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Old 12-23-2011, 01:48 PM   #1
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Default Steelers vs. Rams: The key matchups

Steelers vs. Rams: The key matchups
By Mike Bires mbires@timesonline.com | Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2011 11:23 pm


One day next week, sportswriters who cover the Steelers will conduct their annual vote to decide the team's rookie of the year. The landslide winner will be right tackle Marcus Gilbert. After all, he's the only rookie to even start a game this season. A second-round pick out of Florida, Gilbert moved into the starting lineup in Week 2 after Willie Colon suffered a season-ending injury.

Gilbert (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) isn't quite as large as veteran left tackle Max Starks (6-8, 345). But he's big enough and, according to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, talented enough to be an NFL starter for years to come.

"This kid's a player," Arians said. "If he keeps his head on straight and keeps improving, the sky's the limit for him. We knew he had the talent (when we drafted him). Talent and the want-to, the desire, don't always go together. But so far, he's managed to show us that he's more than ready."

Gilbert better be ready Saturday. Lining up across from him will be left defensive end Chris Long, who's clearly the Rams' best player on defense. The son of former NFL star Howie Long, he is tied for fifth in the NFL with 13 sacks.

"He's a high tempo guy. You know he's always going to give you his best effort," Gilbert said. "He's no Aldon Smith, but he's a high-motor guy."

Smith, a rookie outside linebacker for the 49ers, also has 13 sacks this season. He got 2.5 of them Monday when he manhandled Starks in the Steelers' 20-3 loss in San Francisco. On Saturday, it will be Gilbert's job to make sure he isn't manhandled by Long.


Early in the season, the Steelers were gashed by the run. In the season opener, Ray Rice ran for 107 yards to spark the Ravens to a 35-7 blowout victory. In Week 4, Arian Foster ran for 155, including 42 on a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown in the Texans' 17-10 win. But since, the Steelers have been solid against the run and have not allowed another 100-yard rusher. On Saturday, the Steelers will try to keep that streak going against one of the NFL's most prolific running backs over the past eight years.

Steven Jackson is the Rams' all-time leading rusher with 8,914 yards. Jackson needs 34 yards against the Steelers to surpass 1,000 for the seventh straight season. If that happens, he'll become just the seventh back in NFL history to do so (Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin and LaDainian Tomlinson are the others).

"To be in that group ... it's a special group to be part," Jackson said. "It shows that not only are you productive, but that you can sustain season after season. I'm sure those guys played through injuries, so it just marks you as a tough guy, a gritty guy, that a franchise can hang its hat on."

Jackson, a former Oregon State star, is also a threat as a receiver. He's the Rams' second-leading receiver with 39 catches for 294 yards.

Jackson has faced the Steelers just once. On Dec. 20, 2007, he rushed for 85 yards on 12 carries when the Steelers beat the Rams 41-24 in St. Louis.

The Steelers rank No. l in total defense, No. 1 vs. the pass and No. 6 vs. the run.
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