Sunday Morning Joe: Stopping the Rams' Passing Attack Starts with Slowing Their Underachieving Run Game
On paper, the Los Angeles Rams offense is one of the best in the NFL. A running back trio headlined by Todd Gurley, a receiving core with multiple weapons and a former first-overall pick at quarterback.
Through eight games, the Rams have relied heavily on one aspect of their game plan - the passing attack. Gurley is on pace to record the lowest rushing numbers of his career, but only because he's touching the ball less than he has over the last five seasons.
So, as LA has tried to stay competitive without running their back into the ground, they've turned to Jared Goff. The former first-overall pick received a $134-million contract this offseason, putting the offense in his hands for the next four years.
It's paid off through eight games. The Rams passing attack ranks 5th in the NFL, making up for having the 20th rushing attack in the league. While Gurley remains on track to stay healthy for the postseason, Goff is slinging it everywhere - turning attention away from their All-Pro back and towards a new name in LA.
"Cooper Kupp, obviously a great player, very knowledgeable of the game, understands the game really well," Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton described his Week 10 matchup. "He's the same player he is with the ball without the ball. He's always getting his teammates involved, throwing a block on the perimeter to spring a play. He plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, and his game is reflecting it. You can tell year in and year out, obviously coming off the injury last year, but this year he's putting in the work all season, leading up to these moments in the games and he's making teams pay for it."
The name in Pittsburgh this week is Kupp. The third-year receiver leads the team with 792 yards and 5 touchdowns through the midway point. A big-body who's become one of the most efficient third-down receivers in the NFL.
When focused on efficiency and getting the ball back, they are focused on Kupp. But it's a collective effort in LA and Pittsburgh knows it.
"We're focused on all the receivers, they have a lot of good receivers and a quarterback who can get them the ball," Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. "We're just focused on stopping their passing attack. Cooper Kupp is a big target on third down, so on third down we do have to put a little more emphasis on him and make sure we know where he's at."
He's not the Steelers only target, though. As the prepared for the Rams, the constant question arose - "are you focused on Cooper Kupp?" And almost every time, the answer was no, because when a team is this good on paper, stat lines don't mean much in their ability to break open a ball game.
Instead, the Steelers are focused on everyone. From Goff to Gurley to Kupp and the rest of the receivers, Pittsburgh's defense has their hands full and they're fully aware that there are many more names than Cooper Kupp.
"The offense as a whole," Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton said about the team's focus. "Top to bottom they have explosive weapons and it starts with Gurley. He's one of the best backs in the league and they want to feed him as much as possible so we have to find ways to turn him around and make them one dimensional."
If it starts with stopping Gurley, the Steelers have more to worry about than one player. The Rams' backfield consists of three backs they utilize to keep defenses on their toes. Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson Jr. assist Gurley, splitting a full backfield workload into three parts.
It wasn't an easy task preparing for a backfield of three, but defensive end Cam Heyward said as long as they're ready to shut down one they'll hold all three in check.
"You got to be on your P's and Q's," Heyward said. "Understand that if he gets daylight he's going to hit it and he's an explosive back. Preparing for that I think prepares you for the rest of the guys. I know Gurley is their feature back but they do a great job of, when they go in, doing the same exact thing and running downhill."
In his seven performances this season, Gurley is yet to reach the century mark and has a rushing high of 18 attempts. It may not be lack of production that's hold Gurley back but his limited usage. Leaving question as to whether or not he's capable of having explosive games. An easy answer for the Steelers defense.
"Yeah absolutely," Hilton said. "He may be having a down year, if you want to call it that, but he's still one of the best backs in the league. He can really control the game so we have to find ways to turn him back and slow down their offense."
But in a limited-role, the Rams rushing game could be a simple fix. The Steelers have allowed over 100-yards rushing twice since their first win in Week 4 - including one to Lamar Jackson.
If they're able to execute their game plan and slow Gurley, the attention turns back to the passing game. LA faces a defense that's forced 22 turnovers this season and doesn't appear to be slowing up. Jared Goff has thrown 7 interceptions in 2019, on pace to throw a career-high by the end of the year.
They're not heading into kickoff with a clear plan on how to force Goff's hand this week. All the defense knows is something's clicking and it's going to continue to click. Making plays has come natural this season, and in Week 10 - against an LA offense they've scouted from top to bottom - they're going to let their skills make the difference.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Hilton said when forcing turnovers. "Just knowing our defense, we've got to get our hands on the ball. Stripping at it and trying to make plays. For the defensive line, forcing bad balls so on the back end we can go make a play."