Steelers Opponent Preview: the St. Louis Rams
The Steelers are 10-11 against last week’s NFC West opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, since their first game in 1951. The teams are even since 2000 after last Sunday, with two wins and two losses apiece.
Naturally I assumed the Steelers’ overall record was better against the next NFC West opponent, the St. Louis Rams. So it was a shock to me, as one of those “ahistorical” fans Ivan deplored so eloquently a few weeks ago, to find the Steelers’ all-time record against the Rams is .333.
As I dug a bit more, I found out a great many of those games were in the pre-Chuck Noll era, when the Steelers were bad against virtually everyone. Since 1970 the record is much more encouraging—the Steelers are one game over .500—and the record since 2000 is even better—two out of three, with the only loss coming in 2003.
The last of those three games was a lot more gratifying for the Steelers than that season’s game against San Francisco. It was played on Christmas Eve, and was a 27 to nothing shutout. The Vegas line favored the Steelers by 10 points, so they were way off. As is perhaps not a surprise, given that the infamous one-legged Roethlisberger game was just three weeks before, Charlie Batch quarterbacked the game, and the score was comprised of three rushing touchdowns (John Clay, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman) and two Shaun Suisham field goals.
But that was 2011, when the Rams went 2 and 14. This is a very different team from the one the Steelers played four years ago. We will begin with the revamped coaching staff.
Jeff Fisher, as Hombre de Acero disconcertingly pointed out in his 5 Smoldering Questions for this week, has an unduly large number of wins against the Steelers. Beginning with his tenure in 1994 as head coach of the Houston Oilers, Fisher has compiled 13 wins vs. 8 losses against the Black and Gold. During his 17 seasons as coach of the franchise (which was recast as the Tennessee Oilers in 1997 and the the Titans in 1999) Fisher’s teams were seldom juggernauts. In fact, they only went to the playoffs four years during the 17 years in question, and the team was an 8-8 or below club for 11 of those 17 years.
This should give the Tomlin disparagers something to think about, as the Steelers have only earned less than double-digit win totals three times in Tomlin’s eight-year tenure, even during what turns out to have been a major, albeit incremental, rebuild, and never had a losing season.
Because of the division shifts, the Steelers only play the Rams once every fourth year, and Fisher took over as head coach not too long after the fateful Christmas Eve Massacre deep-sixed then head coach Steve Spagnuolo. (Spagnuolo was actually fired after the final game of the season, when the Rams rose up to look considerably better against the then 12-3 49ers. But they still lost, 34-27.)
Comparing the rest of the coaching staff to 2011, the only offensive coach who is the same is their Quality Control coach, which seems a bit ironic. On the defensive side, the only holdovers are the two Strength and Conditioning coaches.
The roster is also transformed all out of recognition. The only offensive players still on the 2015 roster from 2011 are TE Lance Kendricks, who was a rookie, and then-left tackle Roger Saffold. Saffold spent about half of the 2011 season on IR, so he wasn’t playing the 2011 game. He has now been moved to guard.
The defense is almost as ravaged: DEs Eugene Sims and Chris Long and MLB James Laurinaitis are the sole survivors.
Of course, the Rams have had some pretty sweet drafts in the meantime because of their poor record. Last year’s draft class saw them with two picks in the first round—tackle Greg Robinson at No. 2 and DT Aaron Donald, a Pitt product, at No. 13. In 2013 they also had two first round picks, and took WR Tavon Austin at No. 8 and OLB Alec Ogletree at No. 30. In 2012 they chose DT Michael Brockers at No. 14. This year they took RB Todd Gurley at No. 10.
Quarterbacks are another story. The Rams drafted Sam Bradford in 2010, the last season before a rookie salary cap, and the Rams went all-in by giving Bradford the largest rookie contract in NFL history—$76 million. Although he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, he was a major disappointment thereafter—often injured and relatively ineffective when on the field. He’s getting another chance in Philly.
In the meantime the Rams are rolling with Nick Foles (who of course played in Philly,) and so far he isn’t setting the world on fire, having garnered a Pro Football Focus rating of -3.5. This, ironically, ranks him one slot above Sam Bradford, at No. 25 out of 35 ranked.
In the first game of the season, a win against the Seahawks, Foles was 18 for 27, with a QBR of 57.3. While the rushing game didn’t gain many yards (76 yards on 26 attempts) they had two rushing touchdowns, one by Foles. In the second game, a loss against Washington, Foles looked considerably less impressive. He was 17 for 34, with a QBR of 28.6, and the rushing game gained only 67 yards on 13 attempts. Their total of four touchdowns in two games, three of them rushing, is two less than the Steelers made against San Francisco last Sunday.
The problem could be the offensive line. Their center, Tim Barnes, has been the starting center since partway through the 2012 season, but both the RT and LG are rookies. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean as much as one would like, since the Patriots were also playing with an inexperienced offensive line, there is a great difference between having Nick Foles and Tom Brady in the backfield. However, there is a catch to my theory.
Although I’ll get to more of Mike Tomlin’s remarks later, I’ll note here his remark on Tuesday that Nick Foles has only been sacked twice this year. I looked it up and actually Foles was sacked twice by the Seahawks defense and once by the Washington defense.
Since I referenced the Patriots’ young offensive line I looked up the box score, and Tom Brady has been sacked four times so far—twice by the Steelers and twice by the Bills. This isn’t very good news. If the Steelers defense can’t get to the quarterback it could be a longer day than anticipated.
As for the rest of the Rams’ offense, the only wide receiver without a negative score from PFF is also the least-targeted of the starters, Stedman Bailey. Both tight ends are “below the line.”
However, RB Benny Cunningham is another story, and is tied with Marshawn Lynch for the No. 5 spot in the league. This would indicate a more hopeful matchup for the Steelers—the run defense has been better than the pass defense, and we can hope the front defensive seven will look good against another gelling offensive line and a distinctly less mobile quarterback. (Foles has a total of five rushes for 12 yards, and despite the rushing touchdown in Week 1 he’s no Colin Kaepernick.)
It’s possible that we’ll learn a lot more about the Steelers offense by facing the Rams, because there is no doubt their defense is significantly better than any the Steelers have faced this season. In fact PFF ranks them as the No. 2 defense in the league, behind only Denver.
They played better at home against the Seahawks than they did at Washington, but still put in an impressive defensive performance in Week 2, with Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Nick Fairley, and Ethan Westbrooks (all defensive tackles or ends) grading very well. The defensive backs weren’t as good, and none of them had a great game except Trumaine Johnson.
But the Rams’ defense is no joke. I chose the picture which heads the article in part to honor Aaron Donald’s Pittsburgh connection and in part because, as Jim Wexell of Scout.com wrote, “Steeler’s Primary Task: Block The Donald.”
Mike Tomlin appears to be fully aware of this, and was particularly fulsome in his praise of Donald in his press conference Tuesday:
You think about the quality of men they have upfront, how they can impact a game…
Obviously, I know quite a bit about Aaron Donald, probably too much. The things that I know about him don’t help me sleep easy. This guy is extremely talented, but he’s also a very hard worker. I spent a couple months here this year, February and March of 2015, getting out of my car every morning and running into Aaron Donald in that parking lot outside as he came in to work at Pitt. I think that guy left the Pro Bowl, man, and came straight back to work. But that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen him do it over the course of his college career, and the way his professional career is unfolding is not a surprise to those that know him and his willingness to work and his talents. He’s living up to those expectations and doing a really great job for them. But he’s not alone up front. They’ve got a lot of high pedigree guys.
Tomlin then praised the guys listed above, and noted that they are “the engine that drive their defensive car.”
After going on for some time about the rest of the defense to the point where one might assume he was talking about the 1985 Bears, he switched to the offense:
On the offensive side they really challenge you with personnels and formations. Especially where we are in the development of the defensive side we have to take that challenge seriously.
Tomlin then talked a lot about another “local” guy, Tavon Austin. “He’s a dangerous player who we have to account for on every snap.”
Asked to compare Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles, Tomlin said:
He’s a different guy with a different skill set. He sees and plays the game in a different manner.
Finally, Tomlin was asked about the “Greatest Show on Turf,” which he referenced early in his remarks as having encountered as a young DB coach for the opposition. Asked if there were any parallels in his current offense to that group, Tomlin laughed and said:
No, I’m not gonna put us on that level. Those guys won a world championship—those guys set NFL records. We’re two weeks in.
Luckily for the Steelers defense, the Rams are no longer the greatest show on turf. Here’s hoping the Steelers defense doesn’t make the Rams offense look better than it is, and that the Steelers offense can remind everyone what the Greatest Show on Turf was like.
UPDATE: This morning I received in my inbox an invitation to beta test the new Pro Football Focus Ratings. I dutifully clicked on the appropriate links, and what I found was seriously cool. Basically, you can compare any matchup in the NFL head to head. They use the depth chart plus the latest PFF data to show you either the base defense or nickel defense against the other team, and you select who is the home team, so presumably something is factored in for that as well. Naturally the matchup which interested me at the moment was this one.
They have come up with a way (more on that later) to give each player a score out of a hundred, and note whether each player is anything from all-Pro at the top of the spectrum (this appears to be a score over 90) to Below Replacement (apparently under 60.) It naturally includes only the starters or those who will almost certainly be deployed in those situations, and so doesn’t allow for rotating linemen, for instance.
It also doesn’t allow for a player just coming back from suspension, say, so DeeWill is shown as the back rather than No. 26. Easy to understand why, but does limit the usefulness somewhat.
But for interest, here’s what the matchups look like:
Steelers base offense vs. Rams base defense:
All – Pro: Steelers, Antonio Brown; Rams: Aaron Donald
Pro Bowl: Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger; Rams: Robert Quinn
Above Average Starter: Steelers: DeeWill, Heath Miller, Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Kelvin Beachum; Rams: none
Below Average Starter: Steelers: Will Johnson, Marcus Wheaton; Rams: Trumaine Johnson, Michael Brockers, Chris Long, Akeem Ayers, T. J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod; Janoris Jenkins
Backup: Steelers: none; Rams: Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis
Below Replacement: Steelers: Cody Wallace; Rams: none
If you go to the nickel defense vs. three receivers offense, there are a few changes, both supposedly deleterious—Darrius Heyward-Bey replaces Will Johnson, and LaMarcus Joyner replaces Akeem Ayers. Both Joyner and Heyward-Bey are considered Below Replacement level. Given what I saw last Sunday, I’ll take DHB in a heartbeat.
When the Rams offense is on the field, here’s what you see:
Rams Base Offense, Steelers Base D:
Above Average Starter: Rams: Jared Cook; Steelers: Cam Heyward, William Gay
Below Average Starter: Rams: Nick Foles, Kenny Britt, Tre Mason; Steelers: Arthur Moats, Steve McLendon
Back up: Rams: Cory Harkey, Roger Saffold, Tim Barnes; Steelers: Mike Mitchell, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt
Below Replacement Level: Rams: Greg Robinson, Jamon Brown, Rob Havenstein, Tavon Austin; Steelers: Antwan Blake, Jarvis Jones, Will Allen.
Changes in the Nickel, apparently to the advantage of the Rams and the disadvantage of the Steelers:
Rams: Stedman Bailey (Below Average Starter) replaces fullback Cory Harkey; Steelers: Cortez Allen (Below Replacement) replaces Steve McLendon (Below Average Starter)
Of course, this isn’t how it’s going to go either. Rams RB Benny Cunningham actually has three times more snaps in the first two games as Tre Mason, the purported starter, who only played in Game 2. First round draft pick Todd Gurley says he’s ready to play, and Fisher says he will be a game-time decision. So, like the Steelers, the running back situation is likely to be quite different than what’s shown.
All that said, one has to like a match-up in which the strength of the opponent is apparently more than matched by the strength of the Steelers, and the weaker link in both teams also seems to be a good match for the Steelers—read, their offensive line is not impressive.
The PFF feature, which will be debuted to the world in a few weeks, is pretty cool, even though I see some strange things in it. (Mike Mitchell, for instance, is supposedly the No. 5 safety in the league, and yet is listed as a back-up level safety in this scoring.)
But the way they reach their scores in this is not only based on the game data but another set of things they rate. So for example, Jarvis Jones has an overall score of 56.4. There are four things they rate: Pass Rush (50.2), Run Defense (77.2), Discipline (83.8), and Coverage (51.7). The Overall score is not an average of those, as that would come out to something over 65, and would rocket him from Below Replacement to Backup status. So obviously some things are weighted.
Just for kicks, I totaled the scores for the base offense vs. base defense for each team:
Rams base offense: 701.1 Steelers base defense: 743
Steelers three receivers offense: 838.3 Rams nickel defense: 798.4
I chose the base package for the Rams and the three receiver for the Steelers because I assume we are likely to see more of those packages. At any rate, strictly by the numbers it looks like the Steelers should have quite a decent chance to put points on the board (and keep them off). Fun stuff!