When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is plenty to be happy about, especially after their 43-18 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. However, will they be able to duplicate such success against the St. Louis Rams this Sunday? We take a look back, and a look ahead at what to expect from the black and gold in Week 3.
The Killer D's
We all know what to expect from the Killer B's - Bell, Brown, Bryant, and Big Ben. The Triplets of Ben, Brown, and Bell in particular form the core of the offense and the team. With Bryant and Bell benched to begin the season, there were legitimate concerns about how the first few games would play out. Enter the Killer D's - Dupree, Darrius, and DeAngelo. These players have contributed to keep the team competitive in Bell and Bryant's absence.
Much like Martavis Bryant, Bud Dupree was expected to take a year to develop before becoming an impact player. Unlike Bryant, Dupree didn't even have to wait until midseason. He's made his presence felt with two sacks in two games, one more than Randy Gregory, Shane Ray, and Vic Beasley combined. He's indeed raw and, though he may at times look ridiculous hopping back and forth as though this might somehow confuse his blocker, at other times he shows ridiculous change-of-direction ability in chasing down the QB for a sack. He's going to get a lot better and that's exciting news for a player already playing like a nice situational pass-rusher.
Not Dead Yet
Mark Twain is famous for remarking, "the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" after a newspaper prematurely ran his obituary. Darrius Heyward-Bey could say the same thing after another solid game on Sunday, bringing his early-season total to 135 yards and one touchdown. Heyward-Bey not only has been productive, but has silenced doubters with remarkable efficiency, catching 8 of 12 targets. He's on pace for a 1,000-yard season with eight TD's, but he'll never get there with Martavis Bryant returning to steal the great majority of his targets. He deserves credit for his involvement while it lasts, though.
Big props to D-Will
Ah, DeAngelo, we hardly knew you. We sure liked what we saw, though. With outstanding performances in Week 1 and 2, highlighted by six yards per carry on 21 rushes against the Patriots and three touchdowns against the 49'ers, Williams has cemented himself into the hearts of the Steelers faithful more fully and suddenly than any free-agent pickup in recent memory. Yet, his touches will likely be limited for the rest of the season. Le'Veon Bell returns this week from suspension and looks to dominate RB touches, as LeGarette Blount notoriously lamented. It wasn't purely a "Bell-cow" philosophy (pun intended, sorry) that kept Blount on the bench, though, he just didn't earn it. Blount looked dominant in the Week-3 rout of the Panthers but, outside of that game, he gained only 2.7 yards per rush. Williams is a much better runner and will not be as completely overlooked for carries as Blount was. The spotlight is definitely shifting to Bell, though, and D-Will deserves some recognition as he leaves center stage at least.
Give some love to GM Kevin Colbert
Another individual that deserves some credit is Kevin Colbert. The Steelers GM has taken flack for his inability to rebuild the roster through the draft, relying on free agent pickups to fill the void left by mid and late round draft picks that didn't pan out. The truth is, though, that Colbert is far from unique in this respect.
Ozzie Newsome, arguably the best known GM in the game, has relied heavily on free agency to build his team. Steve Smith, Sr. (WR1), Eugene Monroe (LT), Jeremy Zuttah (C), Justin Forsett (RB), Elvis Dumervil (OLB), Daryl Smith (ILB), Chris Canty (DE), Will Hill III (SS), Kendrick Lewis (FS), and Kyle Arrington (CB3) were all picked and developed by other teams. Ravens fans like to say Newsome drafts linebackers like Colbert drafts wide receivers, but Colbert doesn't have two high profile free agents starting at WR, nor does Newsome's "uncanny" ability to find players like Suggs and Mosley in the middle of the first round equate to Colbert building the best WR corps in the league from the 3rd round and back.
Since 2009, Bill Bellichick has had exclusive control over personnel decisions, after sharing the responsibility with Scott Pioli before that. New England likewise depends on a slew of free agents, LeGarrette Blount (RB), Brandon LaFell (WR2), Rob Ninkovich (OLB), Alan Branch (DT), Tarrell Brown (CB2), Scott Chandler (TE2), Bradley Fletcher (CB3), Danny Amendola (WR3), and Jabaal Sheard (DE3).
Compare that with Kevin Colbert's lineup, which includes free agents DeAngelo Williams (RB2), Brandon Boykin (CB3), Ross Cockrell (CB2), Will Allen (SS), Mike Mitchell (FS), and Arthur Moats (OLB). Colbert's recent free agent "splurges" are not uncommon for high level player management. It is not a sign of unsuccessful drafting, it is a sign of not amazingly successful drafting. Over the long haul, every GM has to make use of free agency. The good ones make good use of free agency, and Colbert's success with DeAngelo Williams and Darrius Heyward-Bey is part of why the Steelers have been competitive thus far in the season and are in good shape moving ahead.
Getting their first win on the road
The Steelers aim for their first road win of the young season in St. Louis against a Rams team that has shown plenty of both good and bad. Last year, the Rams finished at 6-10, giving up over 30 points in 7 of those losses. In defense of their defense, though, the offense actually gave up 7 touchdowns over the year and special teams two more. They've shown flashes of outright dominance as well, beating Denver 22-7 and shutting out Oakland and Washington, 52-0 and 24-0 respectively.
The common thought is that last year's Rams were held back by woeful play from backup QB's, and there's some truth to that. The Rams offense had some big games as well, but overall was a handicap. More than just giving opponents short fields, the Rams offense was plagued with bad turnovers, giving up 8 defensive touchdowns on interceptions and fumble returns to go with two special teams touchdowns given up. They were 0-7 when giving up a defensive or special teams score, and would've been 3-4 in those games if not for those touchdowns given up. Conversely, the 2014 Rams were 6-3 when they didn't give up defensive or special teams touchdowns.
The bad news for Rams fans is that backup QB's Shaun Hill and Austin Davis aren't solely to blame. Davis completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,000 yards with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 8 starts in 2014. Shaun Hill completed 63 percent of his passes also, for 1,657 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his 8 starts. Those numbers aren't good, but add them up and they're not that different from Sam Bradford's production, typified by 60 percent completions for 3,700 yards 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions en route to a 7-9 record when he started all 16 games in 2012. Worse, they're not too different from Nick Foles, the ostensible savior of the team, whose 60 percent completion rate, 2,163 yards and 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in 8 starts in 2014 makes him look right at home in a Rams uniform. Rams fans hope Foles' spectacular 2013 production can be duplicated in St. Louis, but until proven otherwise Foles is the quarterback he was when he was last on the field, and that is not a very good one. Todd Gurley was drafted as a dynamic RB to take pressure off of Foles, but he has still not returned from injury and is unlikely to impact this Sunday's game. All this basically means the Rams are not really improved offensively from last year, or the years before when they were equally bad, at least not yet.
That brings us to this year, and so far we've seen more of the same: good Rams and bad Rams. The Rams looked solid in a 34-31 defeat of Seattle despite giving up touchdowns on a punt return and an fumble return (maybe their offense should participate in tackling drills?). The Rams looked feeble in a 24-10 loss to the Redskins that was 24-0 already at the end of the first half. Foles has yet to throw an interception this year, looking in that regard much more like his highly efficient 2013 self more than the turnover prone 2014 self. However, Foles was responsible for the fumble returned for a touchdown by Seattle.
It's tough to know what to expect from such a Jekyll and Hyde opponent. The Rams have effectively contained quarterbacks like Petyon Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Tony Romo, and been shredded by Colin Kaepernick and Eli Manning. This year already they've held Marshawn Lynch to 73 yards (24 yards coming on one play), and given up 123 yards and 2 touchdowns to rookie 3rd rounder Matt Jones. The Rams defense can shut down both run and pass, and they can be victimized by both run and pass.
What this suggests to me is that the Rams success is very game plan driven rather than personnel driven. If it were personnel driven you would have a clear trend of beating worse teams and losing to better teams, a clear map of where their strengths and weakness are according to what matchups they succeed or struggle in. We don't have that. Thus, it seems that it's more about guessing right or guessing wrong. If Fisher is able to take his opponent by surprise with an effective game plan that matches up well with what his opponent is trying to do, the Rams look great. If Fisher guesses wrong, and is taken by surprise, they look pretty awful.
What that means for the Steelers is that they have a better chance than most teams. Part of that is obviously because they are better than most teams. The other part is that the Steelers are tremendously balanced, at least offensively. That makes them really hard to game plan for and gives them the option of adjusting effectively on the fly even if they do encounter an effective defensive game plan. Don't forget about the defense either. The most constant feature in Rams wins and losses is that they have a real tendency to give up big defensive plays. The Steelers have collected some dynamic playmakers on defense that are capable of playing takeaway and making the most of takeaways. An individual that should not be overlooked in this capacity is actually the veteran "Big Play" Willie Gay who had 3 touchdowns last year and 1 the year before.
Beware the "trap game"
This week has "trap game" written all over it, but fortunately the Steelers have Denver's shocking loss to St. Louis last year to remind them not to take this team lightly. They also have the advantage of being by far the better team, and Le'Veon Bell at least will not be playing on cruise control in his first game back from suspension. The Steelers should win this game fairly easily.