The pecking order for the Rams passing attack has been rearranged over the last several weeks, with this team now leaning Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett, Robert Woods, in that order, with Todd Gurley pulling less involvement in the pass game this year than he did a year ago (5.79 targets per game last year; 3.43 targets per game this year). Expectations coming out of the bye week should be that the Rams have their offensive line working together better than they have to date (we should keep in mind that while talent is important on the offensive line, a line’s ability to communicate and work together is an even bigger piece of the puzzle — especially on an offense like the Rams, which requires the line to work so fully in sync; more than likely, the offensive line is the reason we have seen a less effective screen game from this team, and have seen the screens called less often), so there is a chance that Gurley begins to produce at a higher level in the second half of the season than he has to date — though obviously, we will go into this game simply “guessing and hoping” that will be the case, rather than actually knowing a thing.
The matchup, of course, is not terrifying, but it is unattractive (Pittsburgh has allowed the 13th fewest points per game and the 11th fewest yards per game, while ranking fifth in defensive DVOA: sixth against the pass; 16th against the run), with the Steelers ranking fifth in sacks and second in turnovers forced.They have allowed the 11th fewest receiving yards to wideouts and the 14th fewest rushing yards to running backs, and have been consistently improving throughout the season, making this a “bet on talent” spot for the Rams offense in a matchup that slightly lowers expectations.
Of course, the weakest link of the Steelers defense is their tight end coverage, where they have faced only a couple elite weapons (Kittle // Henry), but have allowed 6-57-0 and 8-100-0 (respectively) in those spots. (The Steelers also allowed the Ravens tight ends to hit them for a combined 9-77-0 — though most teams that have played the Ravens could say that.) Everett’s snap count in this offense continues to be game plan specific (in Week 8, even with Brandin Cooks missing almost the entire game, Everett played only 29 snaps to 33 for Tyler Higbee; but in Week 7 he played 55 of a possible 75 snaps), but he has been fairly reliably involved (recent target counts of 3 // 10 // 5 // 11 // 8), and it’s likely that the Rams look to continue involving him this week with Cooks sidelined.
Kupp has produced 100+ yards in all but three games this year, and his matchup against the 49ers is the only spot in which he truly disappointed (with that matchup obviously leading to lots of disappointing stat lines this year). It is noteworthy that the Steelers are one of only two teams in football that has not yet allowed a wide receiver to go for more than 100 yards against them (the closest was Phillip Dorsett going a somewhat fluky 4-95-2), so consider this a below-average spot against a defense that is generally able to force opponents to spread the ball around in search of ways to move the field; but if anyone can beat this matchup, it’s Kupp, who ranks third in yards, fourth in targets, and even top 10 in touchdowns among wide receivers. The top four players in yards per game are Michael Thomas, both our boys from the Bucs, and Kupp, so while he does not have the matchup the other three have, he certainly remains afloat in the conversation.
Woods has become an afterthought, with recent target counts of 2 // 7 // 4 // 9 — though as his targets have dropped, his usage in the run game has increased, with seven carries in his last three games compared to five in the other five games this year. Ultimately, Woods is a bet on this offense coming out of the bye with more juice than they have shown to date, or on this offense getting him more heavily involved against a team that has not yet allowed a 100-yard receiver. The Steelers limit YAC/r at the second best rate in the league, so big, broken plays are a rarity, but anything can happen, and Woods offers affordable exposure to the Rams.
The Rams seem set on limiting Gurley’s usage, as he has played only 57.8% of their snaps across their last two games (which is somewhat maddening, given that Gurley played 92.9% of the Rams snaps in Week 5 before his quad injury — usage that went entirely unnoticed by the field, and would have been a nice edge if it had continued to hold) — but he does have recent touch counts of 10 // 19 // 18 if you want to bet on him landing at the higher end of that range and producing at a higher level than he has to date. (The best bet, if playing Gurley — of course — is to hope for touchdowns to follow.)
The Steelers offense has been focused on non-aggressive play — playing at the eighth-slowest pace, ranking middle of the pack in pass play rate, and throwing the ball, on average, a middling 7.9 yards down the field. No pass catcher on this team has hit double-digit targets in a game this year, and since Week 2, there have been only two instances of a pass catcher topping seven looks (JuJu Smith-Schuster has a game with nine; Diontae Johnson has a game with eight). The Rams are likely to put Jalen Ramsey on JuJu in an effort to force Mason Rudolph to beat them in 10-on-10 football across the other areas of the field. This is an edge to the Rams defense — especially with Clay Matthews returning this week to provide extra pass rushing juice — and only the 49ers, Patriots, and Bills have allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than L.A. Outside of “Bucs receivers” (in this instance, Godwin: 12-172-2), no wide receiver has topped 100 yards against the Rams.
Of course, the best bet for production on the Steelers is their backfield, with this “role” yielding recent touch counts for James Conner of 27 // 23, and with Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds combining for 33 touches last week. There is a whole lot up in the air with this backfield right now, as Edmunds and Conner both missed practice Wednesday. Conner is tentatively expected to suit up this week and will reclaim the lead role if he plays. If he misses, it will be Samuels again in the pass game role (13 targets last week for the former collegiate H-back), and there is a case to be made that his split workload last week in the run game was due to him playing in his first game back from injury. Of course, there is also a chance that we see Samuels work in the pass game while Edmunds works in the run game, leaving both a bit iffy in this matchup this week if Conner misses and Edmunds plays.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Although the Rams are not in a “great spot” on the road against Pittsburgh, Everett and Kupp set up well enough on this fairly consolidated offense that has had an extra week to prepare. Each can be considered in all contest types at their respective prices.
The rest of the Rams leave you “hoping for a breakout game” and building around that scenario in tournaments (i.e., rather than just guessing on a Rams player here and there, focus on making sure that any Rams rosters of yours are built around the idea of the Rams having a strong game in this spot — asking yourself what that would mean for production across the board, and what that might mean for the Steelers in return).
On the Steelers side — with Rudolph under center and an improving Rams defense coming to town (impressively, the Rams rank fourth in overall defensive DVOA: 15th against the pass and fourth against the run) — this is not an ultra- attractive spot (which is backed up by their Vegas-implied total of only 20.25). But this backfield role is always worth keeping in mind if we have clarity heading into the weekend, and there are pieces on this team (Diontae // Vance // Washington // even JuJu in a tough matchup vs Ramsey) who can score from anywhere on the field if you want to chase.
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