Rams vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans To Watch for on Christmas Eve

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIDecember 24, 2011

Rams vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans To Watch for on Christmas Eve

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    The last time the St. Louis Rams traveled to Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Steel City celebrated their franchise's 1,000th game in lackluster fashion.  Marc Bulger and an explosive offense featuring much of the talent from the "Greatest Show on Turf" exploited Pittsburgh's secondary in a 33-21 victory.

    Many things have changed since that soured celebration, and Steelers fans hope for a brand new outcome as a result. 

    On paper, the contest appears to lopsidedly favor a happier outcome for Pittsburgh.  The 2-12 Rams range from weak to pedestrian in most facets of the game, while the Steelers have clinched a playoff spot for the seventh time in this young century.

    Despite the apparent mismatch, the Black and Gold cannot take the contest for granted; after all, Ben Roethlisberger is slated to watch from the sidelines for the first time all season, and there's still a potential division championship at stake.

    With the upset-minded Rams fighting for their maligned head coach, the Pittsburgh Steelers hope that an early Christmas present comes in the form of an expected victory.  After all, winning builds momentum, and momentum will breed confidence heading into the NFL playoffs.

    In a season of joy, warmth and well-wishes, here are 10 things for Steelers fans to watch for as the Men of Steel attempt to wrap up the Rams and ship them home upside-down and tagged with defeat.

Mendenhall and Redman vs. 32nd-Ranked Rush Defense

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    Giving up nearly five yards per carry and 12 touchdowns, which nearly doubles their 2010 total of seven scores surrendered on the ground, the Rams' rushing defense is the most putrid in the NFL.  The statistics do not lie, and their ranking is not an aberration.

    Two of the best rushing days of 2011 came from DeMarco Murray and Beanie Wells, who rushed for 253 and 228 yards respectively for the Cowboys and Cardinals.  Numerous other runners have compiled 100-yard rushing days or better against the defensive front, and many teams have only fallen short of this mark due to a committee running approach.

    Lackluster gap control has left open holes, poor tackling has allowed yards after contact and a general lack of physicality has culminated in the dead-last ranking.

    While this would seem an ideal matchup for Pittsburgh's offensive line, which needs to continue working toward a capable running game for the postseason, it's been difficult to predict which opponents Steelers runners would find success against.

    At face value, the Titans came to Heinz Field with stout ranking against the rush, but Pittsburgh had its finest rushing day that afternoon, setting up Ben's play-action game and a five-touchdown pass performance.

    Against seemingly hapless defensive fronts, the runners have struggled to find any space.

    If anything can be derived from this season's offensive journey in Pittsburgh, it's that running the ball makes the entire offense more efficient.  With Charlie Batch substituting for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, Mendenhall and Redman need to exploit the NFL's worst rushing defense.

Steven Jackson

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    While the Steelers hope to run well against a porous St. Louis run defense, they'll have their hands full when facing the Rams' Steven Jackson.  One of the most dynamic players in the NFL is stuck on a bad team, thus preventing a hyper-popularity that he would possess elsewhere.  Make no mistake that Jackson is a superb talent.

    On occasion, his ability overcomes the bad blocking that tends to be put in front of him.  During a stretch of three games earlier this season, the Saints, Cardinals and Browns all saw the best of the back, who averaged over 140 yards and five yards per carry in the trio of contests.

    Since, Jackson has found limited running room and been less effective, not eclipsing 65 yards of 3.8 per rush in the last five games. 

    Fans should not let his fallen production lull them into complacency; given an inch of daylight, Jackson will take a mile of sunshine. 

    Beyond his rushing skills, the running back is a threat of the back field, arguably the best receiver on the team prior to the acquisition of Brandon Lloyd.  Last week, he had four more receptions and 20 extra receiving yards above on beyond any of his peers, finishing with nine receptions for over 70 yards against the Bengals.  It's clear that Jackson is a safety valve for inexperience starter Kellen Clemens.

    Jackson needs only 34 rushing yards to become the seventh back in NFL history to run for over 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons.

Steelers' Receivers vs. Rams' Secondary

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    The Rams' pass defense is ranked eighth in the NFL, but this is skewed by the illogical measuring stick of total yards surrendered.  Like the Browns two weeks ago (who boasted the "best" pass defense in football), the achievement is a bit of a ruse. 

    Teams are running the ball so well against St. Louis that the pass is often foregone. The Rams are one of the few defenses facing more runs than passes in 2011.

    With a pair St. Louis cornerbacks dinged and questionable for the game, an already susceptible group could be without Justin King and Josh Gordy.  King is very likely out of the contest, and Rod Hood should start in his place.

    While the Rams may be blessed to not face Roethlisberger, they'll still have their work cut out for them against Pittsburgh's plethora of rockets and retrievers at receiver.

    Guys who can make any catch are the retrievers, and they include Hines Ward (at times), Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller.  Antonio Brown is showing he belongs in this group, also.

    Along with his dynamic catches, Brown is also a rocket, along with peer starter Mike Wallace and x-factor receiving talent Emmanuel Sanders.

    All season, the Rams have used their safeties in coverage at various times to assist the corners in their assignments.  Truly, St. Louis is anemic at the cornerback position, and despite their efforts to occassionally pick up the slack and disguise the look of the secondary, safeties Quinton Mikell and Darian Stewart can only do so much.

    In truth, the Steelers' receivers are equipped to perform well against the Rams' pedestrian talent in the defensive backfield.  The question remains: can Batch get the football to them effectively?

    Antonio Brown needs only nine yards to join Wallace with 1,000 receiving yards in 2011.

Playing for Spagnuolo

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    One cannot underestimate the ferocity of a wounded animal, and the St. Louis Rams' players from most accounts seem to like head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

    By most accounts, "Spag" is on one of the most smoldering hot seats in the NFL coaching fraternity.  While it's not certain that he will lose his job, many fans and experts predict this as a strong possibility.

    Certainly, two embarrassing losses to Pittsburgh and San Francisco in the season's final weeks would almost assure his fate of being fired.

    To keep his job, the Rams will have to at least play competitively against two playoff-bound opponents over the next two weekends.

    His players surely know that wins over proven squads, including the resurgent 49ers, would be a showcase for the potential of 2012.  Regarded as a player's coach, it wouldn't be the first time in NFL history that a group of athletes has stepped up in an effort to help somebody they respect.

    On the heels of last week's loss and considering their key injuries, it seems unlikely that Pittsburgh would overlook any opponent.  Nevertheless, the Rams have only won twice in 2011, and the Steelers cannot take them lightly.

    After all, if St. Louis could take a 21-0 lead on the New Orleans Saints and beat them 31-21, they have enough talent in place to make a run at anybody.  Of important note, Sam Bradford was also injured during that upset of New Orleans, thus negating the argument that his absence solidifies a Rams loss.

Backup Quarterbacks Get the Nod: Don't Blink!

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    If this were a ranked list, the obvious top observation to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon would be the play of both quarterbacks.

    While Charlie Batch looked putrid in relief against the Browns, Kellen Clemens completed 25-of-36 passes with a touchdown and no interceptions, earning a 95.7 rating against the Bengals in last week's start.

    Nevertheless, which matchup would you want—the experienced Batch playing at Heinz Field against the Rams defense or Kellen Clemens' second straight road start against the fully loaded Steelers one week following a loss?

    In his relief stints, Batch's performance has been a mixed bag.  Last year, he had a career game in Black and Gold, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay against the 2-0 Buccanners.  Still, many fans are pessimistic about his ability to consistently engineer the offense over the course of a few weeks.

    The formula seems simple, however, considering the opposition: make a few throws when they're needed (hoping for a big play or two in each game), avoid costly turnovers and simply take the smart throws when they're available. 

    No quarterback wants to be told to "manage" a game, but Steelers fans understand that their defense should be able to engineer a victory if the offense can have an average game.

    There's one certainty amidst the decision to bench Ben Roethlisberger as a matter of player health: it was the right decision.  While Ben is the quintessential tough guy playing through injuries, his statistics are not as solid as many seem to believe in those circumstances.

    Fans will remember the 9-0 loss in Jacksonville in 2006 and last week's 20-3 setback.  To be his effective self, Ben needs to be mobile in the playoffs, and that requires time to heal.


    Kellen Clemens' only substantial action as an NFL starter prior to this season came in 2007 for the New York Jets.  He finished with five touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a 60.9 quarterback rating.

    Last week, his 95.7 rating was largely buoyed by a late-game touchdown.  Clemens struggled to get the ball down the field, averaging only a hair over six yards per attempt despite an incredibly efficient completion percentage.

    While Saturday's contest seems like a setup for failure for Clemens, there's one factor that could help guarantee the quarterback's struggles at Heinz Field (next slide).

    In a game that sees a wounded champion and upset-minded afterthought both hungry to prevent prolonged losing skids, it could be the quarterback that prevents mistakes, or namely, the one that blinks first, that decides the game.

Defensive Pressure: The Home-Field Boost

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    Of their lackluster 30 total sacks, how many do you suppose the Steelers have had at Heinz Field?

    Which answer below is correct?

    A) 10-15

    B) 16-20

    C) 21-25

    And, let's not be ridiculous enough to imply that it's more than 25 of their total sacks...or is it?  In a strange season of ups and downs, could one of the team's strangest statistical quirks be such a gross disproportion at pressuring quarterbacks at home versus on the road.

    Take one more moment to think it over.

    Do you have your answer?

    In fact, the Steelers have 25 sacks at home this season, so the answer was "C."

    In other words, defending Heinz Field turf has seen the Pittsburgh defense getting pressure on par with (if not above and beyond) the rate of their best quarterback-sacking defenses that have registered anywhere from 45-50-plus QB takedowns in the last decade.

    While the defensive front is not getting the desired pressure on opposing passers, harassing those quarterbacks at the Heinz House of Horrors has not been the issue.

    Lamarr Woodley has had a few more days to work back into game shape (he left the 49ers game fatigued), and James Harrison is returning from suspension.

    Overall, the setting is fit for getting after Kellen Clemens, causing him to commit the costly mistakes that secure an important home win.

Blocking Chris Long

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    With his mustache, Chris Long may look more like hockey's classic Broad Street Bully than an All-Pro defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, but this should not disguise the fact that Long is a beast.  Clearly the best player on their defense, the son of Howie Long is the next in a line of premiere defensive linemen who Pittsburgh has had to deal with in 2011.

    So far, the results have not been acceptable as Mario Williams and Dwight Freeney, to name a couple of stars, have absolutely dominated along the trenches, abusing Steelers linemen.

    Since their struggles in the early season, the offensive line has shown improvement.  Has their play been perfect?  It has not, and their road performances have been the cause of great concern in the Steel City heading toward the playoffs.

    Playing at home, Marcus Gilbert needs to live up to his draft billing as a solid tackle and keep Chris Long out of the backfield—and off of Charlie Batch!

    Long has 13 sacks in 2011, recording at least one sack in 10 of 14 games. 

    Can this be the stud defensive lineman that the Steelers actually handle?

Brandon Lloyd vs. Ike Taylor

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    Ike Taylor is renowned for his great man coverage skills and ability to shut down the game's best receivers. 

    Brandon Lloyd has developed in the past two seasons into a human highlight reel.  The former Broncos receiver was traded to the Rams earlier this season.  Continuing to make spectacular catches, Lloyd is the Rams' leading receiver in catches and yardage despite only having played nine games with the squad.

    Altogether, Lloyd has 61 grabs for 837 yards and four touchdowns this season.  All four scores have come during his tenure in St. Louis.

    While Steven Jackson may be the weapon Steelers defenders most need to keep in check, Brandon Lloyd also present a significant threat on the outside that Kellen Clemens will look to take advantage of. 

    When plays break down or Clemens needs an emergency valve to target, Lloyd will surely be a lucrative option for his ability to come down with passes that other receivers would never catch.

    This is not overstating his talents.  Proof of his amazing grabs can be seen on videos all over the internet.  Try this one, this one or this one for starters, and if that isn't enough, how about this video or the one above?

    In fact, if you like great music and want to witness receiving greatness in gluttonous quantities, try this highlight reel on for size.

    It will be up to Ike to prevent Lloyd's penchant for eye-popping plays.  If Jackson is contained, and Lloyd can't make the big grabs that are often needed for an upset, Kellen could have a predictably long Christmas Eve afternoon in the 'Burgh.

The Potential Final Home Game

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    With the odds of a home playoff game greatly diminished, there's a chance that the Steelers are playing their home finale this weekend.  That means that a few players could inevitably wear the black team jersey for the last time in playing action.

    Contracts end, negotiations are had and free agents part ways with the Black and Gold.  Fans in the Steel City once knew a dynasty comprised of homegrown talent, but they've since adjusted to the reality of the modern NFL. 

    Among those bound to leave, Chris Kemoeatu may be the one player fans are ready to walk out of the city themselves.  Foolish penalties and bad play all-around have shined an unwanted spotlight on the selfish, hot-headed offensive lineman.  And, no, I don't feel I'm overstating it.

    For all of their banal desires to oust those players who completely lack discipline, Steelers fans are also a largely sentimental bunch. 

    To be sure, Steelers Country would weep to know that Hines Ward is playing his final game at Heinz Field, if it were indeed true.  In this way, perhaps, it's better for fans to wonder if future home games are in the cards for the postseason...or if Ward will return to the team for one last hurrah.

    With another season of statistical decline, it's clear Ward's best days are far behind him.  This is not to devalue his contributions.  There's no doubt that Hines can still make the key catch on the key down of any key game, but those spotlight moments have gone from common to occasional to limited in recent seasons. 

    Despite his decline, nobody will ever remember Ward for his struggles.  They'll remember the man who was, as Tunch Ilkin describes, "tougher than woodpecker lips!" 

    Fans will vividly recall the key blocks of a blue collar receiver who brought muscle to a position that frequently lacks physical integrity. 

    Memories will always swirl of the hardworking receiver who always had a smile on his face, lacking an ACL in his knee and fighting harder than anybody to overcome physical odds ascend from a special teams regular to a receiving star.

    Old buddies recalling the great games over a few beers will talk about him bouncing right back up from the hardest hits that angry Ravens could offer.  They'll also talk about the receiver's rivalry with Ed Reed.

    And, who could ever forget to mention the miraculous grabs, the Super Bowl touchdowns and the infuriating slant pattern that had defenses league-wide up in arms about how to stop it?

    Whether this contest or any other marks his final game on Heinz Field grass, the moments deserve to be highlighted and forever memorialized for one of the great Steelers legends to ever play.

    It's entirely possible that he will return, so nothing should be assumed.  But, if this were to be his last home outing, I think everyone would agree to join me in giving Ward the following compliment of the finest quality:

    Hines Ward is and always will be true Black and Gold! 

Happy Holidays!

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    How great is it to be a Steelers fan?  As a prelude to Christmas morning, diehard fans will get treated to an early gift as Pittsburgh participates in a full slate of NFL action on Christmas Eve.

    Whether for the winnings, the six (soon to be seven, right?) Super Bowls, proud tradition or distinct identity, fans in the Steel City and the worldwide Steelers Country have the blessing of being entertained by one of the finest organizations in all of sports.

    So, take a moment, win or lose, to enjoy this chapter of the team's history on Saturday afternoon but don't stop there.  Appreciate all of the games, legends and moments that have comprised Steelers football.

    Also, take time to remember that the blessing of winning and football are only a few facets to be grateful for in this life.

    If you are reading this, you have access to a computer.  You likely have a roof over your head.  Quite possibly, you have children, a significant other to share love or a special person—albeit a parent, family member, or friend—who accepts you unconditionally.  Or, at the very least, their conditions may be fairly reasonable!

    For myself, I'm blessed to have an opportunity to convey my passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers to all of you. In turn, I'm grateful that you have taken time out of a busy day to give me a moment to share that passion with you.

    Most of all, beyond football, I'm grateful to have a family that loves me, so many warm memories to draw upon during the difficult times and so many warm wins to remember during the colder times.  Let's face it: January football in the 'Burgh is downright frigid!

    Take time this weekend to truly appreciate the holiday and the team for what they are—a great blessing and the perfect forum to appreciate it and many other things!

    I wish you all the warmest of holiday seasons!  Go Steelers!