Two teams surging in the NFL standings; only one can continue their momentum
The Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers were two top-tier NFL teams left for dead a month ago. Since then, the Rams have won two straight after a 3-3 start that threatened to tag the defending NFC Champs with the dreaded Super Bowl hangover label. Jared Goff has recovered from a shaky start, having his best game of the year two weeks ago in London. Cooper Kupp continues to soar to new heights after an ACL injury sidelined him much of last season.
The Steelers have been just as impressive, climbing to 4-4 after a 1-4 start during which they lost their top two quarterbacks at one point along with running back James Conner. Ben Roethlisberger remains out for the season with an elbow injury, leaving a leadership void that can’t be filled. But backup signal-caller Mason Rudolph is back and getting more comfortable with the offense each week. He got a boost in the form of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose 96-yard interception return made the difference in a 26-24 upset of the Indianapolis Colts last weekend. Trading for Fitzpatrick has kept this team in the postseason hunt.
Unfortunately, only one of these franchises can keep its momentum rolling in what’s easily one of the best games in the NFL this weekend. There’s little margin for error here in terms of playoff positioning; both play in divisions that already seem out of reach. Even a win leaves the Steelers 1.5 games behind the surging Ravens, while a win by the Rams could still leave them three games behind the as-of-now undefeated 49ers.
But a wild card slot still seems like a strong possibility for both. Who can take the next step forward in their 2019 NFL rehabilitation?
Los Angeles at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 10 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -3.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Who can step up in the Pittsburgh offense without James Conner?
The Steelers are really hurting without Conner, who failed to practice Thursday with a shoulder injury and appears set to miss a second straight week. Jaylen Samuels, who gained just 10 yards on eight carries against the Colts, is one of just two healthy running backs on the roster. Former Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James, who made his NFL debut last Sunday, is a virtual unknown but may find himself as the change-of-pace back with Trey Edmunds (ribs) also expected to sit out.
The Rams were already tough against the run, allowing 96.9 yards per game (8th in the NFL). There’s hope to break through — the winless Bengals eked out 104 yards and 4.7 yards per carry against them in London — but the Steelers simply lack the horses.
Where Conner’s absence hurts the most is in the passing game, especially for a new quarterback in Rudolph looking to find his footing. He dumped to Samuels 13 times against the Colts, the most any Steelers player has been targeted in a game this season. I’d expect a similar workload against the Rams, and there needs to be a higher yardage output (Samuels averaged less than six yards per pass play) in order for them to push forward offensively.
The other key this weekend will be whether JuJu Smith-Schuster can beat double coverage. He followed up a five-catch, 103-yard performance with a dud last week against the Colts (three receptions, 16 yards). Smith-Schuster was given the keys to this receiving corps after Antonio Brown left the team this offseason. Certainly, losing a superstar alongside him has been an adjustment; opposing defenses have been able to key in on him. He’s also adjusting to a new offensive rhythm at the same time.
But any superstar expected to fill Brown’s shoes needs to break through those obstacles. These are the type of games the Steelers need Smith-Schuster to show up in to win.
2. Will Jared Goff build on his London performance?
Goff has appeared to shake off an early-season slump during this recent two-game winning streak. He’s had a four-touchdown, no-interception, turnover-free stretch while throwing for 640 yards. The Bengals game produced a season-high QB rating of 119.8 as Goff picked apart their secondary with ease, connecting with Cooper Kupp for a career-high 220 yards receiving.
Problem is, the Goff surge came against two teams with a combined record of 1-15. The Steelers and their defense pose a much stiffer challenge, and Goff will be without a key weapon: receiver Brandin Cooks (concussion protocol). If the Steelers defense and Fitzpatrick succeed in taking away Kupp as an option, Goff will need to find an alternative. Robert Woods? He’s had two catches or fewer in two out of the last three games. Tight end Gerald Everett? He had two catches for 15 yards in London. That won’t be enough.
3. Turnover margin
The Steelers defense has been successful because of one simple strength: takeaways. Their total of 22 ranks second in the NFL, and they’ve had an interception in six straight games. No team has been immune to their success; the undefeated 49ers had to fight through five turnovers to win against them in Week 3.
Can Fitzpatrick continue to lead the charge? He’s not the only one. T.J. Watt is doing a fine imitation of his sidelined Pro Bowl brother J.J. with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception. Linebacker Devin Bush has two interceptions of his own along with four fumble recoveries and a sack. It’s become a well-rounded unit that understands the importance of creating points of its own with the offense wounded.
It’s the Rams who enter this game with more to prove. The onus is on Goff to avoid turnovers and keep the Steelers defense from energizing the home crowd. If he can continue to manage the game well, his team will come out on top.
If not? Rudolph and the Steelers will continue to rebuild their foundation in what’s becoming one of Mike Tomlin’s best coaching jobs of his career.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Rams 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.