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NFL Preview - St. Louis (2-12) at Pittsburgh (10-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Given what is at stake for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it comes as no surprise that Ben Roethlisberger would rather play than rest his injured ankle.
With the St. Louis Rams two games away from ending a very disappointing 2011 season, they won't be taking the same chance with their prized quarterback.
With or without Roethlisberger, the Steelers look to stay in the hunt for one of the AFC's top seeds this Saturday versus a visiting Rams club hoping to avoid its second six-game losing streak of the season.
Pittsburgh returns to the Steel City on a short week after dropping a 20-3 decision to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. Despite a high ankle sprain suffered 10 days earlier versus Cleveland, Roethlisberger started the game and turned the ball over four times, including three interceptions, as his club had a four-game win streak snapped.
The Steelers had a chance to pass the Baltimore Ravens for first place in the AFC North, but instead fell back into a tie with the 10-4 club. The Ravens own the head-to-head tiebreaker, so Baltimore can win the division with a victory over the Browns and a Steelers loss to the Rams.
"We didn't do enough," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said bluntly. "We had an opportunity and we didn't seize it."
Tomlin said he never thought about taking Roethlisberger out of the game despite his quarterback clearly being limited by the ankle injury. He'll have a decision to make in this game with Pittsburgh five days after the meeting with the Niners.
With the Steelers having already clinched a playoff spot, there were reports that Roethlisberger would be shut down for the final two games, something he denied on Wednesday.
"I've said many times I want to go and I will try to be ready to go," said Roethlisberger on Pittsburgh's website. "I think if you rest you obviously can hopefully improve and get yourself to a higher percentage. But I like to be out there, I want to be out there with the guys. I want to get the reps.
"I want to work on little things that we need to work on to hopefully get ready for January football."
While Roethlisberger's status likely won't be determined until Saturday, Pittsburgh will have linebacker James Harrison back as it tries to post a 7-1 record at home for the first time since 2007. Harrison was suspended for Monday's game following a hit to the head on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.
Though Bradford shares Roethlisberger's enthusiasm for getting back on the field, he is likely to miss his second straight game due to his own ankle issue, one that has held him out of four contests this year. Despite the Rams' 2-12 record, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year wants to return before the season is out.
"Absolutely. I've said that now for the past two weeks. I've told (head coach Steve Spagnuolo) that I'm trying to get my ankle as healthy as quick as possible," Bradford said. "I want to be out there soon as it's good enough to go. I expect to be on the field."
With Bradford unable to go this past weekend, Kellen Clemens got his first start since 2009 with the Jets and played solid under center, but St. Louis still dropped a 20-13 decision to the Bengals.
Clemens was thrust into action after being claimed off waivers on Dec. 8 with both Bradford and A.J. Feeley (right thumb) out. He'll likely get the call again this Saturday.
"Well, yeah unless all of the sudden Sam bounces in," said Spagnuolo. "I keep saying that because I told you, it's not going to be until he's right. But we've seen him do that before and be right, so we're still a little ways away from the game."
The Rams lost their fifth straight game and are in danger of losing six in a row for the second time in 2011 after getting off to an 0-6 start.
The Rams own a 15-6-2 advantage in a regular-season series with Pittsburgh that dates back to 1938, but the Steelers were 41-24 winners when the teams last met in a 2007 encounter in St. Louis. The Rams prevailed in their one and only lifetime visit to Heinz Field, registering a 33-21 decision there in 2003 to stop a four-game losing streak in the Steel City.
The most famous clash between these franchises took place in Super Bowl XIV, a 31-19 victory by the Steelers at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 20, 1980.
Pittsburgh's 2007 win at the Edward Jones Dome gave Tomlin a 1-0 career record against the Rams, while Spagnuolo will be opposing both Pittsburgh and Tomlin for the first time in a head coaching capacity.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
With Bradford (2,164 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) in and out of the lineup, the Rams have struggled to just 11.9 points per game, ranking last in the NFL. They are also 30th in total offense, logging just 285.3 yards per game. St. Louis did go over the 300-yard mark versus the Bengals and was paced by star running back Steven Jackson (966 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 6 TD). The former Pro Bowler ran for 71 yards on 18 carries and also led the club with nine catches for 72 yards. He is on pace to extend his streak of 1,000-yard rushing seasons to seven in a row and would become only the seventh back in NFL history to have a streak that long. Clemens' options in the passing game include top target Brandon Lloyd (42 receptions, 4 TD), who had five catches for 42 yards against the Bengals and has quickly become the Rams' No. 1 receiver since being acquired from the Broncos. Brandon Gibson (35 receptions, 1 TD) and Danario Alexander (21 receptions, 2 TD) should be in for bigger roles after rookie wideout Austin Pettis (27 receptions) was suspended for four games by the league for violating the performance-enhancing substances policy. Pettis had four catches versus the Bengals. Clemens did not throw an interception in his start, but was sacked three times.
The Steelers present a mighty challenge for the Rams as they rank first in total defense (276.9 YPG) and against the pass (179.6 YPG) while yielding the second-fewest points per game at 15.6. Pittsburgh has held its opponents to 23 points or less in 13 straight games and has a star-studded linebacking group that only gets stronger with the return of Harrison (52 tackles, 8 sacks). Harrison is in a race with fellow LB LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) to see who can become the first Steeler in team history to post four straight seasons of at least 10 sacks, while James Farrior (70 tackles, 2 sacks) and Lawrence Timmons (76 tackles, 1 INT) man the middle. Pittsburgh's secondary is led by safeties Troy Polamalu (83 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Ryan Clark (91 tackles, 1 INT), with the former leading the Steelers with seven tackles versus the 49ers. Defensive end Ziggy Hood (25 tackles) had five stops, but the Steelers did not log a sack or turnover against the Niners. Corners William Gay (51 tackles, 2 INT) and Ike Taylor (39 tackles, 2 INT) have combined for four of Pittsburgh's 10 picks this season as Pittsburgh ranks tied for 29th with a minus-11 turnover differential.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (3,856 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT) continued to show he is one of the toughest players on the field, but his ankle injury and four turnovers, including a lost fumble, hindered the 12th-ranked offense (372.9 YPG). Roethlisberger was sacked three times, but still threw for 330 yards on 25-of-44 passing. His five 300-yard passing games this year ties his own franchise record set in 2009 and he needs 473 yards through the air to break his own single-season club mark. Wide receivers Mike Wallace (67 receptions, 8 TD) and Antonio Brown (60 receptions, 2 TD) have racked up a ton of yardage this year and Brown is 16 yards shy of joining Wallace with 1,000 on the year. With Emmanuel Sanders (21 receptions, 2 TD) out with a foot injury and Hines Ward (37 receptions, 2 TD) seeing his playing time reduced, Jerricho Cotchery (13 receptions, 2 TD) had five catches for a game-high 93 yards and tight end Heath Miller (48 receptions, 2 TD) added five for 82. Wallace and Brown had five catches each as well. Rashard Mendenhall (774 rushing yards, 8 TD) paced the ground game with 64 yards on 15 carries, while Mewelde Moore had a 21-yard run but is not expected to play in this game due to a knee injury.
The Rams have the personnel to make it a long day for Roethlisberger and rank eighth against the pass (206.3 YPG) thanks in part to 36 sacks on the season. Defensive end Chris Long (32 tackles, 13 sacks) is one of the top pass rushers in the league and has at least one sack in seven of his last eight games after getting one versus the Bengals despite an ankle injury of his own. He is tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks. The Rams held the Bengals to 283 yards of offense despite the loss and did not allow Cincinnati to convert on third down in the first half. Safety Quintin Mikell (78 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) led St. Louis with 10 tackles and fellow safety Darian Stewart (76 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) added seven. Leading tackler and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (120 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) ended with six stops and cornerback Josh Gordy (37 tackles, 2 INT) grabbed an interception. St. Louis' secondary has been hit hard all year by injury and starting corner Justin King (58 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) sat out last weekend due to a shoulder issue that could cause him to miss this game as well. Corner Rod Hood (9 tackles, 1 INT) would likely start in his place. Right end James Hall (44 tackles, 5 sacks) also did not play last weekend due to pectoral injury and is backed up by rookie Robert Quinn (18 tackles, 5 sacks).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The health of Roethlisberger obviously impacts the entire Steelers offense and he has thrown all but four of Pittsburgh's pass attempts this year. St. Louis can create pressure and Big Ben was limited in a big way. While it wouldn't be shocking to see Roethlisberger play in this game, Tomlin may be quicker to go to backup Charlie Batch so close to the playoffs.
While St. Louis is solid against the pass, the club is dead last in defending the run and gives up 153.4 yards per game on the ground. Pittsburgh will likely use this to its advantage and give a healthy number of carries to Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman.
The Rams don't score a lot of points and that often takes Jackson out of the gameplan earlier than hoped. With Clemens likely to get another start, St. Louis' defense will need to hold serve so that Jackson can still be a factor.
What would normally be a colossal mismatch on paper gets a little more cloudier due to the respective quarterback injuries. The Rams could have emerged as a trendy upset pick thanks to Roethlisberger's injury, but a Clemens-led club doesn't sound like one poised to put up a lot of points. This could in fact turn into a very ugly game, but it is still one that Pittsburgh should win to keep its division title hopes alive.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 16, Rams 6
12/22 14:51:53 ET