Can the Steelers protect Rudolph?

Associated Press

Indianapolis quarterback Brian Hoyer, right, greets Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph after Sunday’s game at Heinz Field. The Steelers will need to protect Rudolph when the Los Angeles Rams and defensive threat Aaron Donald, who is a Pittsburgh native, come to town this afternoon at 4:25 p.m.

MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT

Steelers 31, Rams 19

Jan. 20, 1980 at Rose Bowl

Super Bowl XIV is familiar to most, so let's change gears and re-print some of the bullet-point notes from then-Oilers assistant coach Ed Biles that appeared in the New York Times before the game was played almost 40 years ago:

n "The Steelers have all but abandoned the I-formation. They're saying, 'We're not here to beat you with trickery, like Dallas. We're here to execute our plays.'"

n "The threat of trap blocking slows down the pass rush. It has almost replaced the draw play and the screen pass as an antidote to the pass rush."

n "One of the most interesting parts of the game (will be) seeing what Ram cornerbacks Pat Thomas and Rod Perry can do with Swann and Stallworth. All four can jump, but who can jump the highest?" (Narrator: It was Stallworth.)

n "Bud Carson, Dan Radakovich and Lionel Taylor were Steelers coaches and they know Bradshaw. They will put in some things to try to get him off balance, and when Terry is off balance he can make some mistakes. He is human. Mistakes will keep the Rams in the game."

* "Franco Harris has lost nothing. He can still get outside."

* "The Rams' I-formation will not bother Lambert at all."

TALE OF THE TAPE

"It comes down to Aaron Donald. I've watched him since he was in high school when I was doing the Game of the Week. I remember one of those games they triple-teamed him and he beat them for a strip sack and returned the fumble. I thought of that as I was watching film over a decade later and saw the Seahawks triple-team him. He's excellent against the run, but sometimes, because he's short, I don't think he sees the ball coming right at him. He'll split the double-teams but when he gets buried in the chest of one of those big boys, sometimes he misses the ball being run right at him. Other than that, rare do you see the player who is quick enough and fast enough to play on the outside and strong enough to dominate on the inside without being a big guy. He's only 6-1, if that, and 280 pounds. He's quite remarkable in all ways." -- Steelers Radio analyst Craig Wolfley.

TOP QUESTION

Can the Steelers protect Mason Rudolph?

Without James Conner, the Steelers will need to throw, and that means blocking not only Donald but also Clay Matthews, who's healthy after missing three games. His bookend is Dante Fowler, one of the more underrated pass-rushers in the league and the team leader with 6.5 sacks. They'll all be together for the first time with newly acquired All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

THREE QUESTIONS: With ILB MARK BARRON

Q: What makes the Rams so good?

MB: "A combination of coaching and players. The schematics are good, and then they've got good players at every level. It's just a matter of execution."

Q: Will your knowledge of them help you and thus the Steelers defense?

MB: "I hope so. I was with the organization for a good period of time. I was with (Sean) McVay for about two years. I kind of know a good bit of what they do, but it's all a matter of execution from our standpoint. They're going to come out and execute what they do and we've just got to come out and execute. From there, it's just a matter of who's going to do it better."

Q: Who jumps off the page for them offensively? Who maybe frightens you?

MB: "I don't want to say one particular person with this group. I've been around a long time so I know who they are, and the skill players are mostly the same guys. And with them it's a combination of guys. They have good players everywhere. You're talking about the receiving corps, the running backs, the quarterbacks — they just have good players everywhere and they kind of don't let you pinpoint one guy. They'll spread the ball around."

GAME BREAKDOWN

What to look for from the Steelers this evening at Heinz Field.

ON OFFENSE:

The Steelers have rearranged their offensive line, with right tackle Matt Feiler moving to his more natural left guard spot to replace injured Ramon Foster (and his replacement last week, B.J. Finney), with second-year tackle Chuks Okorafor stepping back in at right tackle. Last year's Round 3B draft pick, Okorafor has only one start at RT under his belt, but he fared well against Von Miller that day. But will a playmaker emerge? JuJu Smith-Schuster was called out a bit by Ramsey this week. "No disrespect to him, he's not Antonio Brown," Ramsey said of Smith-Schuster. "I matched up with Antonio for two years and I held my own. Now I'm going up against a different person, different body type, different receiver. I'm playing my game. I'm not really worried about him."

ON DEFENSE:

The Rams will be without speedy WR Brandin Cooks (concussion), but they still have Cooper Kupp (58-792-5) and Robert Woods (38-471-0) at wide receiver and Gerald Everett (26-297-2) at tight end. RB Todd Gurley's been off a bit this season (3.9 yards per carry), but rookie Darrell Henderson (4.1 ypc.) is an explosive threat. QB Jared Goff was the first pick of the 2016 draft and is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with 100+ passer rating each season. Goff's passer rating this season is 86.8. "We are going to have to play a lot better than we did against the Colts to have a chance to win," said DC Keith Butler.

PREDICTION

The defending NFC champs are experiencing the Super Bowl-loser blues. They're still talented but performing sluggishly. The Rams are 5-3 after beating Atlanta and Cincinnati. Their pass defense has been poor the last five games, although Ramsey has started only one game (played in two) and Matthews is back after missing three. The Steelers' pass defense, on the other hand, has been exceptional, allowing an elite 8.5 yards per completion in their last five games. That outweighs the Steelers' poor run defense of 4.5 yards allowed per carry during those same games. That would seem to bode well against the passing-rich Rams, as should the Steelers' distinct (and surprising) advantage in yards-per-point in those five games. The Steelers are also 4-0 under Mike Tomlin in the rare third-consecutive home game. In those four wins, the Steelers' average margin of victory was 21 points. That kind of result would be stunning today, but the overall numbers say a Steelers win would NOT be so stunning. Cardiac kids, again. ... Steelers, 23-22.

BY THE NUMBERS

11: Wins out of the Steelers' last 15 home games against teams from the West Coast. The Steelers are 8-4 against West Coast teams under Tomlin.

20: QB hits by T.J. Watt ties his injured brother J.J. for the league lead. Donald and Fowler lead the Rams with 9 QB hits apiece.

22: Takeaways by the Steelers this season are the most for a Tomlin-coached team, topping the previous best of 21 takeaways at the midpoint of the 2010 season.

45: Yards gained by Trey Edmunds on his first carry with the Steelers last Sunday is the longest first run with the team by a running back in modern team history. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey took his first team carry 60 yards for a touchdown in a 2016 game at Miami.

66: Tackles by Steelers rookie ILB Devin Bush leads all NFL rookies. Cole Holcumb of Washington is second with 55.

DOWNLOADS

n Matthews has missed three games, which has tempered his numbers a bit, but the big 3 of the Rams — Matthews, Fowler and Donald  have combined for 17.5 sacks and 25 QB hits. The big 3 of the Steelers — Watt, Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward — have combined for 18 sacks and 37 QB hits.

n In 7-on-7 drills, the Steelers' scout team had six pinnies to help the first-team offense locate key defenders. That's six key defenders without Donald on the field. "Obviously you put the jersey on the stud guys so you know who they are," said David DeCastro. "That's a lot, but I think that's just the way they give you good looks and you know who is who for identification purposes."

n The Steelers are low on running backs and needed to recall Pitt's Darrin Hall and release Sutton Smith, the sixth-round OLB who had just been re-signed. Smith struggled through the preseason with a torn oblique. He played in the final preseason game in spite of an injury - which he was told would take two months from which to recover. He played well in that game but was cut because he wouldn't have been able to play or practice right away. So Smith was ecstatic when they re-signed him early in the week, and will probably be recalled once the running backs are healthy. "I'm not gonna give up, hell no," said Smith. "If I give up that says something about my work ethic. It would take a lot to make me stop playing what I love."

n The Steelers promoted ILB Robert Spillane from the practice squad after putting rookie ILB Ulysees Gilbert on IR with a back injury. Spillane, the grandson of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner and 1954 Steelers Pro Bowl RB Johnny Lattner, has practiced at outside linebacker and fullback. Might he be needed on offense with Rosie Nix having been ruled out? "I'll play anywhere," Spillane said. "I can play running back, tight end, receiver, nickel, dime, safety, outside backer. I'll play anything. I'm so excited that so many people have trust in me to help this team get a win." Spillane played in two games as a rookie last season with the Titans.

n James Washington's coming off his best game with the Steelers with career highs in catches (4) and yards (69). The 2018 second-round pick is only sixth on the team with 14 catches and fourth with 230 yards, but he leads with an average of 16.4 yards per catch. OC Randy Fichtner was asked if last week is a sign of more to come for Washington. "The routine play, you don’t even pay attention to anymore. You’re looking for the spectacular play because he really did make some spectacular type catches at critical times for us, and I just see that keep improving and improving with more opportunities to catch the ball."

PARTING SHOT

"(Aaron Donald) is the best player in football right now. He's a great player and obviously being from Pittsburgh I'm sure he'll have a lot of people out at this game and he'll have a lot of want-to on Sunday." -- T.J. Watt.

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