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Week 10 will decide if Rams can still defend the division

A win in Pittsburgh combined with a Minnesota loss in Dallas puts the Rams right back in the playoff framework.

But as we enter Week 10, are you willing to settle for a Wild Card berth as their best-case scenario? Or is defending the NFC West crown still on the table?

My opinion on that Monday Night Football quandary is included in this week's column, but first, a moment 90 NFL games in the making.

Hard Work Pays Off

For the first time in an already Hall of Fame-worthy career, Pittsburgh native Aaron Donald faces the Steelers at Heinz Field.

And as Gary Klein of the LA Times reported this week, he'll do so on his mother's birthday. Sometimes the stars just align.

What a privilege it is to watch this other-worldly talent hone his craft week after week. Perhaps Donald's bid for a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honor will be bolstered by a memorable performance in his hometown.

JuJu On That [Don't Get] Beat

Agreed, he's not Antonio Brown. But this Sunday, it's up to Jalen Ramsey to make sure JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn't produce like A.B. once did.

Smith-Schuster's numbers are down in 2019, as he acclimates to life after Brown and Le'Veon Bell, as well as the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 22-year old receiver was also a surprise addition to the Steelers injury report Friday, listed as questionable with a foot.

Nonetheless, you don't surpass Randy Moss as the youngest to reach 2,500 yards receiving in NFL history by accident. These are the matchups the Rams had in mind when they traded for Ramsey, who has three interceptions and seven passes defended in his last two regular season contests against Pittsburgh.

Cash Me Outside

The Rams defense has been solid and has the potential to be elite with the addition of Ramsey and the return of Clay Matthews.

In fact, if you love outside linebackers, this is the game for you.

Not only have Matthews and Dante Fowler combined for 12.5 sacks, but Obo Okoronkwo came away from London with the first 1.5 sacks of his career. This week will be telling to see how they, along with Samson Ebukam, are deployed in Wade Phillips' game plan.

On the Steelers side, T.J. Watt is the top-graded edge rusher in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. He and reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week Bud Dupree have combined for 13.5 sacks.

What's Trending?

On that foreboding note, let's turn to the offense.

For L.A. to get where it's trying to go, Jared Goff must outperform his circumstances in the back half of the schedule. The Steelers defense is ferocious, and the Bears, 49ers, and other imposing groups await.

Brandin Cooks is out. The offensive line is retooling. The running game has been inconsistent, at best.

The teams currently ahead of the Rams in the standings are quarterbacked by Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Kirk Cousins.

Goff has to outduel them, and that starts with protecting himself and the football, as he did going into the bye. The Rams signal-caller hasn't turned it over or been sacked since the San Francisco loss. That may not be a sustainable streak – especially against a Pittsburgh defense that ranks among the NFL's best in sacks and takeaways – but it is a trend that must be extended for the Rams to play into January.

Reynolds Catch Rate

With Cooks sidelined for at least this Week 10 contest, third-year wideout Josh Reynolds returns to the starting lineup.

There's been a concerning disconnect between him and Goff this season. Reynolds has been targeted 18 times with just five catches. However, London was by far their most in-sync performance, as evidenced by a 31-yard touchdown.

In 2018, when the Rams lost Cooper Kupp for the second half of the season, the Rams were hurt at two positions: Robert Woods played valiantly moving into the slot, but he was no Kupp. And while Reynolds absolutely had his moments – particularly in the NFC Championship – he didn't produce out wide like Woods.

The absence of Cooks should be less disruptive. With two weeks to prepare in Cooks' role, Reynolds can step in as a one-for-one replacement, and hopefully Kupp and Woods won't be impacted.

A Helping Hand(off)

For the first time this season, Sean McVay has his full complement of running backs to choose from. Malcolm Brown is back from injury, rookie Darrell Henderson is up to speed, and Todd Gurley has only weathered 15 touches per game this season.

If ever there was a time for the running game to come alive, this is it.

Except they've already faced defenses ranked 32, 29, 22, 21, and 20 against the run (DVOA).

So would it be naïve to believe they'll get on track against the Steelers?

On this week's Rams Revealed podcast, Andrew Whitworth went in depth on that topic. He touched on the relative inexperience of his fellow offensive linemen. Like McVay so often before him, he explained that the looks they've been given by opposing defenses just haven't dictated a run-heavy play selection.

"That's just a much more complex thing than, 'Oh man, when will you get back to running per carry like you did before?'" the 37-year-old summarized. "I think that's almost a college football mentality. This is pro football. You don't just walk out there and rush for four yards a carry or five yards a carry. It's not that easy."

Paving the way to the playoffs won't be easy either, without a more robust running game.

Minkah in the Deep Middle

Per ESPN research, the Steelers pass defense has been vastly improved since trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick in Week Three.

Pittsburgh was desperate enough to send a 2020 first-round pick, having allowed opposing signal callers to complete 4-of-7 beyond 20 yards for three touchdowns. (Granted, the authors of those passes were Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.)

Since, with Fitzpatrick at free safety, they've surrendered zero scores and collected three interceptions on such downfield throws. Playing free safety, like his mother suggested all along, Fitzpatrick housed a 96-yard pick against the Colts last week.

Combined with the absence of Cooks and the fierce pass rush of the Steelers, will Goff and McVay be able to threaten Pittsburgh downfield?

Tomlin's Tenure

When McVay was hired as the youngest NFL head coach of the modern era, one of the more optimistic comparisons was Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers hired him in 2007 at 34 years of age. 13 years and 129 regular season wins later, 2019 might be his best coaching job so far.

Can you imagine McVay leading the Rams in 2029? The season AFTER Los Angeles hosts the Olympics?

Think of how many 'Coach McVay' shows with me and D'Marco Farr he'll have endured by then!

Toss Up

The most improbable streak no one in the NFL is talking about?

The Rams have kicked off and started all eight games on defense. No other team has more than six such instances this season.

It's worked out brilliantly for L.A. in terms of managing opportunities going into and coming out of the half. But is this the week we see the Rams on offense first?

Playing for the Tie

The dilemma of the week centers around Monday Night Football, as the Seahawks and 49ers collide for the first time this season.

Who do Rams fans want to prevail?

Here's my suggestion: If Los Angeles wins in Pittsburgh, go all in. Keep your sights set on three-peating. Root for Seattle to hand San Francisco its first loss. The Rams would have to give the Niners a second at Levi's in December. Then the rest of SF's schedule includes home games against Arizona, Green Bay, and Atlanta plus road trips to Baltimore, New Orleans, and Seattle.

If the Seahawks come through this weekend, 12-4 or even 11-5 comes into play for the NFL's last undefeated team, and the Rams are absolutely back in the hunt.

That all changes if the Rams were to stumble against the Steelers, of course. Swallow your pride and pull for the 49ers.

The Los Angeles Rams practice ahead of the team's Week 10 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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