The Philadelphia Eagles are taking their nice, shiny 3-1 record to Heinz Field where they’re sure to get a few ketchup stains on their uniforms. The Steelers are a hard team to figure out right now, but I certainly think they are a better team than their 1-2 record would seem to indicate.
For some reason, when I think of the Eagles facing the Steelers, I tend to think they’ve historically had a hard time beating them. I must have the memory of the 27-3 destruction in 2004 ingrained in my head.
However, that loss in 2004 was their only one against Pittsburgh in the last 15 years. The Eagles are 3-1 vs. the Steelers since 1997 and have a 47-27-3 record against them in the series history.
However, none of that means anything at this point in time.
Over the years, the Steelers have built themselves a reputation of being a blue-collar, nasty, physical team that will just punch you in the mouth and walk all over you. Their teams are known for excellent defense and a smash-mouth, run-the-ball-down-your-throat offense.
This year, things seem a little different in Steel Town.
The offense is ranked 18th in the NFL in yards per game and dead last in the league in total rushing yards. Their 2.6 yards per rush average is also good for worst in the NFL and have only scored one rushing TD through 3 games.
The Steelers running game may get a slight boost with the expected return of Rashard Mendenhall, but the running backs aren’t the problem. Their offensive line isn’t getting any push in the run-game and are ranked 30th, with a rating of -21.7, in run-blocking by Pro Football Focus.
Luckily for the Steelers, they have transformed themselves into a pretty good passing team.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Pitt offense are ranked 7th in the NFL in passing yards per game (averaging 284 yards). Big Ben is off to a great start this season with a 68.3 completion percentage, 904 yards passing, 8 touchdowns against just one INT and has a QB rating of 109.2.
Mr. Snickers bar lover, Antonio Brown — along with fellow wide-out Mike Wallace — have formed a nice receiving duo. They’ve combined for 35 catches for 474 yards and 4 touchdowns.
But, perhaps their most productive receiver has surprisingly been TE Heath Miller. He has 15 receptions for 129 yards and 4 touchdowns. More specifically, he has become a legitimate red zone threat.
In fact, he is the NFL’s most-targeted red zone receiver, according to ESPN, even moreso than Julio Jones of Atlanta (and in one less game). All four of Miller’s touchdowns have come within the red zone, as one might expect from a more traditional tight end.
On the defensive side, Pittsburgh is ranked 5th in only allowing 291.3 yards of offense per game. They’re 3rd against the pass (190.3 yards per game) but just 14th against the run (101 yards per game).
However, the rushing stats may be a little misleading. If you take away the 64-yard TD run by Darren McFadden in their last game, the Steelers have only allowed 79.6 yards rushing per game…which would be good for 7th in the league.
The only area where their defense is lacking a little bit is in the pass-rush department. They’ve only gotten 5 sacks on the QB so far and haven’t gotten much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
PFF has the Pittsburgh pass rush ranked at 28th in the NFL with a -15 rating. However, the return of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu should add some oomph in this department.
With all that said, here are my 5 keys to an Eagles victory this week:
1. Cover the short and intermediate-middle areas of the field on defense.
Roethlisberger has an outstanding 122.5 QB rating in completing 46 out of 54 passes for 534 yards and 3 touchdowns by throwing over the middle within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.
This is by far his preferred area to attack a defense and has had tremendous success so far. It’s also the exact reason why Antonio Brown called Brandon Boykin a “candy bar”; Boykin is the slot CB who is most responsible for this area of the field as far as defensive backs are concerned.
DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will also be a huge part in stopping this part of the Steelers’ offense. They must cover and play well.
2. Pressure Big Ben without blitzing.
Roethlisberger can be pressured into mistakes if you can get him running around in the pocket. However, he is adept at burning teams when they blitz.
Against the blitz this year, he has completed 65.2% of his passes for 389 yards and 3 touchdowns, according to PFF. The Eagles defensive line needs to take advantage of a leaky Pittsburgh offensive line and get good pressure while keeping players in coverage.
3. Pass the ball on offense.
Oh boy, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but yes, the Eagles should focus more on the passing game this week. Not overdo it, just lean a little more on this aspect of the offense.
That’s music to Andy and Marty’s ears, right? Well, the Steelers defense has given up 8 touchdowns in 3 games, and 6 of them have been through the air.
The Steelers defense is giving up an average of 25 points per game, but they also played an anemic Jets offense in Week 2. Against Denver and Oakland, the Steelers gave up 31 and 34 points respectively.
So, teams can score on this defense. And, as stated earlier, the Steelers are better against the run than the stats suggest. The way to move the ball and score will be through the air.
However, they still have to mix in the run early to keep their defense at least thinking about the run.
4. Convert red zone trips into touchdowns, not field goals.
The Eagles’ offense has only scored 5 touchdowns in 13 trips to the red zone this season for a 38.5% success rate. In contrast, the Steelers’ defense has given up a TD on 60% of their opponents’ red zone trips.
The Eagles have to take advantage of a generous Pittsburgh defense in this regard.
5. Win the field position battle.
In a game that again should be another close one, field position could make a world of difference. The Eagles’ coverage units have been horrendous thus far and they can’t afford to keep allowing their opponents excellent starting field position.
The Eagles are ranked dead last in the league in average starting field position for their opponents (33 yard line). The Giants’ kickoff return team blew the doors off the Eagles’ coverage unit last week.
Obviously, this needs to improve and special teams can often be the deciding factor in close games.
According to some stats dug up by Reuben Frank, Big Ben and the Steelers are pretty formidable at home, and against NFC teams in particular.
Since Heinz Field has been open (2001), the Steelers are 19-2-1 against NFC teams. Roethlisberger himself is 13-1 against the NFC at home and 45-13 overall.
The Steelers are 1-2, coming off a bye, at home, and getting 3 marquee players back. This means the team and their fans will be pumped up and ready to go. The Eagles will have to match their energy level, especially early.
This game has an Eagles loss written all over it, and if I were a gambling man, I’d take the Steelers to cover. However, I’m still a homer and think the Eagles are very capable of beating this team.
Prediction: Eagles 26, Steelers 20