By Jim Thomas
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 24, 2011
Charlie Batch of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
Battle of the backups
The hoped-for battle of the high ankle sprains has turned into the battle of the backups. Kellen Clemens is expected to start for the Rams in place of Sam Bradford, who's listed as doubtful because of his left ankle injury. Meanwhile, Charlie Batch was named Pittsburgh's starting QB in place of Ben Roethlisberger, who also has a left ankle injury. It was one thing to start a gimpy Roethlisberger last Monday in San Francisco with the No. 1 AFC playoff seed at stake. But why risk further damage against the 2-12 Rams?
With 774 yards rushing and just two games to go, Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall needs to finish strong to reach 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season. So he'll be happy to see the Rams, who rank last in the league in rushing defense, as they yield 153.4 yards per game. Mendenhall's numbers are down, but the Steelers simply are tied more to the passing game this season. The Illinois product is averaging 13 carries a game this season as opposed to 20 carries per game in 2010, when he gained 1,273 yards.
Long vs. Gilbert
Rams DE Chris Long gets a rookie in Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert, but a good rookie at that. Gilbert (6-6, 330) stepped into the starting lineup after Willie Colon suffered a season-ending triceps injury on opening day. Gilbert has played well, so well there's speculation he might be switched to left tackle next season. Gilbert didn't exactly shower Long with praise when asked about the matchup: "He's no Aldon Smith, but he's a high-motor guy," Gilbert told the Beaver County (pA.) Times. Long has a career-high 13 sacks.
Harrison & Woodley
Few if any 3-4 teams have the kind of thunder at outside linebacker as the Steelers do in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Even though they've missed nine games between them, they've combined for 17 sacks. Woodley might not play because of a hamstring injury, but Harrison is rested and ready after serving a one-game suspension for a flagrant hit on Browns QB Colt McCoy. Harrison will be an ultra-tough matchup for LT Adam Goldberg. "He's a violent pass rusher," Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
With apologies to Harrison and Woodley, the heart and soul of Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked defense remains safety Troy Polamalu, who's talented, fast and has a great mind for the game. "He can be anywhere," McDaniels said. "Sometimes he's back in the deep part of the field, where you feel safer. And other times you gotta find him." Polamalu does some free-lancing, and it's hard to tell sometimes if he's blitzing — or just coming on his own. "He's never wrong, which is the problem," McDaniels said.
The Danario saga
Mizzou product Danario Alexander made a difference in three Rams victories last season with key catches. But he struggled in camp this summer, barely made the team, and after a decent start missed five games because of a hamstring injury. He resurfaced last Sunday with 3 catches for 52 yards against Cincinnati, including a 25-yard TD. With Austin Pettis suspended, Alexander should see plenty of action in the final two games. It's a chance to remind this coaching staff — or the next — he's worth keeping.
The Rams have played in Pittsburgh only twice previously since the move to St. Louis, and both games were memorable. Traded to Pittsburgh during the '96 draft, Jerome Bettis got revenge on his old team less than seven months later rushing for 129 yards and 2 TDs in a 42-6 Steelers romp. In 2003, with Marshall Faulk and Lamar Gordon out because of injuries, third-stringer Arlen Harris rushed for 81 yards on 34 carries, scoring 3 TDs in a 33-21 Rams victory. Harris scored only 3 other TDs in a four-year NFL career.