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The Steelers need a big game from their secondary to succeed against the Rams

While most of Steeler Nation is focused on whether embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada will be fired (he won’t), there’s another offense they should be worried about. It’s the offense of their opponent on Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams may not be who they were two years ago when they claimed the Super Bowl, but they remain a scary bunch, particularly in the passing game. For the Steelers to be successful in Los Angeles, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of their defensive backs to slow down L.A.’s attack.

Los Angeles ranks sixth in the league with an average of 258.8 passing yards per game. Their numbers have actually been down in the two games since the return of star receiver Cooper Kupp, who missed the first four contests with an injury. Numbers don’t always tell the story, though. Kupp’s first game back was against a potent Philadelphia Eagles defense, and in the second, against the Cardinals, L.A. ran for 179 yards against a soft cover-2 shell designed to stop the pass. Make no mistake about it — the Rams are a dangerous offense. Kupp has been sensational since returning, with 15 receptions for 266 yards. And rookie Puka Nacua, who broke a record for the most receptions in league history by a player over his first three NFL games, filled in wonderfully in Kupp’s absence. Nacua has been relegated to a lesser role since Kupp’s return, but he and Kupp comprise a formidable duo that poses a serious challenge for the Steelers’ questionable secondary.

To defend Los Angeles, Pittsburgh will need to play a healthy dose of their nickel and dime packages. Los Angeles has used 11-personnel — three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back — on 94% of their offensive snaps, which is by far the highest frequency in the league. That grouping spreads the field with pass-catching threats and necessitates swapping out a defensive lineman or linebacker for an extra defensive back, something the Steelers are in short supply of these days. Pittsburgh released veteran corner Desmond King over the bye week. King was expected to receive reps as their slot corner when he was signed a few weeks back. Evidently, that didn’t work out. They signed rookie Darius Rush off of Kansas City’s practice squad to replace King, but they remain thin at corner. Patrick Peterson has been decent as one starter, but Levi Wallace has struggled mightily on the opposite side. Rookie Joey Porter Jr. is pressing for more playing time but remains a work in progress. Veterans Chandon Sullivan and James Pierre have seen snaps in the slot, with neither impressing. Add all of that up and the result is a proclivity for surrendering big games to elite receivers.

In Week 1, for example, San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk shredded the Steelers for eight receptions, 129 yards and two touchdowns. The next week, Cleveland’s Amari Cooper had seven catches for 90 yards. In Week 3, Las Vegas’s Davonte Adams went off, catching 13 passes for 172 yards. The following week, it was Nico Collins of Houston grabbing seven passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. In Week 5, had the receivers of the Baltimore Ravens been able to hold on to the football, they would have had multiple 100-yard performers.

Those numbers are scary when you consider the looming matchup with Kupp and Nacua. The ineffectiveness of Pittsburgh’s corner play has forced the Steelers into using a high frequency of three-safety packages. This was successful last season, when the trio of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee worked well together. Edmunds was the box safety who defended the run and manned-up opposing tight ends. Kazee was the back-end centerfielder who served as a ball-hawk and safety net. And Fitzpatrick was the rover, moving around the defense wherever coordinator Teryl Austin needed him and putting his exceptional playmaking talents to use. Pittsburgh lost Edmunds to free agency, but the acquisition of Keanu Neal seemed like a perfect counter move. Neal was expected to slide seamlessly into the Edmunds role and the Steelers would pick up where they left off.

That hasn’t happened. Neal has had a hard time adjusting to life in the box. As a result, he’s played more in deep coverage than anticipated. This has forced Fitzpatrick to assume those duties. After playing just 6% of his snaps in the box last season, Fitzpatrick’s box usage is over 20% this year. He’s done a great job limiting the effectiveness of opposing tight ends, who for ages seemed a thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh defense. But his splash plays are down. Fitzpatrick leads the team in tackles but has just two passes defensed and no interceptions, forced fumbles or sacks. What he’s providing the Steelers in plays near the line of scrimmage is being lost on the back end. The other defenders simply aren’t stepping up.

To win in Los Angeles, they’ll have to. Head coach Sean McVay runs an offense that thrives on moving and displacing defenders. The Rams use motion on 65% of their snaps, which is the fourth-highest frequency in the league. They combine that motion with a gap-heavy run game which forces defenses to fit the run soundly. If a team doesn’t adjust to the motions correctly, they’ll compromise themselves against the run. But if they get overly aggressive, McVay will dial up his signature bootleg and play-action passes designed to exploit that aggression. These passes target the middle of the field, where linebackers and underneath players often find themselves out of position once they’ve chased a ball fake. The key to stopping this offense, then, is to adjust properly to L.A.’s shifts and motions, to have great eye discipline, to not bite on the run fakes, and to cut off the middle of the field where the Rams’ receivers do their most damage.

How will the Steelers do these things? It will be a big day for Fitzpatrick, whose role as the “rat,” or the defender assigned to disrupt seam and crossing routes, will be prominent. When Los Angeles aligns Kupp or Nacua outside, Pittsburgh’s corners must hold up one-on-one. Porter could be integral in this regard, as he’s already shown himself to be a more capable man-defender than Wallace. Peterson could see increased time in the slot as well, if the Steelers opt more for a traditional nickel package as opposed to their three-safety look. And as always, the pass rush needs to get home to give the back end a chance.

The Rams lost their top two running backs to injury last week and will likely start 6th Round rookie Zach Evans in that role. This may compel them to throw the ball more than usual. Whatever their plan, the Steelers will need answers. The pressure is on Pittsburgh’s secondary, who are likely the key to a successful trip out west.

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