The Heinz Field crowd was on its feet, roaring wildly and waving more than 60,000 Terrible Towels to motivate their team and distract Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
With less than two minutes left, Goff twice had the ball with chances to silence the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful and win the game.
The first opportunity ended with a fourth-down pass that fell incomplete, the second with an interception.
The Rams’ 17-12 defeat Sunday dropped their record to 5-4, ruined a homecoming for star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and once again put the Rams season on the verge of collapse.
After two straight victories and a week off for players to rest and heal, the Rams appeared poised to begin the second half of the season with momentum to carry them toward a third consecutive playoff berth.
Instead, in a city that bills itself as the city of bridges, the Rams put themselves in danger of creating a bridge too far to cross into playoff contention.
The NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers are (8-0) going into Monday night’s game against the 7-2 Seattle Seahawks. The Rams might not catch either in the division, and also could fall short in a competitive NFC wild-card race.
That would be a major face-plant for a team that played in the Super Bowl last season.
“We’re in a place where we’re still good,” Goff said. “We’ve got some time to make up some ground.”
The Rams need more than time. They need consistently productive performances from Goff and an offense that failed to score a touchdown against the Steelers.
In victories over the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, Goff appeared to have put behind the interceptions and fumbles that plagued the Rams in consecutive defeats to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seahawks and 49ers.
But with his offensive line in disarray Sunday because of injuries, Goff looked shaky through most of the game against the Steelers. The Steelers sacked him four times and hit him on numerous plays.
Goff completed 22 of 41 passes for 243 yards, but he had two passes intercepted and also lost a fumble that Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returned for a touchdown.
“However you want to cut it, we didn’t allow ourselves to get into a rhythm,” coach Sean McVay said. “There was really no flow.”
▶ Star receiver Cooper Kupp, who amassed 220 yards against the Bengals, did not catch a pass.
▶ The Rams converted only one of 14 third downs and failed on two fourth-down plays.
▶ Even punter Johnny Hekker had a pass intercepted, the first of his career.
“That’s the kind of game it was today — just bad,” said running back Todd Gurley, who averaged six yards per carry. “The defense played a hell of game. Just weren’t able to help those guys out.”
The defense, featuring an inspired Donald and the return of linebacker Clay Matthews, did plenty to make it easier on the offense. Edge rusher Dante Fowler scored on the third play when he scooped an errant snap in stride and ran to the end zone for a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, Donald and Matthews combined to sack Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph for a safety that cut the Steelers’ lead to 14-12. But the offense failed to come through against one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses, a unit that has carried the Steelers to four consecutive victories and a 5-4 record.
The Rams defense also was stout enough to win.
“When defense plays lights out like that,” Kupp said, “we as an offense are not playing as well as we need to be.”
Players were quick to say that they would not point fingers, that the offense and defense have struggled at times this season and that Sunday’s letdown was collective.
“It’s something that’s kind of reared its head a few times this season,” Matthews said. “I don’t think you can really pinpoint it on one thing.”
Said Fowler: “We know that once the offense gets going and gets a spark, we’ll be A-OK. It’s not time to panic.”
That was the same refrain from several Rams players when they were in the throes of a three-game losing streak, but that was early in the season when games against the then-struggling Falcons and still winless Bengals were coming up.
The Rams return to the Coliseum next Sunday to play the Chicago Bears. They then begin a stretch that includes games against the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, Seahawks, NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys and 49ers before finishing the regular season against the Cardinals.
The Rams are not concerned about falling off pace for the playoffs, Donald said.
“We can’t worry about that,” he said. “Go week to week and try to find ways to win games.”