Mike Tomlin remembers those trips to St. Louis back in the days when he was a secondary coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At that time the dome was called the Trans World Dome, and it was home to The Greatest Show on Turf, the nickname given to a Rams offense quarterbacked by Kurt Warner also including Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
Tomlin remembers how the dome exacerbated the problems that The Greatest Show created for the visiting team, and those thoughts are with him as he prepares the Steelers for a visit to the same facility – now called the Edward Jones Dome – this Sunday for a game against a very different Rams team.
While The Greatest Show terrorized opponents with a quick-strike, high-voltage offense, this edition of the Rams seeks to create the same havoc only with their defense. "As I prepare for them now, I think about that defensive front in that (dome) environment," said Tomlin, "and having to work on silent counts and the quality of the men they have up front and how that can impact the game."
These St. Louis Rams still utilize their dome, only in a different way from their teams of the early-2000s. But crowd noise, coupled with the way an artificial playing surface complements speed, are going to be issues the Steelers will have to deal with successfully if they hope to win a second straight game after a season opening loss in New England to the Patriots. And just as Kurt Warner was the Rams' main man back then, Aaron Donald is their main man now.
"Aaron Donald is their man inside and up front," said Tomlin. "I know quite a bit about Aaron Donald, probably too much. The things I know about him don't help me sleep easy. This guy is extremely talented, but he's also a hard worker. I spent a couple of months this offseason – February and March of 2015 – getting out of my car in the parking lot out here and running into Aaron Donald as he came in to work out at Pitt. I think he left the Pro Bowl and went straight back to work. That doesn't surprise me. The way his professional career is unfolding is not a surprise to those who know him."
Donald, who was a first round draft pick in 2014 after winning the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Bednarik Award, and the Outland Trophy as a result of his final season at Pitt in 2013, picked up right where he left off as an NFL rookie. After recording nine sacks and forcing two fumbles, Donald was voted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and today he's regularly referred to as the game's best defensive tackle.
"He's not alone," said Tomlin about the challenge posed by the Rams defensive front. "They have a lot of high-pedigree guys up front. Robert Quinn is a spectacular edge rusher, one of the best in the game. Michael Brockers is another first-round interior defensive lineman. They got Nick Fairley, who they acquired from Detroit, and he's another interior presence. Chris Long is another first-round pick who plays end opposite Quinn. They play seven or eight defensive linemen, many of whom are first and second-round draft pick guys. Those guys are the engine who drive their defensive car."
The Rams posted 40 sacks last season, and their two star defensive linemen combined for 19.5 of them, with Quinn finishing with 10.5 and Donald right behind him with nine. So far this season, the Rams have eight sacks in their first two games, with Donald in the lead so far with 2.5 and Quinn right behind with two.
"We have to do a great job of protecting the quarterback, but Ben also has to do a great job of getting the ball out," said Tomlin. "We have to do a great job of running, and mixing the run and pass and play-action to stymie their pass rush. They're very good at what they do. That's where the challenge of this week starts – the protection of our quarterback is big."
This season, the Steelers are better equipped to handle such a challenge than they have been in any of the recent seasons past. In 2014, the Steelers ranked No. 13 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, and so far in 2015, Roethlisberger was sacked twice in the loss to the Patriots and not at all last Sunday vs. the 49ers. The tally for him so far is two sacks in 65 pass attempts.
The improvement in the pass protection has coincided nicely with the maturation of the high-round draft picks the Steelers have invested in their offensive line along with the hiring of Mike Munchak to be the unit's coach.
"We're excited about having (Munchak), and he has had a positive impact on us," said Tomlin. "But also, over those 19 months (of Munchak's tenure as offensive line coach), that group has come of age. We acquired a lot of those guys in 2010, 2011, 2012, and they played as young people. They grew, and they grew together. They're seasoned guys who are in the primes of their careers now, guys like Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum and David DeCastro. I'm just glad they're working effectively."
Not included in the group mentioned by Tomlin is 2010's No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey, currently on injured reserve/designated to return. His spot will be manned by Cody Wallace in St. Louis, with veteran guard Ramon Foster rounding out the quintet in front of Roethlisberger.
"I appreciated (the offensive line's) efforts in the game last Sunday," said Tomlin, "and as I prepare for this one I acknowledge that a similar effort is going to be required because St. Louis not only challenges you from a talent level but also schematically. They're well-coached over there and have been for a long time.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Daniel McCullers does have some swelling in his left knee. We will look at that. That may limit him and affect his availability but we will know as we go throughout the week as we monitor his practice participation or availability in that area. I haven't checked on Cortez Allen's status this week. Last week, he wasn't able to practice enough for me to decide to play him. We'll check his knee inflammation this week and we'll base those decisions on practice availability and performance, like we did a week ago. Not to my knowledge (does his knee require surgery). Not at this juncture."