Coming off their bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers may look at this weeks game as if it were Week 1 of the season — a clean slate with lots of potential. Now a game behind the Ravens for the lead in the AFC North heading into Week 7, the team’s destiny lies in its coaches and its players.
Facing a Rams team in a very similar boat sitting at 3-3, looking to grow as they too are a fairly young team across the board. But they are behind in the division in which the division leading, all-world San Francisco 49ers, were brought down to earth while visiting the Cleveland Browns this past weekend. They still stand two games behind the 49ers and are looking to try and keep pace.
Rams HC Sean McVay is one of the brighter offensive minds in the league and one of it’s top coaches bringing home the Lombardi just a couple seasons ago. Although the Rams biggest stars are aging in DT Aaron Donald and QB Matthew Stafford, the team has a core of youth beginning to make names for themselves as the season progresses.
To come out with a victory this week, the Steelers will need to not start sluggish as they have been off for two weeks and are on the road on the West Coast. History suggests that Mike Tomlin lead squads struggle on these trips but were very fortunate to be making the journey after their week off, which also should have given them more time to prepare as well as heal.
Key #1: Control the clock
Unless the Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly become the greatest show on turf, this is how Pittsburgh keeps themselves in every game. Ball control is going to be essential against the Rams. With Matthew Stafford and a core of young as well as accomplished skill players, the Rams can put up points quickly. The Steelers must control the clock to keep the defense fresh as until further notice, the defense drives this team. The offense only needs to do its part.
With Steelers WR Dionte Johnson expected to return from injury this week, the playbook will open up. Johnson is at the core of the play calling until the running game can become more consistent. After losing TE Pat Freiermuth for a week as well with a hamstring injury, his return also should help the Steelers cause offensively.
With Kenny Pickett as well as George Pickens forced to up their game due to Johnson’s absence, his return could actually kickstart the offense and allow it to become more than a “don’t make mistakes; hold onto the ball” unit.
This game can very well be a huge step for the offense and the team. First job is to “hold onto the ball and control the clock,” then go from there.
Key #2: Stop the run
Kyren Williams is an ascending star for the Rams. Averaging almost five yards per carry with six touchdowns on the season, the second year player out of Notre Dame has become a key playmaker for the Rams. Undersized by today’s standards, Williams is shifty with homerun speed and when he gets the chains moving, it allows Sean McVay to open up the playbook. Something the Steelers would like to avoid. Much like Pittsburgh, the Rams offensive line was reworked in the off season and has gelled together quickly. Pittsburgh’s own Kevin Dotson has settled in nicely actually grading out as one of the better lineman in the league. Unfortunately for LA, after suffering an ankle injury in Week 6, the team will be without him this week against the Steelers.
Injury is never a good thing but it does lighten the load for the Steelers as it looks as though the Rams run game will rely on rookie RB Zach Evans. Evans works well out of the backfield and is very shifty in his own right. In McVay’s system, sometimes the standard is the standard. See one Puka Nacua for an example. So stopping the run even without Williams is still key against the Rams if Pittsburgh expects to walk away with a victory.
Key #3: Get after Rams QB Matthew Stafford
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford can still sling the football at the prime age of 35. The Rams offense is in the top third of the league statistically and Stafford is the field general. With one Super Bowl win in tow after the huge trade sent him to LA from the Lions, Stafford is looking for one more ring.
McVay has put the pieces in place around him for another run and it’s beginning to gel. With the recent return of All-Pro WR Cooper Kupp, Stafford is a happy camper. In Kupp’s absence, rookie wideout Puka Nacua burst onto the scene in Kupp like fashion. With 50 receptions on the season already, he and Kupp on the field at the same time can be a nightmare for an opposing defense. Pittsburgh has been challenged in the secondary this season trying to find the player combination and scheme to slow down today’s wide receivers.
If you can’t stop it on the back end, stop it before it starts. Enter TJ Watt. For Pittsburgh to walk out of LA with a win, they must pressure Stafford. Having two receivers that are superior route runners is going to be a very difficult challenge for the best of secondary’s. The only combatant is to disrupt the passer. Look for Pittsburgh to unleash the goons Sunday early to try and keep Stafford from raining dimes all over the field as he has done most of his career.
This is a big game for both squads as they try to keep pace in their division. Coming off the bye should have Pittsburgh both physically and mentally rested for the post season push. Now it’s up to the team to execute.