The Los Angeles Rams are closing in on a few important mile markers.
Sunday is their final home game for a month.
At 3-3, the NFL trade deadline is a mere two weeks hence.
Their bye is three contests away.
So while in some respects hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers isn't as critical as taking on the reigning conference champion Philadelphia or division rival Arizona or even next week's trip to Dallas, this is a unique opportunity.
A victory would entrench the Rams in the playoff picture. It would tee up two immensely consequential games against NFC contenders heading into their bye. And not that the front office isn't doing so already, but it could also give the Rams reason to explore every strategic option to upgrade the roster before the month is out.
Though there's some rich history between these franchises, the Steelers don't come to Los Angeles to face the Rams often – not since Week 2, 1993 when Jim Everett, Jerome Bettis, and Cleveland Gary were wearing the Horns, in fact.
Don't miss the chance to make a memory, and to raise the stakes for the rest of 2023.
Running Back By Committee
That's the question of the week at the team facility in Thousand Oaks.
With both of those backs injured, we discussed the state of the Rams running game at length on Thursday's Between the Horns.
Bye, Bye, Bye
The Steelers are coming off their bye. The Rams next opponent, the Cowboys, are currently enjoying theirs.
Los Angeles better get used to it. Four of their remaining 11 opponents will be coming off a bye, with the Ravens and Commanders being the other two, also in back-to-back games in December.
I made a note of Warren Sharp’s valuable research this summer: The -17 days of net rest across the season, relative to their opponents, is the most significant scheduling disadvantage Los Angeles has ever had to overcome.
NFL Research layers in some added context, noting that the Steelers have won their last six games coming off a bye and under head coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh is 12-4 after the open date (tied for the best mark in NFL since 2007).
The Rookies Are Alright
Perhaps the good news is that the Rams have too many rookies running around to know any better or to care about that competitive disadvantage.
One of them, defensive tackle Kobie Turner, just played a career-high snap count against the Cardinals. The Conductor, as he's nicknamed, was our most entertaining guest of the season so far on Rams Revealed.
Young and the Restless
As I wrote earlier this week, Turner's been superb; no NFL rookie receiver has ever started faster than Puka Nacua ; left guard Steve Avila looks like a grand slam selection, entrenched as a starter on the offensive line.
We could go on and on about the Class of 2023 for the Rams, who are leading the NFL in snaps played among rookies.
But perhaps most notable in terms of team needs this season is the emergence of Byron Young, who continues to build his arsenal of pass rush moves on the edge – most recently earning a strip-sack of Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs – and joins Nacua as an NFL Rookie of the Week.
Per Next Gen Stats, Young and Pittsburgh edge Alex Highsmith have two of the top-four pressure rates in the NFL, trailing only Myles Garrett of Cleveland and Micah Parsons of Dallas.
One thing I'll continue to stress about Young is that he was chosen at 77th overall, which happens to be the pick the Rams received from Miami in the Jalen Ramsey trade. I know many of you were hoping to get more in exchange for an All-Pro corner, but if L.A. parlayed the best of Ramsey's prime into a World Championship and then a future force in the pass rush? That's elite resource management (and player development/utilization) that could go a long way to "keeping the window open."
Must Protect This House
Speaking of Highsmith…
He and fellow edge rusher T.J. Watt are a problem – THE problem – in Week 7.
Between them, they have two defensive touchdowns, 10 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and five recoveries.
There isn't much Pittsburgh does well on paper. But they are elite at clobbering your quarterback if you let them pin their ears back.
We'll be monitoring Watt's status closely, after he missed Thursday's practice with a new heel injury. Then again, he's the type who'll dislocate and tear multiple ligaments in a finger, then pop it back in and move on.
Allow me to underscore the above point a bit more.
The Steelers have won three games by a total of 16 points. In each of those victories, they've registered at least three takeaways and at least four sacks. They've also scored twice on defense and blocked a punt for a safety.
Conversely, they've been blown out twice: a 23-point loss to San Francisco and a 24-point defeat at the hands of Houston (notably, both those offensive systems share origins with Sean McVay's). In those no-contests, the Steelers only combined for a total of three sacks and one takeaway.
So far, they have only proven an ability to win with splash plays on defense. Don't let them.
There's no better day than Sunday for Matthew Stafford to string together his third straight turnover-free game for the first time as a Ram.
Hunt For Red October
If you're looking for another key to this contest, it very well could be finishing drives with seven points, not three.
The Steelers have been the worst red zone offense in the league, scoring touchdowns on less than 30 percent of their trips; one major cause has been their inability to run the ball when the field gets short, as they've yet to rush for a score.
And did you happen to catch the note on the Fox broadcast last week about the Rams holding the longest active streak in the NFL? With two touchdowns and three field goals last week from inside the Arizona 20-yard line, they have now come away with points in 49 straight red zone opportunities.
The 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP has been held without a catch twice in his career.
The first was 2018 in Denver, when he was injured and played only 28 snaps.
Therefore, the only full game he's ever played in the NFL without a catch was at PIT in 2019.
In fact, those are his only two games in seven pro seasons without MULTIPLE catches.
And despite everything I just wrote above about pass rush, the Steelers pass defense is suspect, having allowed the fifth-most receiving touchdowns per game and the third most yards per game to opposing receivers.
So long as Stafford is upright, he and Kupp should be able to go to work this weekend.
And the 28-year-old corner, who has also spent time in the NFC West with Seattle and San Francisco, is similarly playing like a Pro Bowler.
I'm sure each will have a bit of added adrenaline on Sunday.
Last week we jotted down a few very realistic things worth waiting on here in 2023, a couple of which came to fruition. So I thought we'd update that list:
- A strip-sack (and recovery) for the Rams pass rush. Check, thank you Byron Young and Quentin Lake.
- Touchdown for Cooper Kupp. Check.
- Tyler Higbee's first trip to the end zone. Almost, he had it on his fingertips against Arizona.
- A non-offensive score. Witherspoon undercut one in the fourth quarter that might've gone the distance had he held on. You can relive that play on this week’s Mic’d Up.
- Cobie Durant, last year's NFL leader in interception return yardage, collecting his first pick. This is your week, Landshark!
Anything else I'm missing that we should be anticipating? Let me know, if so.
Lop off the top three teams in the NFC standings, all at 5-1: San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit.
Then trim the fat from the bottom of the NFC standings, all the teams with four or more losses going into Week 7: Minnesota, Chicago, New York, Arizona, and Carolina.
Who is left in that middle tier of contenders?
Los Angeles and seven other foes. Guess what? The Rams will play five of those franchises head-to-head before Christmas.
Week 7 got off to a helpful beginning, with Jacksonville out of the AFC winning in New Orleans to push the Saints down to 3-4.
Here are the other games I'll have an eye on this weekend, with current NFC playoff standing:
4. Tampa Bay (3-2) vs 9. Atlanta (3-3): If the Bucs hold serve at home, they'll be two games up in the loss column in the NFC South, with head-to-head wins over their only competition – the Falcons and Saints. Some team has to win this division and is likely going to be the four-seed. Might as well be Baker Mayfield, so hope he and the Bucs run away with the South?
6. Seattle (3-2) vs. Arizona: The Bengals beating the Seahawks in Cincinnati was part of a Week 6 picture in which the Rams were the only NFC West winner.
8. Washington (3-3) at New York: The Giants gave the Bills far more than Buffalo wanted on Sunday night. This could be a sneaky significant game for L.A.'s chances, if the G-Men can push the Commanders below .500.
11. Green Bay (2-3) at Denver: Coming off their bye, the Packers have this trip, then a home game versus the struggling Vikings before the Rams visit Lambeau. So if there was ever a time for Rams fans to root for Russell Wilson and Sean Payton, this must be it.
Take a look through the best photos of the Los Angeles Rams practicing ahead of their Week 7 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.