INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP)Kenny Pickett was an early-enrollee freshman at Pitt when he first met Aaron Donald, who still spends every offseason training at his alma mater.
Although the teenage quarterback understandably didn’t become fast friends with the All-Pro defensive lineman, Pickett credits the Los Angeles Rams star with more help in his football career than even Donald realizes.
“He kind of showed me the way, and showed me how to train and how to work,” said Pickett, now the Steelers’ starting quarterback. “From afar, I would just watch. I never really talked – just hellos – until I earned his respect to be able to talk to him a little bit more. But there’s a reason he is who he is, and he works hard. Showed me the ropes.”
So if Pickett ends up becoming the 53rd NFL quarterback to be sacked by Donald on Sunday when Pittsburgh (3-2) visits Los Angeles (3-3), he might feel the slightest bit ambivalent about it.
Donald might have the same mixed feelings during his third career chance to face the Steelers, his still-beloved hometown team. He had a recent conversation with his father about facing the black and gold.
“My first year (in 2015), I was excited about it,” Donald said of his first chance to play against the Steelers. “Obviously, going back to Pittsburgh (in 2019), it was exciting. Now, it’s cool to play against the team that I grew up watching and all that, but it’s just another week. Want to find a way to be successful. … I still consider myself a Steelers fan until we’ve got to play them, and I still look to see if they’re doing good.”
Donald’s sturdy presence on the Rams’ line is a major reason why they’ve remained competitive after gutting their roster in the offseason, losing the majority of their regular defensive contributors in trades, releases or free-agent departures. Donald has continued to improve the lives of every teammate rushing the passer alongside him, and the latest beneficiary is rookie Byron Young, who has three sacks while marveling at how much attention is given to No. 99 by offenses.
Many Steelers are acquaintances of Donald’s from offseason training, and they’re well aware of the hazards he presents, even if they’ve rarely faced him.
“I don’t want to say what we’re going to do, but yes (we are going to plan for him),” Steelers running back Najee Harris said. “Is he still the guy? Of course. Aaron Donald is a generational talent.”
Pittsburgh center Mason Cole praised Donald’s intelligence and football savvy, which gets overshadowed by Donald’s brute physical skills.
“I’m just trying not to get on his Hall of Fame induction film,” Cole said. “If I’m not on screen when he’s walking out, that’s a good thing.”
Donald said plenty of his extended family will be in the SoFi Stadium stands to watch this meeting of their two favorite teams. Donald will do his best to spoil the Steelers’ day even while savoring his own quiet fandom.
“I don’t want to keep praising them too much!” Donald said with a grin.
The Steelers have made it a point to bring left tackle Broderick Jones and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. – their top two picks in the draft – along slowly.
It may be nearing time to take the training wheels off.
Jones played well in his first NFL start two weeks ago against Baltimore, making his first career interception off Lamar Jackson in the end zone to set up Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive.
Jones could return to the bench against Los Angeles with Dan Moore likely returning from a knee injury, but Porter could see more playing time. He played a season-high 40% of the defensive snaps against Baltimore and has the size at 6-foot-2 to match up with Rams rookie sensation Puka Nacua.
RUNNING BACK ROULETTE
The Rams will be without running backs Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers, who both got hurt late in last week’s 26-9 win over Arizona. Los Angeles has four candidates to take over in the backfield: rookie Zach Evans, veterans Royce Freeman and Myles Gaskin – and Super Bowl champion Darrell Henderson, who returned to the practice squad this week after getting dropped last year following 3 1/2 years in LA. Whoever gets the workload will be hard-pressed to duplicate Williams, who broke out with a career-high 158 yards last week.
Harris and Cole stayed in Pittsburgh an extra day during the bye week reviewing film and trying to figure out ways to help the NFL’s 30th-ranked offense gain some traction. The two then went to embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada to brainstorm.
Harris said he did something similar a year ago during the bye, and the Steelers surged to a 7-2 finish after a 2-6 start. This time around, they find themselves in better shape record-wise but still spinning their wheels on offense, though the return of receiver Diontae Johnson and tight end Pat Freiermuth could help.
“We are sitting better than where we were at last year,” Harris said. “That’s good. There is always room to get better. That’s what we are preaching as a team.”
DECADES OF HISTORY
The Steelers haven’t faced the Rams in Los Angeles since 1993, and they have never beaten the Rams on the West Coast, going 0-10. The rivalry dates to 1938, when the Pittsburgh Pirates faced the Cleveland Rams in a season finale played in New Orleans.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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