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Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Johnson's return impactful for Steelers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – It took the Steelers a couple of quarters to settle into having their full complement of wide receivers available, but once they did, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens matched Los Angeles' talented duo of Cooper Kupp and Puca Nacua catch-for-catch.

The end result was a 24-17 win by the Steelers that improved their record to 4-2. And now, the only question that remains is how much more this offense can continue to improve and take advantage of two dynamic pass catchers?

Many people were concerned that with Johnson back on the field after being out since early in the second half of the Steelers' opener that Pickens' opportunities would be limited moving forward. But, in reality, it might create more chances for both of them.

"You can't double George as much as you'd like. I think that's what we saw today," Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett said. "He was more singled up, giving him a chance on slants and things down the field. We moved him inside in that four-minute (offense) and got him down the seam. And then Diontae is doing his thing with his route running and his run after the catch was huge."

Pickens finished with five receptions for 107 yards, while Johnson had five catches for 79 yards. Pickens had a long catch of 31 yards, while Johnson had a 39-yard catch-and-run that essentially sparked the offense in the fourth quarter.

On the opening play of the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced third-and-8 from their own 43 trailing 17-10.

At that point, they were 1 of 7 on third downs in the game. But Johnson, aligned to Pickett's left in a bunch package, ran a whip route to the outside, with cornerback Derion Kendrick giving him outside leverage.

Kendrick tried to jump back underneath Johnson, but Pickens saw that route open up and put the ball where only Johnson could catch it. After that, Johnson was off to the races, running all the way to the Los Angeles 18.

"I would say yes," Johnson said when asked if he was the primary target on that play. "Kenny knows what he wants to do with the ball on third down. Kenny believed in me on that play. I made a play and showed what I can do with the ball in my hands. That's what we needed. That play carried the momentum over for the rest of the game. We didn't let up."

That play sparked a two-touchdown fourth quarter for the Steelers in which they outgained the Rams 190-20.

Thing is, Pickett trusted Johnson in that moment to make the play. Johnson has been more open on plays in the past. Kendrick had pretty good coverage on the play. It didn't matter. Pickett trusted his guy to win on third down.

"It was a really good route for him," said Pickett. "He's a great route runner. He gets separation. I just wanted to give him a chance. It was great to have him back."

It was a big play in a big moment. And two plays later, Jaylen Warren scored from 13 yards out to tie the game.

• While the offense was starting to heat up, so was the defense.

Matthew Stafford was 14 of 25 for 231 yards in the first three quarters. Puka Nacua had eight receptions for 154 yards.

Stafford finished the game with 231 passing yards, throwing four incompletions in the final quarter, and Nacua didn't catch another pass.

"It just shows you, it's not over until the clock says :00 in the fourth quarter," said Steelers safety Damontae Kazee. "We just played. Of course you're going to give up passes. It's football. Not everyone is perfect. It's football. You're going to have missed tackles. You're going to have people open. But we finished. That's what we do. We finish in the fourth quarter."

The Steelers got a three-and-out on the possession after their score, showing what complementary football is supposed to look like.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 7 game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium

• On the Steelers' ensuing possession, they went 80 yards in 10 plays, with Pickett completing all four of his passes – two to Pickens for 39 yards and one each to Johnson and Connor Heyward for 11 each – and the running game producing 29 yards on six carries.

Najee Harris, who had 21 rushing yards on four carries during the drive, finished it off with a 3-yard touchdown run.

That was a big-time drive in a big-time moment. And it was all sparked by Johnson's catch.

After missing on six of seven third downs prior to Johnson's catch, the Steelers barely bothered to get to third down after that.

The floodgates were open.

• Nacua's numbers were huge, of course. And the Rams also had 135 yards rushing on 31 carries, despite being without their top two running backs.

But the Steelers made a decision not to let All-Pro receiver eCooper Kupp beat them. Kupp had two receptions for 29 yards on seven targets.

"We did a good job of just protecting our leverage. There was a couple of times he got behind us. I feel like we did a great job of containing him," cornerback Patrick Peterson said of Kupp. "When you see Cooper Kupp out there, you usually see him making multiple big plays. I feel like we did a good job of keeping that to a minimum. Obviously, Puca had a solid game, but that's what we wanted to do. We had to force someone else to beat us."

Every time the Rams ran the ball, even when they were getting positive yards, it was like a win for the Steelers. It was one fewer time they would test the Steelers with Kupp.

The Rams wound up throwing the ball 29 times and running it 31 – in a game they lost.

"They had a run scheme that had us," said Kazee. "But you can't run it all day. The moment we got up, you can't keep running."

And the Rams obviously feared the Steelers' pass rush, a big reason they ran the ball so much.

"I think that was," said Kazee.

• At halftime with the Steelers trailing, 9-3, head coach Mike Tomlin had a message for his team.

"I kid you not, when we left the locker room, coach said, 'It's time for A players to be A players,'" said Peterson. "And T.J. Watt, first play, pick."

Watt dropped into coverage, read Stafford's eyes and single-handedly turned the game around.

The Rams had momentum after getting a touchdown late in the first half on a broken play. Watt stole it back, picking the ball off and returning it to the Los Angeles 7 to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Pickett.

"Oh my God. That man is amazing," said Kazee of Watt. "He doesn't like dropping back, but it looked beautiful to me today. It was perfect, at the right moment."

Watt joined Lawrence Taylor as the only players since 1982 when the sack became an official statistic to have 70-plus sacks and seven interceptions in his first seven seasons.

• Watt and fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith were getting a lot of attention from the Rams when they did drop back to pass. So in this game, you saw the two of them waiting until just before the snap to pick which side from which they would rush the passer.

Even at that, the Rams weren't allowing the Steelers' top two edge rushers to disrupt things. They got a ton of attention, whether it be from receivers or tight ends giving them an additional chip before going into a pattern, or the running backs.

And then Watt goes and wrecks the game dropping into coverage.

• The Steelers got their running game going in the second half. Though the final stats show they had just 86 yards on 29 carries – an average of 3.0 yards per attempt, realize that Pickett had eight carries for no yards.

He had four kneel-downs that negated any positive yardage he had in this game. And he converted three quarterback sneaks, including one on which he scored a touchdown.

Harris had 14 carries for 53 yards, while Warren had six carries for 32 yards, meaning they combined for 20 carries for 85 yards.

"I felt like offensively, I started blocking better and the running backs started getting more comfortable the more runs that are called," said guard James Daniels. "Next week, we need to do a better job of doing that in the first and second quarter instead of waiting until the third or fourth."

Did anything else change?

"The biggest thing is that we started to possess the ball," said Daniels. "In the first half, we weren't really possessing the ball. Our coaches did a good job in the second half of mixing the run and pass. We had that really long drive where we ended up scoring. That takes seven or eight minutes off the clock, that's big. It was a really good job by the players and coaches."

• As much as the defense was concerned with not allowing Kupp to wreck the game, so was the offense with keeping Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald in check.

Donald assisted on four tackles and had two quarterback hits. But there were no splash plays.

"We just had a good plan for him," Daniels said. "Every play, there was two on him. He makes plays with two on him, but we did a good job on him. He's a really good player, but our coaches did a good job."

Pickett certainly appreciated that outcome, even if that did mean other guys got to him at times.

"We had a goal of not letting him wreck the game," Pickett said. "We did a great job of sliding guys and doubling him, getting four hands on him as many times as possible."

• While Stafford was going 0-4 passing in the fourth quarter, Pickett was 7 of 7 for 138 yards.

He just has a knack for turning it on in the fourth quarter of games. It might not always look pretty early, but he's definitely got the "it" factor – much like what former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger used to display.

"Some games, you're not going to start fast," Johnson said. "You're not going to be perfect. All you can do is keep playing in those moments. It came down to those weighty moments and who wanted it most."

Pickett must want it a lot. This was his 18th career start. It was his sixth game-winning drive and the fifth fourth-quarter comeback in those games.

Oh, and the Steelers are now 11-7 when he starts.

• The Steelers were underdogs in this game.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Tomlin is now 45-40 in his career outright when the Steelers are underdogs. And he's the only coach in NFL history who has been an underdog at least 50 times in his career who has a winning record.

That's not an accident.

Neither is Tomlin's 13-4 record coming off a bye week or his now 62-28-1 record in the past 10 seasons in all games after the Steelers have had their bye week.

Whatever adjustments or things on which Tomlin and his staff choose to focus, it must work.

• At 4-2, the Steelers now head home for three consecutive home games. 

They also now don't have a game outside Pennsylvania or the state of Ohio in their next seven games, playing five home games and two against the Bengals and Browns on the road.

It's never easy to win games in the NFL, so you don't take any game for granted, but it sure is nice to have three of the longest road trips of the season now out of the way.

The only thing that still remains is a Dec. 31 game at Seattle.

Of course, Steelers fans showed up in droves for all three of these long road trips – at Las Vegas, Houston and this game.

That wasn't lost on the players. It's not taken for granted.

"Steelers Nation is incredible," said Watt. "They've been incredible all season long. And I want them to understand how important that is, especially for us on defense. Any time you can get (the opposing) offense to go on a silent count, it helps us out tremendously."

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