The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday at Heinz Field and below is a preview breakdown of the game from an offensive, defensive and special teams perspective.
Steelers On Offense:
On Sunday the Steelers will play an Eagles defense that has allowed an average of 3.81 yards per carry and 91.5 yards rushing per game. That being said, they have allowed 4.71 yards per carry on 14 runs to the left end an 6.65 yards per carry on 26 plays up the middle in their first four games. The wide 9 front that Philadelphia uses dares teams to try to run against it, and despite the woes the Steelers have had on the ground thus far this season, they should try to run straight up the middle early on. The Steelers offensive line is not athletic enough on the edges to expect success running outside the tackles, but they do match up well from a size and strength standpoint on the interior. Both Willie Colon and Maurkice Pouncey should be able to get off of their blocks in an attempt to control the Eagle linebackers, and this could result in good chunks of yardage early on for either Rashard Mendenhall or Isaac Redman. If Colon can pull cleanly, their could be huge holes off of right guard as the Eagles will struggle to fill gaps with bodies as wide as their ends like to play.
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is second on the Eagles defense in tackles with 22 behind safety Kurt Colemam, who leads the team with 26. Forcing Coleman to overplay the run in this game will be huge, as it will set up big plays outside for the receivers against press coverage with only single safety help over the top from Nate Allen. Allowing the Eagles defense to control the run on with only their 7 man front could limit the effectiveness of the Steelers passing game. Although the Steelers have not used much play action in their first three games, both of the Eagles safeties have shown all season that they are susceptible to it. It might be time to put quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center more than he has been in the first three games, at least early on in the game. The Eagles usually leave cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha on their respective sides instead playing the matchups, so the Steelers will likely move both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown around so both figure to see time against both corners throughout the game.
The Eagles like to play a lot of press coverage in hopes that their pass rush can get home, so the Steelers receivers must get good separation off of the line of scrimmage to free themselves quickly. Some bunch wide receiver sets should present some good rub opportunities when the Eagles are in the nickel. Asomugha has struggled at times this season with jams and both of the Eagles corners can be beat over the top, especially by Wallace. I expect Roethlisberger to take a few deep shots, especially if they can get Coleman cheating the run on early downs. There has been a lot of talk about rookie nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin this week, but his play hasn\’t been as bad this season as many would lead you to believe. He will be matched up against Emmanuel Sanders in the slot and that figures to be a good battle even though many are trying to sell it as a mismatch in favor of Sanders. The deep right side is where the Eagles appear to be most vulnerable through 4 games, but they have only allowed 5.78 yards per pass play so far, good for third best in the league heading into this game.
Offenses have been able to slow down the Eagles pass rushing ends this year by chipping and I suspect we will see the Steelers running backs and tight ends doing just that. This might delay tight end Heath Miller getting out into his routes, but he still should have 3 or 4 good looks in this game nonetheless. Penalties on offense have been costly for the offense through three games and that has to come to an end on Sunday.
In summation, the Steelers should try to run to set up the pass in this game and mix in quick slants along with check downs to the running backs out in space. If the protection is good, I expect Roethlisberger to be able to hit a few big plays over the top to either Wallace or Brown.
Steelers On Defense:
Defensively the Steelers must force Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to get his yards between the tackles. Outside run containment is a must in this game, as McCoy is one of, if not the best in the game at cutting runs to the outside for huge chunks of yardage. Shutting down the run early on and forcing Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to be patient and win with his arm is exactly what the defense wants to happen in this game, as that is when he is most likely to make mistakes. Pressure and containment of Vick in this game is just as valuable as sacks. Looping the outside linebackers inside on stunts is asking for problems should the defensive ends not be able to get up the field to cut off Vick from escaping to the edge. If Vick is to escape, it is much better that he does so to his right so that he will be forced to throw across his body. Casey Hampton, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel have to get a good push against an Eagles offensive line that is below average in pass protection.
Cornerback Ike Taylor will most likely follow Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson around all afternoon and tight end Brent Celek is very dangerous and needs extra attention given to him. Allowing a linebacker to run with him all day is asking for problems, especially if Vick is given time in the pocket. Celek will get his catches, but it must be underneath the zone and the defense must wrap him up quickly after the catch. The same goes for Jackson. Celek has been at his best this season on early downs, so safety Troy Polamalu could see some early time down in the box in an attempt to get into the passing lanes and confuse the Eagles quarterback. A strong pass rush by LaMarr Woodley might force Celek to stay in more than they would like in an effort to help.
The Steelers defense has done a good job so far at not allowing explosive plays through the air, so expect them to force Vick to be patient and hit his receivers underneath the cushion. This drives fans crazy, but the bet is that he will eventually force a ball while under pressure that will result in a turnover. Like every other game, getting off of the field on third down is huge and something the defense has not been able to do consistently this year, especially late in games. The bigger the lead the Steelers have in this game, the more Vick will press and most likely make a mistake. Keep in mind that he has turned the ball over 9 times himself through the Eagles first 4 games.
Expect linebacker James Harrison to platoon quite a bit in this game with either Chris Carter or Jason Worilds as he begins to get his body into game shape, so he might not be much of a factor in his first game back since the loss in the AFC Wild Card game. A surprise blitz or three off of the corner by either Polamalu or nickel cornerback Cortez Allen could pay huge dividends in this game, so be on the look out for that.
In summation, the Steelers defense most likely want the offense to earn their yardage between the hash marks. Sacks are great, but pressure that forces Vick to make throws under duress in the pocket is exactly what needs to happen. Simply limiting the explosive plays and getting off on third downs will be enough to win this game, especially if Vick turns the ball over.
Steelers On Special Teams:
Steelers punter Drew Butler has not been spectacular so far this season, but good enough. That being said, the Steelers punt coverage unit has only allowed a 5.5 yard per return, which is outstanding. While the punt coverage has been great, the kickoff coverage has been just the opposite as they have allowed 33.2 yards per return which ranks them 31st overall in the league. Hopefully the return of linebacker Stevenson Sylvester will help in this area as they can\’t continue to allow teams to get good starting field position. Kicker Shaun Suisham has yet to miss this season and hopefully that accuracy continues. Brown has been good on punt returns, but penalties did cost him a touchdown in the game against the Oakland Raiders. The Eagles special team units have struggled early this season in both punt and kick coverage, so the opportunity certainly will be there for Brown or rookie Chris Rainey to flip the field. Is this the week Rainey takes one to the house? It would not be surprising if he does.
The Steelers bye week might have come at the perfect time and this game will mark the first time that Harrison, Woodley, Polamalu and Ryan Clark have all been on the field together since the week 13 blowout win last season against the Cincinnati Bengals. Vick is not an elite quarterback, but McCoy is an elite running back. Shutting down the Eagles running game early on in this game, along with keeping Vick in the pocket, is paramount and I think that the Steelers defense will be up to that test. While I do not expect a huge day running the ball offensively, I do think that the return of Mendenhall will be enough to keep Roethlisberger out of so many third and long situations. The short passing game will continue, but I do expect at least four explosive plays through the air. Special teams could be a huge factor in this game, as will turnovers, and that is two areas that I think the Steelers will come out on top in. I really like the Steelers matchups in this game and I expect them to win at home.