Heading in two different directions

The St. Louis Rams have won 3 straight and sit at 4-2, good enough for second place in the NFC West. The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, have lost 3 in a row and find themselves on the brink of disaster at 2-4, bad enough for last in the woeful AFC North. But as Tommy Maddox or Kurt Warner could tell you, NFL fortunes can change overnight.

Hometown boy QB Marc Bulger, who played college ball down the road in Morgantown, will return to Pittsburgh this Sunday having unseated Kurt Warner from the starting job. Bulger hopes it feels like home because the St. Louis Rams have put together a winning streak in the friendly confines of their dome where Bulger is 9-0 as a starter.

But if a dome is kryptonite for Brett Favre, the open air stadium with a grass field has been the Achilles heel for the high-flying Rams, who scored over 30 points per game during their most recent homes stand, though against the likes of the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and the dome-phobic Green Bay Packers.

An overmatched Pittsburgh Steelers secondary will welcome the slower grass field and the defense overall is coming off its best performance of the season in a loss to the Denver Broncos, 17-14. The fans should be hyped for the Steelers 1000th game and the word from the practice field is that the team has looked crisp, hungry to regain some respectability.

The Rams will further accommodate the optimism in Pittsburgh by starting rookie Arlen Harris at running back with superstar Marshall Faulk standing on the sidelines as the emergency backup. However, the Rams offensive line has been playing well of late and if Kyle Turley gets the okay from the doctor concerning a concussion he sustained last Sunday against the Packers, Bulger will likely have plenty of time to throw and even a rookie can hit the holes that this line has been making.

While Bulger has revived the Rams offense, the dirty little secret in St. Louis is turnovers, 9 of them in five games, 7 interceptions and 2 fumbles lost – all by Bulger. It doesn't hurt having arguably the best tandem of wide outs in the NFL in Tory Holt and Issac Bruce on the receiving end, but Bulger is still relatively inexperienced and will be facing a defense that thrives on confusing the quarterback. And no, the Atlanta Falcons and their 3-4 defense did not exactly baptize Bulger by fire.

The Steelers will look to win the turnover battle, something that almost won them the game in Denver. The offensive line is in disarray with injuries to starting LT Marvel Smith and Mathias Nkwenti, who was slated to start until he injured his back. Bill Cowher and Russ Grimm have overhauled the line, shuffling players here and there in hopes of finding some magic combination, but there likely won't be much confidence going into the game.

As a result, Cowher named Jerome Bettis starter to go against his former team and grab the spotlight in this special game. Expect the Steelers to stick with the run and try to bulldoze the undersized Rams defense, one that thrives on quickness and speed. The idea will be to control the ball and force Bulger to make a few mistakes. The Steelers are in no position to win a shootout with St. Louis, something that might have been feasible in 2002.

Clearly, the Steelers will be the more desperate team. They need to start winning now or risk a few players mailing in the season early. They are only 1 game out of first place, but mentally they are dead last. Whatever aspirations the Steelers had at the beginning of the season, one that started with such promise with a victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Rams could lay them to rest by taking it to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Currently, the Steelers are enduring their worst start since 1988; not a single facet of the Steelers game looks playoff worthy. Now, the defense and special teams will be asked to pick up the slack of the offensive line as Bill Cowher tries to figure out how to get back into the win column.

The Rams will be looking to prove that they can win on the road. Starting with Pittsburgh, St. Louis will play the role of visitor 4 out of the next 5 games. If the Rams fail this Sunday, the fortunes of both teams could well reverse and the Steelers could climb back into the playoff hunt with the Rams fading quickly behind the resurgent San Francisco 49ers and the surprising Seattle Seahawks.

Key match-ups include LG Keydrick Vincent against the smaller middle of the Rams defense and rushing linebackers Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and Kendrell Bell against the offensive tackles of St. Louis, Kyle Turley and Orlando Pace. NT Casey Hampton is already familiar with center Dave Wohlabaugh, who used to play for the Cleveland Browns. Hampton manhandled Wohlabaugh, which does not bode well for Harris and the Rams running game.

Bulger, Holt and Bruce will generate a few big plays, but there are sure to be turnovers as well. The Steelers need to capitalize on them to win the game. The Rams need to protect Bulger and give him time to figure out the coverages. If the Steelers fail to get any pressure on him, the Rams will emerge as road warriors and Bulger will enjoy his homecoming. Defensively, the Rams will sit in their cover-2 and try to generate enough pressure with their quick front four, led by DE Leonard Little, who already has 6 sacks.

The Steelers should be able to force a low-scoring game that the Rams could still win, just as the Broncos pulled it out almost 2 weeks ago. With the season on the line, the Steelers need just a few more plays than they had in Denver.

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