combination of things with Aaron. Obviously, he has the talent. But on top of that, he has the work ethic," said Mark Barron, who played the previous five seasons with the Rams. "He does it every day. He puts that same level of work in every day. There’s never a day off, it’s the same level every day."
Because of Donald, the Steelers are mixing things up a little on their offensive line. With Ramon Foster set to miss his second game with a concussion, the Steelers are moving right tackle Matt Feiler, their strongest offensive lineman, to left guard. Second-year player Chuks Okorafor will start at right tackle, with B.J. Finney, who started in place of Foster in last week's win over the Colts, moving to the bench.
It's a drastic move, but sometimes great players require drastic changes.
"As a player, he’s as good, if not better, than advertised," said Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. "He’s disruptive. He’s the best football player in this league, in my opinion, right now. He’s doing his job, and his job is to disrupt, and that’s what he does."
And he makes the players around him better. Clay Matthews, who had just 3.5 sacks last season with the Packers, has looked rejuvenated with the Rams this season, recording six sacks in five games. He has missed the past four games after suffering a broken jaw, but is expected to return for this game.
Donald isn't the lone star on this defense, either. The Rams traded for former Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey three weeks ago, giving them star power both at the line of scrimmage and in the secondary.
Ramsey figures to follow JuJu Smith-Schuster around when he's lined up outside -- assuming Smith-Schuster plays. He was added to the injury report Friday with a foot issue.
"No disrespect to him, he's not Antonio Brown," Ramsey told reporters Friday. "I matched up with Antonio for two years there and that was a good battle, and I held my own in those battles. Now I'm going against a different person, a different body type, a different receiver a little bit. He can make plays, but I'm playing my game. I'm not really worried about it."
But players such as Ramsey can be avoided. Donald is going to be right there in the middle of the Rams' defensive line every play.
"You have to simply pick your poison," Tomlin said. "If you have two people on Donald, then guys like (Dante) Fowler and Clay Matthews are in one-on-ones and they are formidable players in their own right. That is what makes them unbelievably challenging. Couple that with the fact that they thoughtfully move him around in base and in sub, it is going to be a big job working to minimize his impact and their impact on the game via the rush."
THE HISTORY LESSON
As part of the NFL's 100-year anniversary, the league is celebrating previous Super Bowl matchups. And this game is a big part of that, with this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Steelers' victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
The game matched the league's two best offenses, as the Steelers, despite a league-high 52 turnovers -- that's not a misprint -- led the league at 391 yards per game, while the Rams were second at 378. The Steelers also had the AFC's best defense, but had gone 4-4 on the road in the regular season en route to a 12-4 record.
That was important because the Rams, playing a large portion of the season without starting quarterback Pat Haden, were basically playing a home game, with the game being held at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles.
It wasn't their home stadium, but it might as well have been. And that was important for the Rams, who became the first 9-7 team make it to the Super Bowl, beating the Cowboys and Buccaneers in the playoffs.
The game went back and forth in the first three quarters as the Rams turned the Steelers over three times -- all on Terry Bradshaw interceptions -- and took a 19-17 lead into the fourth quarter after a halfback-option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith went for a 24-yard touchdown.
But Bradshaw, who had thrown a 47-yard bomb to Lynn Swann for a score in the third quarter, got hot in the final quarter, leading the Steelers on a pair of touchdown drives.
First, he connected with John Stallworth on a highlight-reel 73-yard touchdown pass with 12:15 remaining in the fourth quarter. Then he directed a 70-yard scoring drive -- getting a big chunk of it on a 45-yard pass to Stallworth -- in the closing minutes to put the game away on a 1-yard touchdown run by Franco Harris.
The Rams turned the ball over on downs and Bradshaw, who would be named the game's MVP after throwing for 309 yards, two touchdowns (and despite the three interceptions), took a knee to give the Steelers their fourth Super Bowl victory in six seasons.
Harris was held to 46 yards on 20 carries, but did score two touchdowns, while catching three passes for 66 yards. Stallworth had just three receptions in the game, but they went for 126 yards and a touchdown, while Swann hauled in five passes for 79 yards and a score.
Vince Ferragamo, subbing for Haden, threw for 212 yards and was intercepted once while being sacked four times, one time each by John Banaszak, Robin Cole, Steve Furness and J.T. Thomas. Jack Lambert had the Steelers' interception, as the Steelers avenged losses in 1971, 1975 and 1978 to the Rams, who led the all-time series, 12-1-2 at that time.
[caption id="attachment_913728" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mike Hilton. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
THE MAIN MATCHUP
The Steelers have been struggling on offense this season, ranking 28th in the league in total offense and in red zone touchdown percentage.
Despite that, they're 18th in the league in scoring offense, averaging 22 points per game. How are they doing it?
The defense has been extremely opportunistic, forcing 22 turnovers, all of which have come in their past seven games. The Steelers are plus-11 in turnover margin, with the defense setting the offense up for points -- or scoring them itself -- on a regular basis.
The defense will have its hands full against the Rams, who have the league's eighth-best scoring offense at 26.8 points per game. Quarterback Jared Goff has plenty of weapons, with Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson offering a stable of running backs to complement receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, along with tight end Gerald Everett.
The Steelers have allowed an average of just 18 points per game since acquiring free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick , a span of six games. If they can hold the Rams to around that total, they'll have a chance to win. If the Rams get closer to their average, it will likely mean the Steelers lose.
They don't want to get into a shootout.
Enter Barron. His teammates have been picking Barron's brain all week, looking for hints and tendencies, anything that might help them win their matchup this week.
"You’ve got to try to get as much input as possible," slot corner Mike Hilton told me. "He was there the whole year with them last year. He pretty much knows them in and out. We’ve been able to talk to Mark a little and get some insight."
What can they learn?
"With him being on that defense and going against that offense every day, he might know a call here or there or a dummy call, something simple," Hilton said. "Any tips we can use to give us an advantage, we’re going to use."
Barron gets it. He was peppered with questions all week. But he also knows the Rams have likely changed a lot of the verbiage and checks that they used last season.
"I feel like some people do make too much about that. I can tell them things, but they can see the same things on film," Barron said. "We have smart guys on offense, who are going to go and study, and we have a coaching staff that is going to analyze that tape and see the things I might be telling them anyway. You can try to make what you’re going to make out of it. It helps, but you’ll see the same things on tape."
What the Steelers have seen on tape is a talented offense. While the Rams haven't used Gurley as heavily this season -- he's averaging just 14 touches per game, down from more than 20 in each of the past two seasons -- he's a dangerous running back.
"He’s humongous and he can fly," Hilton said of Gurley. "We know what he’s capable of and we know that’s where their offense starts, so we’ve got to slow him down and try to get them into some uncomfortable situations."
One thing the Rams have shown is that Goff is extremely comfortable targeting Kupp on third downs. Kupp, who is returning from a torn ACL suffered at this time last year, leads the NFL with 21 third-down receptions. Overall, Kupp leads the Rams with 58 catches for 782 yards and five touchdowns.
"You’ve got to know their personnel. A lot of elite personnel tells you a lot about the team," Fitzpatrick said. "Third downs, (Kupp) gets a lot of targets, so you have to focus on him. But they’ve got other good receivers. You can’t overthink it or lock your eyes on him on third downs. You’ve got to know what Goff is looking at and what he wants."
The Steelers do catch a break that Brandin Cooks, the deep threat in the Rams offense, will miss this game with a concussion. But that's about the only break they'll get if they can't consistently win on first down and get the Rams into second-and-long and third-and-long.
The defense is playing with a lot of confidence. It's been on a roll. And it feels it can have success against any team.
"We’re flying around and we’re gelling," Hilton said. "Everybody is flying around, and most of all, everybody’s healthy. We’re getting a feel for how everybody likes to communicate. We’re playing well. We’ve just got to keep it up."
• "A million dollars? His name should be everywhere. It should be on the street (shoot)! It should be Aaron Donald Road if you give a million dollars. Rightfully so, though. It’s awesome." -- Pouncey on Donald giving $1 million to Pitt and having his name on the team's practice facility
• "We’ve got to be better. When you get down there that close, you’ve got to score and punch it in. It’s frustrating to kick field goals when you’re that close. Guys have to be on the page a little more." DeCastro on the Steelers' red zone issues
• "It will be cool, never being there and knowing the history there and knowing everything that's gone on on that field. It's very similar to a place like Lambeau or something like that. You do feel the history and you do feel their crowd and passion of that city. It will be fun. It's one I'm looking forward to." -- Goff on playing in Pittsburgh
THE TEN DATA POINTS
• According to Next Gen Stats, Fitzpatrick's speed on his 96-yard interception return for a touchdown last week reached 21.48 MPH. That was the fastest recorded time for a ball carrier in Week 9 and the 11th fastest time of 2019.
• How good have Joe Haden and Steven Nelson been this season? They have collectively allowed just 453 yards and three TDs on 66 targets (6.86 yards per attempt).
• The Rams have allowed the league’s fourth-fewest completions of 20-plus yards (18).
• In their last five games, the Rams have allowed opposing tight ends to catch 25 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns.
• In the past two seasons, Goff has thrown 36 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions at home. On the road, those numbers fall to 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
• Since acquiring Fitzpatrick, the Steelers have allowed nine touchdown passes and have 11 interceptions in six games.
• Despite being sacked just 12 times this season, Goff has been hit 40 times. The Steelers have 62 quarterback hits this season.
• Rudolph has had 2.82 seconds to throw the ball on average this season, the eight-highest in the NFL.
• The Steelers are the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher or have a wide receiver go over 100 yards. They have allowed one 100-yard receiving game this season, that to Chargers' tight end Hunter Henry on eight catches.
• The Steelers lead the NFL in scoring percentage inside the 20, having put points on the board 95.2 percent of the time in those situations. But they are 28th in red zone touchdown percentage at 38.1 percent.
Last week's lineup was posted 137.84 points, as Matthew Stafford, Josh Jacobs, Marvin Jones and Jaylen Samuels were all big hits. Cameron Brate at tight end not only didn't catch a pass, he didn't even get a target. Ugh. Today's lineup will feature the Sunday and Monday games with a $50,000 salary limit.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston ($6,800) -- The Cardinals defense is 30th in the league against opposing quarterbacks. And this promises to be a track meet, with both teams going up and down the field.
Running backs: Devin Singletary ($5,000), David Montgomery ($5,300) -- Devin Singletary has gotten more and more of the touches for the Bills and the Browns are 27th against opposing running backs. Montgomery has been getting increasingly more runs in recent weeks and faces a soft Detroit defense.
Wide receivers: Chris Godwin ($7,400), Zach Pascal ($5,300), Cooper Kupp ($7,300) -- Godwin has a great matchup and stacks with Winston. Pascal is the last healthy receiver in Indianapolis and is a sneaky start against the Dolphins. Kupp lines up almost exclusively in the slot, where the Steelers have had issues all season.
Tight end: Mike Gesicki ($3,100) -- The Colts have one of the worst tight end defenses in the league.
Flex: Marlon Mack ($7,000) -- Mack should have a nice day running at home against the Dolphins defense.
Defense: Steelers ($2,600) -- The Steelers at home are a bargain. They'll get sacks and even some turnovers this week, even if they happen to lose.
Dale Lolley (5-3): Goff's home-road splits for touchdowns and interceptions are shocking. He has 36 TDs and nine interceptions at home the past two seasons, compared to 21-17 on the road. That definitely gives me some pause here. Also, the Rams' defense is tough against the run, allowing 96.9 yards per game. That's troublesome with James Conner out. If the Steelers are to win, they'll need Rudolph to make some plays. And they'll need to pressure Goff, who has thrown seven interceptions and fumbled six times, losing four. They've done a good job with that, forcing multiple turnovers in seven consecutive games, but that's a tough streak to keep going. With a short work week coming up for a division game Thursday in Cleveland, also expect the Steelers to rotate a lot on defense. Rams, 20-16
Christopher Carter (3-5): Before these three straight home games, I thought this would be more of a winnable game than last week against the Colts. But the absence of T.Y. Hilton changed that last week, just like the Steelers' depleted running backs and the Rams' addition of Ramsey does here. It's a lot to ask Rudolph to keep the turnovers down and put the offense on a good scoring pace. I do see the Steelers' defense creating turnovers that keep the game close, but this is where Rudolph will be tasked with leading a late scoring drive and the Rams' pass rush, led by Donald, will pin their ears back. Rams, 23-18
Hunter Homistek (6-2): If the Steelers win this one, they'll make the playoffs. I believe that. I also believe the Steelers ... won't win this one. Stylistically, it's just a bad matchup — unless Rudolph takes a massive step forward. And I think it's too soon for that, especially against an L.A. defense with elite talents like Donald and Ramsey on that side of the ball. This will be a great learning experience for him, but it won't be his breakout game. And that'll be the difference in a close, turnover-laden, defensive battle. Rams, 23-17
Matt Sunday (5-3): This is one of those games where I'll want to photograph the defenses of both teams, because that's where the touchdowns might need to come from. Without Conner or Snell, and with Smith-Schuster appearing on the injury report Friday, I don't see how the offense is going to get past the work of Donald -- particularly with Foster out -- or Ramsey. Both defenses score in this one, but I think the Steelers' side gets to Goff and controls this one. Chris Boswell and the defense win it. Steelers, 22-16
Dejan Kovacevic (4-4): It's easy to overanalyze football, maybe more than any other sport, with all its scripted moving parts. Makes it feel more predictable, I suppose. Me, I'm headed in the other direction as it relates to these Steelers: If I see an opponents' offensive line that can't block, I'm not seeing a path for that particular opponent to withstand this particular defense. Not the way they're getting after the ball. Rudolph needs to be better than he's been, no doubt. But he's capable. And he'll have help. Steelers, 19-6
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