Overview: In some ways, these teams are in identical situations, trying to build on short winning streaks and facing virtual ''must-win" games every week. Both teams are also somewhat banged up, with the Rams missing wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Pittsburgh Steelers going without starting running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Shuster listed as questionable. Both of these teams have fallen somewhat short of expectations this season, and continuing to do so on Sunday would be a severe blow to either team's playoff hopes.
Rams Offense vs. Steeler Defense: The Steelers are rated 11th in overall defense (just ahead of the Rams at 12). They are 16th in rush defense and 10th in pass defense. One thing the Steelers do pretty well is pressure the quarterback, and coming into this game ranked 4th in total sacks per game. Los Angeles Rams starting tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein will be severely tested, lining up against pass rushers T.J. Watt (7 sacks in 2019) and Bud Dupree (6 sacks). Whitworth has been showing his age this season, and Havenstein just has not played very well much of the time, so this could be a problem, especially since Rams quarterback Jared Goff is not the same player when he is under pressure. Will the Rams, go to more two-tight-end sets with Cooks out and the Steelers pass rush a big concern? We will have to wait and see. With Rams Coach Sean McVay, we can never be sure what the Rams offense might do (especially coming off a bye week).
Another way to counter a fierce pass rush, of course, is to get the running backs involved in the offense, both as runners and receivers. We have been seeing more or rookie running back Darrell Henderson lately, and he is a capable receiver as well as a runner. It seems like the Rams have been limiting Todd Gurley so far in 2019. It is not entirely clear whether they are just trying to keep him fresh or whether he is not the same player due to injuries. However, if he still can thoughtfully contribute, it is time for the Rams to take him out of the garage and back onto the street.
The Rams will also get running back Malcolm Brown to return this week. One way or another, the Rams need to get the running backs more involved this week. The success of Gurley, Henderson, and Brown in this game could well determine whether Los Angeles notches a win or suffers a devastating loss on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The loss of Cooks hurts the Rams passing game in the fact that he is their one-true game-breaker, a guy who can take the top off the defense with his speed. He will be replaced this week by Josh Reynolds. Reynolds does not have Cooks' speed, but he is a big, physical receiver who played well last week stepping in for Cooks. One relatively good thing for the Rams is that unlike the loss of Cooper Kupp last season, Reynolds can step right into Cooks' role as an outside receiver. That means Robert Woods does not need to move into the slot, where he is less effective.
Speaking of Kupp, he is having a breakout season, with 58 catches for 792 yards. That projects out to almost 1,600 yards over a full 16-game season. While Kupp may not be the fastest guy on the field, he runs excellent routes, catches almost everything thrown his way, and is a smart, fierce competitor. The main job of shutting him down will fall to Steelers slot corner Mike Hilton. Hilton is a little undersized but is a fierce, gritty competitor (much like Kupp in that regard). The Steelers will probably want Hilton in man-to-man coverage against Kupp because the Rams wide-out kills zone coverage.
The Rams have gradually been using tight ends Tyler Higbee and especially Gerald Everett more in recent weeks. With Cooks out this week, that trend may continue.
We are tempted to check this box for the Rams, but they have to deal with the Steelers effectively pass rushers or else rev up the running and short passing games. Until we see how that works out... we will rate this as a draw.
Rams Defense vs. Steelers Offense: This is the side of the ball where the Steelers are hurting. As everyone knows, Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger went down earlier this year with an injury and replaced by backup Mason Rudolph. Rudolph is not Rothlisberger, not in terms of arm strength, leadership, or experience. He has not been bad at first glance, with a passer rating of 94.7 and 10 touchdowns to only four picks--very respectable numbers for a backup. However, where the Steelers have suffered this season is in the red zone. Last year the Steelers led the league in touchdown percentage in the red zone; this year, they have dropped to 28th. That is a significant big deal, although it is hard to say for sure how much of that is Rudolph's fault.
The Steelers will also be without starting tailback James Connor and are generally thin at running back, with backup Benny Snell and fullback Roosevelt Nix also out of action. Running back Trey Edmunds will play after being considered questionable all week, and Jaylen Samuels will also see time at tailback for the Steelers. Samuels' strength is thought to be as a receiver out of the backfield, but he has averaged 4.6 yards per carrying this season as a runner. The Steeler offense, in general, has not been great this season, 28th overall in yards per game. They are a little better in the scoring offense--18th--but even so, this is not an offensive powerhouse even when healthy. The injuries certainly will not help that situation. That situation will be made even worse if their top receiver, JuJu Smith-Shuster, misses the game with a toe injury. He has rated as questionable, but we think he will probably play. To add insult to Smith-Shuster's injury--literally in this case--Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey said Smith Shuster is "no Antonio Brown" and that he is ''not worried" about covering Smith-Shuster. Usually, do not like to give an opponent ''bulletin board material,'' but trash-talking is part of Ramsey's game, and he usually backs it up. Meanwhile, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips quoted as saying he was not sure whether Ramsey would be shadowing Smith-Shuster on Sunday.
The Rams defense will get a boost with the return of outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who notched five sacks before suffering a broken jaw against the Seattle Seahawks. Add Matthews to edge-rusher Dante Fowler and all-world defensive lineman Aaron Donald and it all adds up to nightmares for opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers can be expected to avoid Ramsey as much as possible in favor of fellow corners Troy Hill and Nickel Robey-Coleman. Hill has made great strides over the last couple of years, and his emergence was one reason the Rams felt comfortable trading away starting corners Marcus Peters and Aquib Talib, replacing that duo with Ramsey and Hill. The Rams are still missing safety John Johnson, but Marquis Christian has been solid in his absence. The Rams have been going with three safeties on the field much of the time, with rookie Taylor Rapp replacing an inside linebacker and joining Eric Weddle and Christian on the field. Ram inside linebacker Cory Littleton has been a terror to opposing offenses, both in coverage and against the run.
The Rams rushing defense, which has been a weakness the past couple of years, has shown vast improvement, ranking 9th this season and allowing yards per game. That is still not great, but it is an improvement. It will be interesting to see if they can shut down the Steelers backup running backs.
Special Teams: Rams return man JoJo Natson has been missing practice this week with an illness. We will check this box for the Rams.
Prediction: The Steelers will be at home and have been hitting their stride lately. Even so, with all of the injuries on offense, they do not seem well-equipped for a shootout. A big question mark in this game is the Steelers pass rush and what the Rams will do to counter it. However, Sean McVay has had two weeks to the game plan, and even though the Rams are a little banged up, their injuries overall probably are not as severe as what the Steelers are facing.
Rams 27, Steelers 24