The Pittsburgh Steelers look to even their record at 2-2 Sunday afternoon when they take on the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is my full preview of the game that was posted on Friday.
Slim The Shady Cutback - Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is an amazing runner who relies heavily on his ability to cutback. On 24 runs to the right end so far this season, McCoy is averaging 6.67 yards per carry with 5 runs over 10 yards and 3 over 20. On runs between the guards this year McCoy is averaging just 2.68 yards per carry. The Steelers outside linebackers must contain the outside in this game and force McCoy back inside to the help if they want to shut down the Eagles running game. Safety Troy Polamalu, who will be playing his first game since the season opener at Denver, should be able to help at times in this area as well. Inside linebackers Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons should have plenty of tackle opportunities on the shifty running back if the front three can maintain their gap control and occupy their man. McCoy can break off huge chunks of yardage if not bottled up as 16 of his runs this year have been for 9 yards or more with 27 producing 6 or more yards.
Get Chippy - The Eagles defensive ends have combined for only 4.5 of the 7 team sacks and that is a result of all of the chipping that offenses have done against them so far in the first four games to slow down the wide 9 pass rush. The Steelers must continue this tradition by using their running backs and tight ends to help out tackles Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert on passing plays that require quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to take deep drops.
Play Action Satisfaction - Roethlisberger is a cool 75% passing when using play action in the first three games of the season and that should come as no surprise. Even though the Steelers running game has been disappointing so far this season the fake has still been effective at freezing things just enough to open up the passing lanes. The Eagles cornerbacks play a lot of press man coverage on the outside and both of their safeties are relied heavily upon to help out in defending against the run. Both Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman have been guilty of being flat footed against good play action which winds up with them not able to give proper help over the top to the corners. Roethlisberger will have to pick his shots deep in this game and they likely will come off of good play action on early downs in an effort to hit Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown deep and outside the hash marks for an explosive play.
Be Middlesome - The wide 9 front of the Eagles dares you to run against it and this is exactly what the Steelers must try to do. Defensively the Eagles have allowed only 3.81 yards per carry through the first 4 games, but up the middle they have allowed 6.65 yards per carry on 26 plays. Their defense struggles at times between the tackles at getting enough helmets in gaps and thus the Steelers power running game could have some nice opportunities for some big runs as a result. Second level blocks by Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon need to be on target and Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans needs a helmet on him if the offense expects to have some success. Forcing the aforementioned Coleman, who leads the Eagles defense in tackles, to concentrate on helping in run support should open up the passing game against single coverage with a single high safety. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman need to hit the holes quickly in this game and not dance behind the line of scrimmage. This is the week that the running game needs to find its proverbial legs.
Brent But Don\'t Break - Eagles tight end Brett Celek is second on the team with 18 catches for 315 yards. The math on that comes out to a stellar 17.5 per catch as teams have done a poor job tackling him after the catch to help him out. Celek does most of his damage on early downs, and while the Steelers will likely let him work in the soft areas of the zone, they will be fine as long as they tackle the catch quickly. An effective pass rush by the Steelers outside linebackers might force Celek to stay in and help more than he would like, and at the very least it might force him to chip before releasing out into his route.
Vicktainment - Pressure is just as good as a sack in this game for the Steelers defense as long as that pressure includes outside containment and gap control up the middle so as Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is not allowed to use his legs outside of the pocket or straight up the gut. Vick has been trying to force himself to stay in the pocket more this season and the defense needs to take him up on the offer and not tempt him to get on his horse. If Vick is to break contain, it is much better to have him go to his right, where it is much tougher for him to throw against his body. Forcing Vick to be patient inside the pocket is exactly what the Steelers defense wants to happen in this game. If the Eagles are to win this game it will be because Vick makes his throws and doesn\'t try to force anything. The Eagles signal caller is responsible for 9 turnovers so far this season.
Get Off The Damn Field - It is no secret that the Steelers defense has struggled this season at getting off of the field on third downs, especially late in games. Offenses have converted 48.48% of the time so far this season on third downs against the defense and that will keep teams hanging around on the scoreboard if it continues. Sunday will be the first time this season that both Polamalu and fellow safety Ryan Clark will be on the field at the same time. In addition to the return of Polamalu, linebacker James Harrison will be making his season debut as well, even though he will likely be very limited snap wise. The word is that LaMarr Woodley will also be spelled by Jason Worilds in this game in an effort to keep him fresh for the fourth quarter. However the personnel and snap counts works out, someone has to step up and make a few plays this week to get the defense off of the field more consistently.
Prediction - During the bye the Steelers have had not only a lot of time to get healthy, but also time to reflect on what went wrong in their two losses. The return of Harrison is certainly good to see, but you have to wonder just how effective he will be in his first game back. At the very least he knows where to be on the field and hopefully he will help in the containment aspects that I listed above. I really like the prospects of the running game improving this week with the return of Mendenhall to the lineup, and besides, there is nowhere to go but up at this point. As long as the offense does not turn the ball over like they did twice against the Oakland Raiders, and they control the penalties, I think that they have an excellent shot at winning this game. The defense has done a good job at limiting explosive plays so far this season outside of the two long touchdowns allowed and I expect that to continue on Sunday. Winning the turnover battle in this game will be huge and I think that we could possibly see the Steelers special teams unit make a play or two that impacts the game as well. This should be a close game through the first half, but I see the Steelers coming away with a 10 point win when the smoke clears.
Final Score - Steelers 26 Eagles 16