Ah, good old St. Louis. Pittsburgh sports fans have already spent the better part of the summer cursing their baseball team for being a thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Sunday, they get the chance to earn the ire of local football fans as well when the Pittsburgh Steelers travel out to take on the St. Louis Rams. That city has a chance to become very hated very fast here in the ‘Burgh.
Of course, the big news going into this game is the return of running back Le’Veon Bell from his two game suspension. The Black and Gold currently has the top ranked offense in all of football without the best all-around back in the game. Poor DeAngelo Williams now retreats to a back-up role having only putting up numbers good enough to be the league’s second leading rusher during Bell’s absence. He filled in admirably but he’s no Bell, although I’m sure the team will give him work if only to hopefully stave off last year’s situation where an injury to Bell put the kibosh on their chances of making a run in the playoffs.
Amidst all the hype, it’s easy to forget that Bell’s coming off a serious knee injury that prematurely ended his 2014 season. During the preseason he looked every bit his old self although we all know preseason games are not an accurate predictor of the regular season. Still, it’s been over five months and while I’m sure he’ll have some rust to work off in the early going, I imagine he’ll be up to speed (no pun intended) in no time. Besides, even a Bell operating at 80% makes an already dangerous offense just that much more lethal.
He couldn’t ask for a better match-up, facing a St. Louis defense that is rated third worst against the rush after the first two weeks. It’s surprising to find the Rams in that position given the sheer number of high #1 draft picks populating the defensive side of the ball. Chris Long and Robert Quinn bookend their base 4-3 with “Little Animal” James Laurinaitis a formidable presence at linebacker. Arguably their best defensive player, though, is former Pitt standout Aaron Donald.
Jabaal Sheard and Dion Lewis in week 1, Aaron Donald here in week 3… Boy, Dave Wannestedt may have been a lousy coach for Pitt but he sure knew how to recruit. Beats the current Panthers, who are lacking in both wins AND talent. But I digress…
The Rams pulled off a big upset in week one against the defending NFC Champ Seattle Seahawks only to put forth a dull and uninspired effort against Washington last week. The Seattle game turned into a shoot out which could very well happen this week. I’ve talked up the Steelers defense but with LB Ryan Shazier banged up and possibly out, we could see them seriously struggle. Durability was always the concern with Shazier, who is incredibly fast and athletic but is the size of a safety. The team does have depth is at ILB, where Sean Spence and Vince Williams both did a solid job when Shazier was hurt last year although neither of them give you anywhere near his playmaking ability.
Our secondary will be a sore spot all year as they’re going to struggle against any capable quarterback. The Rams have one in Nick Foles, who was acquired from the Eagles in exchange for the oft-injured underachieving Sam Bradford. St. Louis felt stability at QB would give their young corps of wide receivers a chance to grow while a hopefully strong defense kept them in games. That plan hasn’t gone according to script with Foles looking good against Seattle but thoroughly mediocre against the Skins.
Of course, even in last week’s destruction of the Niner our secondary gave up some ridiculously long pass plays so I expect Foles to bounce back. He’s by no means spectacular but he can be solid enough to win you games. TE Jared Cook has been his favorite target in the early going while the receiving corps waits for somebody to emerge as a game breaker. Brian Quick looked to be that guy last season before a career-threatening shoulder injury put him on the shelf. He played in the preseason but has been a healthy scratch in each of the first two games. Perhaps this will be the week coach Jeff Fisher decides to re-activate him.
In any case, the Steelers defense will have be wary of any number of players including former WVU standout Tavon Austin. Austin hasn’t done a lot as a receiver but he’s become something of a gadget play specialist. Much like former Brown Josh Cribbs, Austin is something of a special teams ace, making his biggest impact as a return man. These special teams specialists have historically given us fits so I wouldn’t be surprised if Austin has at least one big play on Sunday.
Big plays will be the order of the day as the Steelers will have to follow their stated plan of scoring a bunch of points and hoping the D can hold it together enough to pull off a win. WR Markus Wheaton has also not practiced this week although losing him is not a huge deal in terms of production. Darrius Heyward-Bey would take over his snaps with nary a drop-off. Where his absence would hurt is it leaves rookie Sammie Coates the only other WR on the roster. The team released Tyler Murphy to activate Bell because Dri Archer has pics of Mike Tomlin at the annual Furry Convention or something since I have no idea how that useless guy continues to hold a roster spot. Heath Miller or Bell will probably play the slot with one of our two fullbacks serving as the blitz pick-up in the backfield.
Anyway, this will be an interesting early season test for the 1-1 Steelers. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against an offense that has shown they can score points. It’ll also be worth noting how our offense looks with their All-Pro running back returning to the field. Whether the early season trends continue this weekend will give us a strong clue to how the rest of the season might possibly play out.