For the first time in 30 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers head out to Los Angeles to take on the Los Angeles Rams.
Pittsburgh is aiming for its first-ever win against the Rams in Los Angeles as they are 0-9 all-time in the matchup in Los Angeles, with the last matchup being a loss in 1993 at Anaheim Stadium when the Rams still had running back Jerome Bettis on the roster.
Different time now though, different game, different pieces. The Steelers are 3-2 coming into the matchup and are coming off of a bye week. Historically, the Steelers win more often than not coming off the bye week, holding a 12-4 record under Mike Tomlin following a bye. The Rams are 3-3 and coming off of a win over the Arizona Cardinals, though they are rather banged up down their top two running backs turning to two new signings and two depth pieces.
It’s shaping up to be a great game though featuring a lot of star-power.
As always, the game will come down to a few key matchups. Let’s take a look at my top four matchups to watch on Sunday at 4:05 p.m. in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium.
Rams’ DT Aaron Donald vs. Steelers’ LG Isaac Seumalo
He’s arguably the greatest defensive player in NFL history and is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when it’s all said and done. Though he’s contemplated retirement in the past, Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald is showing no signs of slowing down and is again wrecking offenses.
In the first six games of the season, Donald grades out at a 90.6 overall from Pro Football Focus in 332 snaps. He’s generated 30 pressures and has three sacks on the season, including one in Week Six against Arizona’s Joshua Cobbs. He also boasts an absurd 20.5% pass rush win rate on the season. He’s a handful for opposing offensive linemen, and the Rams do a great job moving him around to search for advantageous matchups.
Primarily, Donald will match up against Pittsburgh left guard Isaac Seumalo, who has been pretty darn good in pass protection this season. Seumalo grades out at 76.4 in pass protection from Pro Football Focus. He’s allowed just six pressures on the season and has three straight games of 81.0 + or greater grades in pass protection.
Seumalo will have his hands full, but even slowing down Donald just enough will do wonders. Donald struggled against San Francisco and Philadelphia this season, generating just three pressures in those games. It’s possible to slow down the elite of the elite. Seumalo has a big task in front of him.
Steelers’ CB Joey Porter Jr. vs. Rams’ WR Puka Nacua
Presumably, the Steelers are going to throw as much as possible at Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp in an effort to slow him down, much like they did in the 2019 matchup in which they held him without a catch, which is just one of two games Kupp has ever gone without a catch. It’s very unlikely the hold Kupp catchless again, but they can try and slow him down.
That will likely leave Steelers’ rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. on an island against fellow Rams’ rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua in certain matches.
Nacua burst onto the scene this season after coming out of BYU. He filled in admirably for Kupp as the star receiver was recovering from a hamstring injury. In his place, Nacua did his best Kupp impersonation and sits at 50 receptions for 598 yards and two touchdowns on the season. He’s a great route runner already and has good chemistry with Matthew Stafford.
On the other side, Joey Porter Jr. has been brought along slowly, but when he’s been given an opportunity he’s dominated. On the season, Porter Jr. has allowed just one reception on seven targets for just 12 yards, intercepting oen pass and breaking up one other pass. He seemed to step into the starting lineup in the fourth quarter in Week Five against the Baltimore Ravens and appears in line for more playing time moving forward.
That should start in Week Seven against the Rams. Promising rookie against promising rookie.
Steelers’ TE Connor Heyward vs. Rams’ linebackers
Without Pat Freiermuth in the lineup in Week Seven, a real opportunity presents itself for second-year tight end Connor Heyward to again make a significant impact in the passing game for the Steelers.
Entering Week Seven, the Los Angeles Rams have really struggled to slow down opposing tight ends. The Rams have allowed 32 receptions for 414 yards and three touchdowns to tight ends on the season. Those 414 yards are third-most in the league. Therefore, Heyward has a real opportunity to put up a nice day in the receiving department on Sunday.
I debated putting Darnell Washington here instead of Heyward, but it seems like the Steelers want Washington to block and Heyward to be the receiving option. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week Five, Heyward ran more routes than Washington (18 to 16) and averaged more than a yard and a half per route run than Washington (1.28 to 0.00).
Heyward has shown in the past he can be a consistent pass catching piece for the Steelers, one that can win in the middle of the field, make tough catches and become a safe outlet for quarterback Kenny Pickett. He’ll need to do that on Sunday.
Conversely, the Rams’ linebackers in Christian Rozeboom and Ernest Jones have struggled in coverage. Jones grades out at just 60.0 overall in coverage from PFF and has allowed 13 receptions on 20 targets for 134 yards. Rozeboom grades out even worse at 45.1 overall from PFF and has allowed 16 receptions on 19 targets for 134 yards but does have one interception.
Rams’ CB Ahkello Witherspoon vs. Steelers’ WR Ahkello Witherspoon
Hello, old friend.
After going against each other in practice quite often last season, Steelers’ wide receiver George Pickens and Rams’ cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon will get a look at each other once again on Sunday.
Witherspoon is having a heck of a year for the Rams after signing with them over the summer following his release from the Steelers. Witherspoon has allowed just 13 receptions on 28 receptions for 147 yards and has picked off two passes and broken up two more passes, allowing just one touchdown on the season. He’s handled himself quite well on an island. He’s being tested down the field often, too, averaging 16.8 yards per depth of target.
He’s done very well.
He’ll have his hands full against Pickens, who has grown his game in his second season.
On the year, Pickens grades out at a 73.8 overall from Pro Football Focus and is coming off of a great game against the Ravens, finishing with six receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. He was a physical force in the matchup against the Ravens and really couldn’t be guarded. That confidence should be sky-high for Pickens moving forward. He’ll need to have a big game for the Steelers once again, especially with Diontae Johnson returning opposite him, which should open up more opportunities for the standout second-year receiver.