When the Eagles are on Offense:
This week the Eagles will have to commit to the run once again this week for no other reason than the fact they are a very good rushing team. The Eagles rank 7th in the NFL in rushing yards per game at nearly 146 yards per game. With All-Pro running back McCoy in the backfield combined with Michael Vick’s athleticism, the Eagles are deadly on the ground. The Steelers defense is 14th in the league in rush yards allowed per game with an average of 101 per game through three games but, in their most recent game against the Raiders in Week 3, they allowed 119 yards on the ground.
An overlooked part of the win over the Giants was the improvement of the offensive line over the course of the game. For the majority of the first half, the offensive line was porous allowing Vick to get beat up in the pocket in addition to allowing blitzers to cut down McCoy’s initial runs and his cutbacks. As the game progressed the offensive line got into a rhythm that gave Vick more time and opened up more holes for McCoy. The offensive line is going to have to play at the same high level this week because the Steelers defense is a smash mouth group. Andy Reid used tight ends Brent Celek and Clay Harbor, as well as McCoy, to clip defenders coming in off the edge to give Vick a little more time in the pocket. With the Steelers pass rush, look for the Eagles to be doing a lot of this.
The Steelers are looking to get a boost defensively with the return of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Polamalu has missed each of the last two games with a strained calf but the bye week has allowed him to rest it even more. With the return of Polamalu, the Steelers now get someone in their secondary that impacts the passing game as well as the running game. Harrison is a different story. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year has not played yet this year with a left knee injury. ESPN AFC North writer Jamison Hensley points out that the Steelers will likely ease Harrison back into action which means he might only play in pass-rush specific plays.
The Steelers defense can be exploited as they have allowed 31.3 points per game on the road but the game is at Heinz Field where the Steelers have won nine of their last ten games. Over their nine wins, they have held opponents to 9.3 points per game. The Eagles are 30th in the league in scoring at 16.5 points per game having scored more than 19 points in a game just once this year so this could become an issue. Look for the Steelers to throw a lot of different looks at the Eagles with defensive mastermind Dick Lebeau creating blitzes to keep Vick on edge.
When the Steelers are on Offense:
The Steelers get a boost with the return of running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall tore his ACL at the end of last season and has not played yet this year. The Steelers rushing attack has been, to put it nicely, putrid. They are last in the NFL averaging 65 yards per game and only 195 total rushing yards on the season. They are averaging a mere 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. Mendenhall, who had two back-to-back 1,100 + yard rushing seasons in 2009-2010, will certainly give the Steelers’ backs a boost. The Eagles have done well against the run ranking 12th in the NFL allowing just 91.5 yards per game on the ground, which is leaps and bounds better than in 2011 when they couldn’t tackle and allowed running lanes the size of freeways.
Special Teams and Prediction:
The most important player in last week’s Eagles game was Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes. This week’s opposing kicker, Shaun Suisham is 5-for-5 in field goal opportunities this year with his longest coming from 45 yards out.
This is going to be a hard fought battle between two interstate rivals. I liked the Eagles play calling last week and I expect to see a lot of the same this week. It would not be surprising the see the Eagles running more play action to keep Polamalu guessing and I think we will see a slightly different, more aggressive Michael Vick with downfield passes this week. I think two touchdowns and one interception from Vick is a reasonable guess. The Eagles corners are going to have to stick with the play until Roethlisberger is down on the ground because he is constantly looking downfield to extend for the big play. I think the Eagles are prepared for Roethlisberger (especially after playing another top QB in Eli Manning last week). However, the Steelers had two weeks to rest and prepare for the Eagles. It will be a close one down to the wire… again.
Just a little tidbit: the last two times these teams played in the regular season, the loser of the game went to the Super Bowl and the winner of the game lost in the conference championship game.
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