Rams vs. Steelers: 10 Observations Following the Steel City's Shutout Win
During the evening following the game, backup quarterback Charlie Batch was delivering packages to needy local children as part of his common charity work around the community. During the afternoon, he simply sent the Rams packing.
With the aid of a great rushing attack, anchored by the tough running of Rashard Mendenhall against the league's worst run defense, Charlie Batch and the offense won the contest by exploiting a huge pregame mismatch to their advantage.
Yet, even with the solid running game, the ultimate difference between St. Louis and Pittsburgh was the efficiency at quarterback and the ability to finish drives. After all, Steven Jackson ran for 103 yards, but his team didn't (or couldn't) capitalize from his effort.
Batch moved the sticks when needed and ultimately hit Mike Wallace with a 46-yard gainer that allowed Mendenhall to end the competitive phase of the game. Conversely, Kellen Clemens showcased why his NFL starts are a rarity, succumbing to pressure and unable to pass effectively despite the aid of a great game by running back Steven Jackson.
While both teams moved the ball, the Rams constantly went backwards in Pittsburgh territory, and the Steelers went full throttle in the second half. After having the opportunity to cut a 13-0 deficit in half early in the fourth quarter, St. Louis repeated its stumbling act of all afternoon, and the Men of Steel finally put the game away.
Here are 10 observations taken from the Steelers' commanding 27-0 victory over the pathetic Rams.
Mendenhall and Redman: Great Game with an Asterisk
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Against the hapless Rams' defensive front, Rashard Mendenhall averaged over six yards per carry and went over 100 yards rushing well before the final seconds ticked off the clock.
His 54-yard burst in the first half set up John Clay's first ever touchdown on his initial NFL carry, and his 35-yard reception up the left sideline gave the Steelers the field position needed to open scoring.
Isaac Redman sprinkled in some yeoman's efforts, running hard and gaining 35 yards on eight attempts.
It was the type of rushing effort that the Steelers needed in order to assist their backup quarterback in his first start in 15 months. After looking lackluster against the Browns, many worried how Batch would hold up, and he answered the call with an efficient outing.
The running game getting into gear allowed the whole offense to move forward and avoid going in reverse, including the quarterback. In fact, while the offensive philosophy is now catered to Big Ben and his quartet of receiving dynamos, the talent in the passing game does not negate the importance of the run.
Looking at the team's best rushing efforts this season, Ben benefited with five touchdowns against the Titans, and Batch led the team to a 27-0 victory over the Rams.
Still, these were the dreadful St. Louis Rams and their dead-last ranked run defense, which was every bit as putrid as statistics indicated.
Unable to wrap up on the backs, defensive linemen missed tackles, got pushed over and were often completely blocked out of the running lanes—a sight that the Steelers fans have not gotten to enjoy often enough in 2011.
While decimating the Rams was a confidence booster, the real tests will come in the playoffs. If the running game can simply pick up key first downs and keep the down and distances reasonable, the Steelers offense will be hard to stop.
Accepting the Shutout: Where's the Dignity?
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In 2006, Jon Gruden and the Buccaneers traveled to Heinz Field to battle the Steelers in a game featuring two losing teams.
Bruce Gradkowski threw three interceptions, and Pittsburgh led 20-0 late into the fourth quarter. On a desperate final drive, Tampa Bay put together some first downs in an effort to save face, surely hoping for the touchdown.
With three seconds left, they were still 10 yards away from the end zone. Despite being dominated and having to accept the loss, Jon Gruden essentially said, "I'll be damned if I'm going to be shutout voluntarily if there are points on the field to be scored."
Matt Bryant kicked a 27-yard field goal. Heinz Field fans booed the decision, vitriolically questioning the integrity of taking cheap points simply to avoid the shutout. From the Bucs' perspective, a hard loss left little consolation, and Gruden simply made the decision to give the team some positive energy—a mild reward—for its losing efforts.
After all, if you're in field position to earn the shutout, you've earned the right to avoid it. Period.
As Steve Spagnuolo and his squad entered deep Pittsburgh territory with seconds to go, they literally ran the ball to Cadillac Williams to run out the clock and end the game. Their psychologically scarred kicker left with two misses on the day, and St. Louis seceded the shutout.
Losing badly is one thing, but scoring zero points is another animal. Even if for the dignity of every player who poured sweat on Saturday afternoon, walking away from a throw into the end zone or another field goal attempt was pathetic.
Sure, the Rams had lost, and they'd been bullied most of the second half. Nevertheless, Steve Jackson put in yeoman's work. The whole team could have used any ounce of momentum to build on after a long, hard season.
Walking away was incredibly weak, though I can speak for all Steelers fans in stating that the shutout was appreciated.
For a coach who's fighting for his job, waving the white flag and flushing free points down the toilet—no matter the magnitude of those points—lacked character.
Steelers Defense: Bending, Not Breaking
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The defensive performance was a mixed bag, skewed by a goose egg.
They allowed far too many rushing yards.
They got pressure on Clemens and dominated the Rams' passing game.
They let St. Louis drive the field on multiple occasions.
And, lastly, they always fought back in their own territory and prevented any Rams' score.
Good, bad, good, bad.
Overall, the Steelers defense was NOT GREAT (repeat: NOT GREAT), but their "bend, but don't break" afternoon resulted in a surprising shutout!
The end result of the Steelers' effort on Sunday afternoon can be viewed from two different perspectives—the game or the scoreboard.
Nobody can deny the impact of a shutout effort. While the Rams have struggled to score points all season (averaging just over 11 points per game heading into Saturday), the Black and Gold were stout every moment St. Louis had an opportunity to score.
Nevertheless, the Rams had multiple chances to put points on the board. Their kicker missed two field goals, and the offense simply gave up on ending the shutout in the waning seconds.
All afternoon, Steven Jackson went into "man mode," running with equal parts muscle, speed, and decisiveness. His 103-yard effort recalled earlier weeks when the Steelers run defense struggled to contain premiere backs, such as Ray Rice and Arian Foster.
Making no mistake, the Steelers gap integrity was more sound this week than during their early-season struggles. In that manner, the result of Jackson's 100 yards was even more surprising, as he largely willed and bullied his way to many of those yards.
How many times was Jackson trapped in the backfield, only to spin or squeeze through the narrowest crack for positive yardage? His day was the result of some good blocking but mostly great individual effort.
Altogether, the Rams ran for over 160 yards.
While Jackson had a fine afternoon, the rest of the Rams offense was overwhelmed. The Steelers got pressure on Clemens in the second half, getting sacks and forcing throwaways.
When Clemens was able to lock onto a target and deliver the football, it was mostly inaccurate and often affected by the rush in front of him.
Steven Jackson Is a Gem on a Bad Team
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After Marshall Faulk was far enough beyond his prime, the Rams unveiled a new running weapon—the deadly Steven Jackson. He was a dynamic runner, easy to spot with his locks of hair blowing in the breeze as he jetted past defenders.
When he first played in St. Louis, the team had remnants of the "Greatest Show on Turf" surrounding him, such as receiver Torry Holt. Marc Bulger had become an effective passer in the days following Kurt Warner, and the Rams made the playoffs.
Jackson was regarded in many circles as the best back in the NFC. As seasons have passed, the talent surrounding him has dwindled. Sure, he has seen his share of injuries, and he may have even lost a step from his initial seasons.
Nevertheless, Jackson still shows the occasional glimmer of running brilliance that was on display so frequently when the Rams could support his game with other talented players. Now, pieces are clearly missing on a Rams squad that's 10-36 under Steve Spagnuolo.
Against the Steelers and for a stretch of games during midseason, Jackson showcased his 100-yard talent. Often, this talent is bottled up in a myriad of bad blocking and sidelined offense. Now, with little threat of a passing game, the difficulty of running in St. Louis is magnified as teams can stack the box.
On any other team, Jackson (a 1,000-yard rusher for the seventh straight season) would get the publicity and notoriety of one of the game's finest runners. While that reputation may be understood by many hardcore fans of the game, his name gets lost in such conversations in most circles as a result of his teams' poor play.
Like other backs before him (Sanders in the 90s), the true peak ability of Jackson may never be known if the Rams don't improve quickly.
Charlie Batch Played Well Enough While Clemens Folded
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Sometimes, "well enough" should be left alone. In this case, I'm going to more of less leave it alone.
While he did have an interception, the turnover was the result of Antonio Brown slipping on the field. Altogether, Batch's play was the difference in a game that saw both teams move the football and run well.
At the end of 60 minutes, Charlie eluded pressure, made some great throws, and did what was necessary to lead the offense to points when opportunities came available.
Most impressively was Batch's escapability, getting away from defenders twice with Houdini acts in a collapsing pocket. In the second half, Batch played at his best, hitting Mike Wallace with a 46-yard bomb that set up the game-clinching score and Hines Ward on a final drive that drove the point home.
Meanwhile, Clemens completed 9-of-24 passes and got more rusty as the game progressed. His 24 attempts resulted in a meager 91 passing yards.
While he avoided interceptions on the stats sheets, Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons had great opportunities to change that, getting their mitts on two poorly thrown passes. Either would-be interception had the potential to become a long return, if not a touchdown.
Often facing third down in Steelers' territory, Clemens' passes never quite hit the necessary mark to extend Rams' drives, and many St. Louis points were left on the field of play. The Rams only converted three of their final 11 third-down attempts.
Clemens gave the Steel City some early Christmas presents, and Charlie Batch delivered them later that night.
Jonathan Scott Erased Chris Long
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Chris Long is a phenomenal NFL talent. On Christmas Eve, the mustached man left with a fairly empty stat line.
Finishing with two meager tackles and no sacks, Chris Long—who had 13 sacks in 2011, including sacks in 10 of 14 games—never got to take down Charlie Batch.
Marcus Gilbert was originally slated with the tough assignment. As the game started, many fans were surprised to see Jonathan Scott assuming the focus right tackle position against one of the best ends in the game.
Scott got the better of Long, playing well in relief on an offensive line that truly needs men to step up and succeed. With injuries and inconsistent play having plagued the unit in recent seasons, Scott producing such a yeoman's effort was a welcome sight.
The Rams Need Receivers To Complement Lloyd
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How far we have come from the days of the aerial circus in St. Louis!
While Steven Jackson is a fine checkdown option in the Rams' passing game, Brandon Lloyd would benefit greatly from having a deterrent on the opposite side of the field. The Rams need a better receiver to complement the jaw-dropping Lloyd, whose catches often leave defenders bewildered and fans awe-inspired.
Despite having played only 10 games since starting the season with Denver, Lloyd leads the Rams in receptions and yardage. Yesterday, Ike Taylor contained for much of the afternoon, often having a bit of safety help over the top or the aid of bad throws due to pressure on Kellen Clemens.
While Ike won the battle between corner and receiver, Lloyd still made his weekly highlight snags, though one was overturned. He made a brilliant sideline catch, keeping his feet inbounds, and nearly came away with a reception in the first quarter that would have been just absolutely silly!
While Denario Alexander scored the last Ram's touchdown, his ability is not going to scare any defense to slant coverage away from the ultra-talented Lloyd.
St. Louis has many needs, and some of those are more pressing than wide receiver. Yet, Lloyd would benefit from a more viable threat sharing the field.
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Two milestones were set at Heinz Field on Christmas Eve.
Steven Jackson became the seventh running back in NFL history to run for over 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons.
Antonio Brown, through special teams returns, rushes and receptions, accumulated over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2011, which is the highest total in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Likewise, he ended the game with 1,018 receiving yards, joining Mike Wallace as a 1,000-yard receiver.
Another milestone is approaching.
Hines Ward caught four passes. Ward, a fan favorite and all-time Black and Gold legend, is within five receptions of a career total of 1,000 catches. He's come a long way from his days on special teams (1998), and his physical play was always equally matched by his playmaking.
The milestone will be an important achievement for Ward, who most fans feel deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Suisham May Be Changing Perceptions!
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I still question Shaun Suisham's leg power, especially in today's NFL. The modern kicker hits field goals from beyond half the field with shocking regularity, and the high rate of conversion from long distances is equal parts accuracy, technique, and leg strength.
For Suisham, fans' questions regarding his ability to come through in key moments are basically evoked from the latter factor. Does he have a strong leg that can make the difficult kick in the toughest spot?
After seeing his effort in Super Bowl XLV, an embarrassing folly, among other misses, fans were rightfully wary.
Has Suisham's play in recent weeks changed the minds of the masses? Instead of notions of dread, could the public start viewing the kicker with confidence?
Yesterday, Suisham converted from 49 yards and ultimately made both of his attempts, only one week removed from connecting on a 50-yard field goal that served as Pittsburgh's only scoring in San Francisco.
Conversely, Josh Brown missed both of his efforts for St. Louis, from 52 and 33 yards, respectively.
It was Shaun Suisham who put forth the superior kicking leg on Saturday. Can he keep it up as the team heads into the postseason?
Dolphins Blow It, Colts Come Through, and...
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The playoff scenarios for Pittsburgh are now crystal clear heading into Week 17. Following their win against the Rams, a few other key games in the AFC provided definition to the Black and Gold's situation.
Heading into the weekend, the Steelers, assuming wins over the Rams and Browns in the final weeks, needed the Ravens to lose another game. In doing so, the team could still win the AFC North.
For a division championship to translate into a bye week, Pittsburgh needed a loss by the Houston Texans. Lastly, home-field advantage required a New England loss in one of their final two home clashes.
On Thursday Night Football, Dan Orlovsky engineered a touchdown drive in the final minute, defeating the Texans. Suddenly, an AFC North championship meant a bye week for the Steelers.
For a brief moment, it appeared that everything could fall into place for Pittsburgh, almost as if destiny had a full slate of Christmas miracles in store for the Steel City.
By the end of the early slate of NFL action, the Patriots rallied to defeat Miami, and the Ravens held off the Browns' rally.
Thus, heading into the final week, a Steelers win over the Browns would mean the following when coupled with the outlined scenarios below:
RAVENS WIN: fifth Seed in the AFC playoffs (@ AFC West winner)
RAVENS LOSS & PATRIOTS WIN: second seed (facing top-seeded AFC winner from wild-card weekend after bye week)
RAVENS LOSS & PATRIOTS LOSS: first seed (home-field advantage, facing the lowest remaining AFC seed throughout)
Steelers Country will gather on Sunday in hopes of victory for the Black and Gold. Additionally, they will showcase rare support for the enemy:
Go Cincy, indeed!
The Patriots host the Buffalo Bills. While a Buffalo victory would be satisfying, it may be cosmically important for Steelers fans not to be greedy. After all, if not coupled with a Ravens' loss, it would essentially mean nothing.