Week 7 brought a painful loss for the Los Angeles Rams. The Pittsburgh Steelers came out on top of the closely contested battle 24-17, sending LA to 3-4 on the season.
The game got off to a slow start by both offenses. The teams traded field goals and then Matthew Stafford connected with Tutu Atwell downfield for a touchdown just before halftime. Los Angeles added another score early in the third quarter by recently re-signed RB Darrell Henderson, but it was all Steelers from that point on.
The outcome hinged on a late QB sneak by Kenny Pickett that the Steelers converted, sealing the Rams’ losing fate.
There were several standout performances in this game (in both good and bad ways) that helped up reach this final score.
Puka Nacua, WR
The rookie receiver was targeted 12 times and caught eight passes for 154 yards in one of his more productive outings on the still-young season. Nacua is now over 750 yards through seven games and is on his way to becoming a 1,000 yard receiver—still an impressive accomplishment in an era of 17-game seasons.
Nacua had a physical sideline catch on a downfield pass by Matthew Stafford, though most of his production came from runs after the catch. The rookie ran through contact and created several explosives with his legs to produce in a way we haven’t quite seen from him yet.
Michael Hoecht, OLB
Hoecht has been oft-maligned by fans this season. Raheem Morris has dropped him in coverage and offenses have found ways to single him out downfield against pass catching tight ends. It’s an odd decision that makes more sense to critique from a coaching perspective than performance, and if you can look past it you’ll see that Hoecht has been playing well in recent weeks and has been coming on strong. It’s important to remember that he’s still new to the edge position and is still developing despite being on the Rams’ roster for several years.
Hoecht finished with two sacks. One was unblocked but the other one he was forced to work through the pass protecting running back to take down Pickett. It was a strong outing for the OLB.
Michael Hoecht records his second SACK on Kenny Pickett pic.twitter.com/YLq5kNmpBf— LA Rams Nation (@RamsNationCP) October 22, 2023
Darrell Henderson & Royce Freeman, RB
The potential floor for Henderson and Freeman entering this game seemed very low. It wasn’t fair to expect a replacement running back to take on nearly the same workload that Kyren Williams was managing (possibly part of the reason he was injured), so really all the Rams needed from the new stable of running backs was dependability and competence.
That’s what they got both from Henderson and Freeman in this game. Henderson ran 18 times for 61 yards (3.4 average) and a touchdown. Freeman rotated in and carried the ball 12 times for 66 yards (5.5).
It could have been a lot worse.
Anyone pickup Darrell Henderson?— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) October 22, 2023
Brett Maher, K
Maher left seven points off the board with two missed field goal attempts and a failed extra point try. His make came from 41-yards out.
It’s the kind of performance that makes you wonder if Maher will be around after this week, and the Rams now need to contemplate a contingency plan in case Maher continues to sputter.
Sean McVay on kicker Brett Maher: We'll look at it, and we'll see. He's got to be better. That's seven points that we missed out on, that were key and critical for the momentum of the game and the type of game that it was. Those were tough ones, today.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) October 23, 2023
Cooper Kupp, WR
The usually steady and reliable Cooper Kupp had multiple drops in this game and the veteran failed to make much of an impact. Stafford targeted Kupp seven times for only two completions and 29 yards.
Taking away the team’s primary receiving option is a big reason why the Steelers came out on top of this game.
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB
Witherspoon had a tough matchup in emerging receiver George Pickens, and it seemed every time Pittsburgh had a big passing play Witherspoon was the nearest defender in coverage. Pickens is a physical receiver that excels at winning at the catch point, and it’s not like Witherspoon left him wide open or contributed to an ugly coverage bust.
Matthew Stafford, QB
You’re not going to win many games in the NFL when your quarterback doesn’t complete 50% of his pass attempts, and that was the unfortunate reality for Stafford and the Rams against the Steelers. The veteran QB finished 14/29 (48%) for 231 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Stafford has been inconsistent and erratic at times this season, and that makes it difficult for a high volume passing offense to stay on track—putting the team in more third and long scenarios.
I’ve watched the late second quarter touchdown to Tutu Atwell a dozen times at this point and I still can’t decide if Stafford was throwing the ball to Atwell or if his intended targeted was a tightly covered Kupp. Still, you can’t argue with the end result that put six points on the board when the team needed them.
The interception came shortly after in the early third quarter and setup a Steelers touchdown drive. LA didn’t have much production through the air outside of the Nacua’s contributions and explosive catch and run plays.
Zach Evans, RB
Starting Zach Evans at running back would have made more sense for the Rams based on where they are at in their roster rebuild. While bringing Henderson back feels good and is nostalgic, he doesn’t factor into the team’s plans beyond the next four games and especially into next season. The same should likely be said about Freeman. Evans could use this valuable experience and by the end of the season LA would maybe have a solid one-two punch with Kyren Williams.
But the Rams must truly feel that Evans is not prepared for a starting workload if they prefer to not only sign a guy off his couch but even put him atop the depth chart after only a few days of practice. That’s not a good sign for the rookie running back.