Five Storylines Ahead of Rams-Steelers

QB evaluations, running back rotations & and a homecoming

Matt Koll
November 08, 2019 - 12:12 pm
Mike Tomlin & Mason Rudolph

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Another unique opportunity to watch the Steelers against a west coast team presents itself Sunday when the LA Rams come to Heinz Field. With little recent history between the two, here are some storylines I'm looking at in this one to keep in mind while you're taking it all in on Sunday evening. 

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5. How Desperate Are You? 

The Rams are in somewhat unfamilar territory coming into the game. The defending NFC champions suddenly aren't even the best team in their own division. In fact, in terms of overall record and even head to head matchup, they're not even the 2nd best. San Francisco sits undefeated at 8-0 and Seattle at 7-3 ahead of 5-3 Los Angeles.

It seems like week to week, the Steelers are fighting for their season. Just to keep slim wild card hopes alive. It's no different this week for Pittsburgh, and Oakland's win on Thursday Night Football actually vaulted the Raiders to the 7th seed in the AFC standings ahead of the Steelers. 

Regardless of differing conference, both of these teams desperately need a win just to keep pace. I am of the belief that good coaches, and good teams for that matter, usually win coming off their bye weeks. You give a good coach an extra week to prepare and they don't screw up the opportunity to bring that preparation to fruition. The Rams are doing just that and Sean McVay is widely regarded as one of the best young coaches in the game. 

On the other hand, the Rams are a west coast team coming to the east coast which is supposed to be a factor in things, I guess. But, I'm starting to wonder about that theory more and more after seeing the Seahawks come to Pittsburgh for a 1:00 game and win and watching this Steelers team go out to LA (or wherever the heck the Chargers play) and win on a Sunday night.  

Both teams will be pulling out all the stops and holding nothing back in fear of being trampled on and forgotten about in the standings. 

4. Aaron Donald In His Backyard 

The man has his name on a building here. He was born here. Raised here. Played here in both high school and college. Once called Heinz Field his home stadium and now, for the first time, gets to play in it as a member of the away team. Get ready to be blanketed by highlights, video packages and stories of his youth from the FOX broadcast as they are likely to be all over this angle during the game. 

Arguably the most disruptive defensive player in the league, Donald has risen to super stardom out in LA and has drawn the most double teams in the league for opposing offensive lines as a result. The doubles have caused the Rams to move him around more this year, outside of his normal defensive tackle position. Donald has been moved over to line up against guards and both side of the line, has slid out to take on tackles and even still with go straight up the middle on the center. When he demands that much attention, sometimes it takes some creativity to to be effective and that's exactly what LA and Donald have done. 

Related: Cautious Approach by Rudolph, Fichtner to be Tested

 AD still has 5 sacks on the year, two forced fumbles and 8 QB hits in all, even with the extra attention. So how do you "stop" him, if there is such a thing? 

According to former NFL offensive lineman now NFL analyst Geoff Schwartz, the best way is to be on your snap counts as an offensive lineman. Schwartz said on The Fan this week that if Donald gets that split second head start on the offensive lineman once the ball is snapped, it could be game over. He has the leverage and the strength to push you back, throw you around and even take on another blocker in the process en route to sacking your quarterback. 

The last time he went up against the Steelers, the Rams were still in St. Louis, Donald was only in his second season and he still recorded a sack along with three tackles for loss. 

3. JuJu vs. Jalen 

Remember when Antonio Brown had that ridiculous game streak of catching at least 5 passes for 50 yards? Good times. 

It also helped that he had Ben Roethlisberger and similar to comparing Ben's rookie season to Mason​ Rudolph this year, maybe he should always be comparing JuJu to AB as the #1 receiver. I think we've accepted that while crazy (see his Twitter from Thursday) Brown is and was a tremendous individual talent that really can't be duplicated. 

But using 5 for 50 as a baseline for what a top receiver should be expected to do on a weekly basis, JuJu has only had gone over 5 receptions twice this season in 8 games. Moreover, he has more games in which he caught exactly 3 balls (3) than over 5 (2). Despite incessant pestering and questioning about his attitude toward not getting the ball very much, he has remained positive and has reiterated that he just wants to win games. 

Things don't like they are getting any easier this week against arguably the best cornerback in the league, Jalen Ramsey. If Ramsey shadows JuJu throughout, he may be on his way toward another 3 catch game rather than more than 5. Smith-Schuster is still this team's most dynamic weapon in the passing game and the Steelers should try to move him around to get more favorable matchups and put him in better position to make plays. Maybe you try him in the slot instead of keeping him on the outside. Maybe you get him the ball closer the line of scrimmage instead of running his routes deeper down the field. 

It shouldn't be a force feed of JuJu because he isn't making it be that way. But you do wonder what the issue really is behind the down year. Is it Mason Rudolph not getting it to him or not seeing him? Is it JuJu not being able to get open? Is it Randy Fichtner not being able to draw successful plays for him? 

Fichtner and Co. will be put to the test to have their #1 guy completely eliminated by Ramsey. Let's just hope Diontae Johnson and James Washington are ready to step up. 

2. Running Back Rotations

Both teams have gone through a whirlwind of injuries at the running back spot. We know about the Steelers' issues, with James Conner being out last week and, as of this writing, likely this week. Jaylen Samuels missed time earlier this year and rookie Benny Snell is still out after minor knee surgery. The Rams have felt the Steelers pain, so to speak. 

Before the season even began, Todd Gurley was reported to have arthritic issues in his knee that limited him in the offseason and has stretched into the season. It's clear the Rams are putting him on a "pitch count" of sorts, trying to keep his as healthy as possible or as long as possible. This will be the first week that LA will have both Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown healthy and ready to go behind him. Watch how they deploy their running back by committee as compared to how the Steelers deploy theirs with Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds.

Last week, after a couple of failed running attempts from Samuels, it seems as if OC Randy Fichtner essentially abandoned Samuels in the run game and only used him as a short passing option for Rudolph. Samuels ended up with 13 receptions, but only just over 70 yards to show for it. I would expect a better balance of actual carries from the Rams with their backs and I'd expect Trey Edmunds to be in there in more power running situations as he was last week. Of course, Rosie Nix's availability throws a wrench in this whole thing as well. The Steelers love to be able to utilize him in the run game, especially when they want to pound the ball up the middle. If he's out, I'm not sure how effective this running game is going to be and really, how often they are going to go to it. 

We'll see if Samuels is used more like a weapon than just a security blanket and what that split in actual carries will be if James Conner is indeed out. 

1.​ Mason vs. Legitimate Defense 

It's going to take all season to properly evaluate Mason Rudolph. At least in my mind. I don't see him falling off a cliff in his progression the rest of the way to signal that he's a bust and I don't see him taking off tremendously in this one or over the next few weeks to prove he's Ben's heir. I think it's somewhere in the middle, where week to week we are going to see what he's got. We're going to see what he's improved on and what he's capable of at the NFL level. 

So far, it's been a lot of the short passing game with the occasional deep ball thrown in. I don't see virtually any connections on timing routes or those tight window passes in traffic that you see NFL quarterbacks make game to game, outside of the ball that bounced off JuJu's hands for an interception. That gives me pause in my confidence in him and in the Steelers being able to win this game. 

Last week was Mason's opportunity to beat a winning team. He did that. Now it's his opportunity to beat a legitimate, star-studded defense with an elite pass rusher and an elite cornerback. 

Let the evaluating proceed. 

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