Tim Benz: Steelers offensive line must hit right notes against Rams’ Aaron Donald | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Steelers offensive line must hit right notes against Rams’ Aaron Donald

Tim Benz
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is sacked by Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams in the first quarter during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Same song. Different musicians.

The Steelers hope the music is just as sweet.

In advance of their looming contest against the Indianapolis Colts last week, we heard both Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward sing it on the Steelers defensive side of the ball.

“Ones versus ones. Strength on strength. Good on good.”

That was their take on the matchup between their defensive front-seven against the Colts offensive line.

The sack-happy turnover-machine defense against an Indy offense that protects the ball and never allows sacks.

How’d that turn out?

The Steelers defense had five sacks and numerous other pressures, and Indianapolis gave the ball back three times en route to a Steelers victory.

This week against the Los Angeles Rams, the “good on good” is on the other side of the ball. It’s the pass protection of the Steelers — which has allowed a league-low eight sacks — against the pass rush of the Rams.

Namely that of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

“Look at his sack reel,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “He’s got sacks against right guards, left guards, left tackles. This guy moves up and down the line of scrimmage. They are thoughtful about that. It’s an effort to minimize your opportunity to get two people on him. Regardless of how much they move him, we are going to have to work to get two people on him because that is the type of player that he is.”

That movement from Donald has helped of late. The University of Pittsburgh product wasn’t putting up the sack and turnover totals we are used to seeing early in the season. In part, that had to be because of the absurd blocking schemes employed to stop him.

He had just one sack and no turnovers through the first five weeks. This on the heels of 20.5 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2018.

But in the last three weeks, Donald has forced two fumbles and has four sacks.

Is that just a case of a great player getting going a little late? Or maybe the result of playing against some bad offensive lines from Cincinnati and Atlanta?

Yes. And yes.

But Donald’s head coach, Sean McVay, acknowledges that some schematic positioning of Donald has helped the cause.

“Some of the things we have been able to do schematically have given him a chance to get some more matchups that give him an ability to be one on one,” McVay said Wednesday.

That said, McVay still insists that Donald was his usual self during the first month of the season, even if the stats indicated otherwise. And, perhaps all the excess attention to Donald helped other Los Angeles pass rushers get favorable matchups early in the year.

Clay Matthews had six sacks in five weeks to start 2019 before getting injured. It’s possible he could be back Sunday at Heinz Field after missing three games with a broken jaw. Dante Fowler has 6.5 sacks for Los Angeles as well.

“To say that it is ‘Aaron Donald and Company’ is completely wrong,” offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “They have a very talented group of rushers.”

Those three are the engine behind the Rams attack. They have accounted for 17.5 of Los Angeles’ 23 sacks.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s what Donald does to help control opposing teams on the ground. L.A. yields only 3.6 yards per rush, third-best in the NFL.

“He’s extremely talented,” guard David DeCastro said. “Everybody is going to have a chance to block him. We’ve just got to stay on schedule and stay out of those positions where he can really tear it up.”

If the Rams win defensively on first and second down often, young quarterback Mason Rudolph will be forced into obvious passing situations.

As good as the pass protection has been in Pittsburgh, if the Steelers give “Donald and Company” too many chances to break through their wall, they’ll do it.

And the music will sound way out of tune compared to last week’s concerto.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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