Eagles vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Pittsburgh Fans to Watch for Week 5

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIOctober 4, 2012

Eagles vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Pittsburgh Fans to Watch for Week 5

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    Pennsylvania's intrastate rivalry adds another chapter when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.  The "Keystone Clash," though only played every four years between these interconference foes, is still a battle for bragging rights.

    The week leading up to Sunday, October 7th, 2012 promises to be volatile across the PA landscape, particularly on various college campuses where the loyalties of hometown students are divided.  For most four-year students, a cross-state contest happens only once in their collegiate career, making the rare Eagles-Steelers showdown an interesting one-shot opportunity to experience that atmosphere.

    Philadelphia's faithful followers are quick to recall their team's 15-6 win over Pittsburgh in 2008, a victory that included nine sacks by their aggressive defense.

    Steeler Nation is always willing to remind Eagles fans that they are merely "green with envy" over the Black and Gold's six Lombardi Trophies.

    So, which side of the state will claim the upper hand in Week 5's showdown?  Here are 10 things for Pittsburgh fans during the "Battle for Pennsylvania."

The Defensive Front's Tough Assignment

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers defense as a whole will have their hands full against a talented Eagles offense, and everyone from the down linemen to the secondary will be looking for redemption.  After all, September presented far more questions than answers, if there were any answers, defensively.  Included among the inquiries are:

    What degree of impact did injuries have on the unit's production?

    Are Dick LeBeau's schemes, whether in general or relative to this season alone, becoming less effective or...dare it be said, predictable?

    What solutions are available to aid in getting pressure in the offensive backfield? 

    No matter what answers coincide with the questions above, one thing is certain: nothing will be so important toward improving defensively as dominating upfront. 

    Against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh's nose tackle, along with ends "Ziggy" Hood and Brett Keisel, will be thoroughly tested.

    Above all else, their mission starts with the need to contain the Eagles' acclaimed running back, LeSean McCoy.  Most Philadelphians feel that "Shady" has been underutilized so far in 2012.  A desire for an increased role for the run game is not novel in Philly.

    If McCoy is able to establish a consistent presence in the game, the defense will have already lost the matchup.  On a weekend where the Eagles will look to further utilize their star back, the down linemen must win their matchups at the line of scrimmage, creating havoc in the backfield and opening lanes for pursuant linebackers.

    Winning individual battles in the trenches will also be critical against a quarterback who needs to be kept in the pocket.  Michael Vick is a far more effective passer outside of the tackle box, where he can create yardage and fully utilize his skills.

    Inside the box, Vick has had a rough going this season, turning the football over, struggling to read defenses and taking more hits than Apollo Creed in the Rocky anthology.  And, we all know what fate awaited Apollo!  Ah, Philly fans and their Rocky movies....

    As far as a pass rush is concerned, I remain a huge advocate of bringing Steve McLendon into the nose tackle spot. 

    Casey Hampton has shown the wear of time and tear of injuries in his first few outings this season; conversely, while Hampton is more renowned for his defensive skills against the run, McLendon is a more forceful pass-rusher. 

    He had the camp and preseason of his young career, and he best showcased his dominance against (drum roll)...the Eagles!

    Above and beyond stuffing the run and getting penetration through the line of scrimmage, the ends will have the additional task of keeping the ever-elusive Vick from evading to the outside.  If Philly's No. 7 is kept predominantly inside the tackles, it will bode well for the Steelers on Sunday.

"Vick-tory" or "Vick-tims?"

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    Historically, the Steelers defense hasn't fared very well against Michael Vick.  Here's hoping that Sunday afternoon is a change of pace.

    In 2002, Vick rallied the Falcons to a tie at Heinz Field, coming back from a 34-17 deficit in the fourth quarter.  In that season, Pittsburgh's shaky defense allowed offenses with momentum to score in bunches, making that final quarter emblematic of their season-long woes.

    The 2006 contest in Atlanta was even more frustrating, as Steelers fans watched in disgust as a furious offensive showing was all for naught.  Vick threw a career-high four touchdowns in a 41-38 overtime victory that was emblematic of the team's early struggles that season.

    In 2012, the Steelers can't afford for their contest against Vick to be emblematic of their early troubles.  Not this time...

    If the Men of Steel are going to force Vick to look more like he did against Cleveland in Week 1, they will need to get their licks on the pressure-prone passer. 

    While the Eagles offense will look for quick throws and misdirections early in the game, the Steelers offense can force Vick into old habits by putting him in the hole early.

    An early lead will have the Eagles passer looking to make plays, which—strange as it may sounds—could favor Pittsburgh.  When Vick is trying to be the hero, he is often taking unnecessary hits and risks; yet, this is all dependent on the ability to get pressure.

    Take the game in Arizona as an example.  Down 10 points early, Vick threw 37 times and had the ball on 41 plays, opposed to just 17 rushing attempts.  With the Cardinals able to tee off on Vick, the passer completed less than 50 percent of his attempts and faced utter havoc in the backfield.

    With footsteps in his ears and angry men on his (fill in the blank), the historically maligned passer has shown his penchant for mistakes.  Though he didn't throw a pick in Arizona, interceptions in Cleveland were the result of aggressive, physical defense. 

    While the electrifying QB has the ability to overcome the fiercest pass rushes, the Steelers defense has demonstrated one certainty.  No pressure equals bad news.

    Steelers fans know the strength that is a strong-armed elusive passer with a flair for the dramatic and a great receiving corps.  Against the Ravens, both tight end Brent Celek and receiver DeSean Jackson eclipsed 100 yards. 

    Pittsburgh can't afford an encore; allowing Vick time to play each down his way will invite it.

Healthy Returns

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    The return of injured players makes the timing of this year's bye week a blessing. I predict that it will pay huge dividends. 

    Particularly on defense, the combined loss of Harrison at linebacker and Polamalu at safety cannot be understated!  Or, conversely, nor can their return!

    Troy Polamalu replaces Ryan Mundy, who was woeful as the "other safety."  Truthfully, the astronomical benefit of Troy's health can be succinctly summarized with just that sentence. 

    Mundy struggled with recognition, was inconsistent in his ability to assist against the run and just lacked the general cohesion with either Troy or Ryan Clark that each has together.

    No. 43 is a true hybrid force, fulfilling roles of linebacker, safety and corner with proficiency at any given time.  His presence opens up a deeper pass rush, complete with all of the nifty blitzes Dick LeBeau has set up just for the strength of his All-Pro safety. 

    Likewise, make no mistake that Polamalu is a vital cog in the team's ability to shadow, read and contain Michael Vick—particularly if he gets around the edge.

    James Harrison demands attention that was placed almost exclusively on LaMarr Woodley.  With such potential strength (depending on Deebo's knee) at both edges, the strain on offensive protections is monumental.  With each deterring focus on the other, Woodley and Harrison are a wrecking force together.

    Lastly, fans hope that the return of Rashard Mendenhall infuses a competence in the running game that has been lacking.  More on that later...

Ike Taylor vs. DeSean Jackson

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    ...and the rest of the secondary versus the Eagles' plethora of offensive weapons.  Both teams are loaded with phenomenal skill talent, making Sunday's game a near-guarantee for various offensive "splash plays."

    Tight end Brent Celek has 18 receptions for 315 yards.

    Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant have combined for 20 catches and over 250 yards, along with two scores.

    Yet, as playmakers go, few catch as much attention as DeSean Jackson, the rocket-fueled retriever at receiver who will keep Ike Taylor's hand full on Sunday.

    Opinions on Taylor vary, but he can go a long way toward assuaging the position of cynics by containing Jackson.  No. 10 is predictably Philly's top receiving target, snagging 20 grabs for 333 yards and a touchdown.

    The Steelers have invariably continued to show faith in the ability of Ike Taylor to cover the league's best receivers man-to-man, and the pair's battle on the outside will be a feature focus of "Keystone Clash 2012."

    With the Eagles' team speed outside, it's difficult to be a proponent of man coverage, but it is in such assignments that the Steelers' corners excel.  If Keenan Lewis can take care of action across the field, I truly trust Ike Taylor to uphold his end of the bargain. 

    Call it a gut instinct...

Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown vs. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie

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    Granted, the Steelers defensive backs have a tough assignment against the Eagles.  However, the Steelers offense is easily able to return the favor, challenging Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

    While Asomugha is the more celebrated corner, likely to be matched predominantly against Mike Wallace, it is Rodgers-Cromartie who has had more impact in the Philly backfield. 

    His three interceptions lead the team (Asomugha still awaits his first interception), each pick so vital for a squad that has won four games by a combined four points!

    Mike Wallace has been a force since returning from his holdout, diversifying his game to include both a deep threat and consistent contributions at the intermediate level.  He's been as responsible for moving the sticks as any of his peers, including the "father of first downs" large or small, Mr. Antonio Brown.

    Brown has continued to be supremely reliable, and both Emmanuel Sanders and (to a lesser degree) Jerricho Cotchery have made plays.

    Yet, for all of their depth and ability, make no mistake that the Steelers' skill players will have a tough assignment in the secondary against the Eagles.  

    However, another dynamic playmaking force has been the ultimate X-factor in the "Todd Haley offense," causing defenders and coordinators to cringe even after they felt everything was contained...(next slide).


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    Three games, four touchdowns. 

    Extrapolated across 16 games, "Heeeeeaaaath!" Miller is on pace for 21 touchdowns.  Totally doable, right? 

    Certainly, everybody knows the illustrious tight end, as complete a package at the position as any of his peers, isn't going to keep up this torrid pace.  However, his ROLE in the offense can maintain.

    Against Philadelphia, the Steelers will have to take advantage of Heath's presence. 

    The Eagles secondary, in spite of its inconsistency, has the talent to keep a who's who gallery of receiving talent in check.  If indeed the defensive backs get an edge, Miller is a great intermediate option who will have the edge against most assigned on him.

    Likewise, against a defense that registered 50 sacks last year, every safety valve receiver/solid blocker combo is a premium commodity.  Heath Miller gives Pittsburgh both options against a strong pass-rushing team. 

    He can put himself in position for the checkdown pass, find the soft spot against the defense for key first downs, and make the key block when held on the line. 

    Heath Miller is a do-it-all tight end.  Having such a great player is a true luxury.

Pittsburgh's O-Line and the Truth of Philly's Pass Rush

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    The last time Pittsburgh played Philly, Big Ben entered into an endless onslaught of green jerseys.  The Eagles' relentless blitz came from every angle, attacking the Steelers' backfield without mercy and recording nine sacks.

    Though the style they use to attain their production has changed, Philly is still a pass-rushing force that the offense can't take lightly.  An encore at Heinz Field would make for a miserable October opener.

    The offensive line has a huge task this weekend to keep their franchise quarterback upright.  Though Big Ben is able to extend plays with his uncanny escapability and improvisation, nobody can deny that his backfield maneuvering isn't best implemented as the "mother of necessity."

    Wasn't it just two months ago that bright-eyed fans looked forward to the would-be dominance of their top two draft selections, David DeCastro and Mike Adams? 

    Too good to be true, right?  In any case, the offensive front needs to pull together as a cohesive unit, despite the misfortune of another season filled with injuries.

    Truth be told, the offensive line hasn't been terrible in pass protection, and perhaps even adequate...but a lot of their apparent success is the end result of Big Ben's mobility.

    Despite conceptions to the contrary, the Eagles haven't been a great blitzing team in the last couple years.  People still envision their unit based on the trends and successes of the "Jim Johnson" years.  However, they're still great at getting pressure, particularly with their front four.

    Defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin combined for 29 of the team's 50 sacks last year.

    Bleacher Report peer Randy Jobst puts it best:

    The Eagles haven’t been a great blitzing team this season and weren’t really a great blitzing team last season either. Six of their seven sacks this season have come from the defensive line and 46 of their 50 sacks last season came from the front four.

    The Eagles do need to become a better blitzing team. It’s not going to happen from the personnel they have. Their best blitzer is also their best coverage linebacker, Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles just need to be smarter in how they blitz.

Will Mendenhall's Return Spark the Ground Game?

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    The Steelers run game has averaged less than three yards per carry.  The hesitance of Isaac Redman in the backfield has ended with many yardage losses.  Jonathan Dwyer, albeit more effective than his peer on most snaps, hasn't met the high expectations of his lofty training camp and preseason.

    Though the return of Rashard Mendenhall likely won't be the full tonic for what ails the Steelers on the ground, fans hope he emerges as an energizer for the running attack.

    Of the three backs, Mendenhall is the most inherently gifted, particularly for his ability to "manufacture" yardage, creating it in spite of poor run blocking.  Indeed, an improvement in the ground attack is dependent on progress on the offensive line. 

    In addition to his creativity with the ball, Rashard also boasts the best lateral movement. 

    Though some fans criticize his "shiftiness" in the backfield, citing instances where the back would be better served just hitting the hole for small gains instead of losses, there's no doubt that he is capable of making big plays via change in direction.

    Therefore, here's hoping his recovery from last season's ACL tear doesn't affect his ability to plant and cut.

    Last year, facing the Eagles' run defense would have been viewed as a potential cure-all for what ails the run game.  In their first year under inexperienced defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, the defense was frequently gashed.

    This year, they're surrendering only 3.8 yards per attempt and giving up only 91 yards per game, ranking among the stiffest run defenses in the game.

    The Steelers offense may once again hinge almost exclusively on their aerial attack.  The Eagles defensive ends contain the edge well, and the team's overall improvement against the run won't make Week 5 easy sledding for Pittsburgh's ground attack.

The Continued Excellence of Big Ben

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    For all of the negativity elicited from a 1-2 record, loyal fans cannot forget to enjoy the positive signs shown by the Steelers through three weeks.

    The new offense, which entered the season as a major X-factor, hasn't been incredibly balanced. Yet, the passing game features a phenomenal receiving corps, all of whom are contributing.

    Delivering the ball is Ben Roethlisberger, whose solid play has him unsurprisingly on pace for a career season. He has eight touchdowns, a lone pick and a quarterback rating in triple digits.

    In other words, the early season has been "No. 7 Heaven" in the 'Burgh. Fans hope the ending provides a different type of "Seven Heaven."

    In a "tweaking" year, Ben has released the ball more quickly, distributed his passes evenly, taken advantage of what defenses are showing pre-snap and made sound decisions. 

    Yet, even in a year of encouraged adjustments, Roethlisberger has done what he does best, maneuvering like a Houdini of the backfield and making plays that other NFL passers can't dream of executing.

    The quarterback has been nothing short of dynamic in 2012, throwing for eight touchdowns and compiling a quarterback rating of 109.2.  If not for a late-game pick in Denver and the utter absence of a running attack, the Steelers could easily be 2-1 or 3-0 in spite of their porous defensive showing.

    Against a tough cross-state opponent, No. 7 needs to continue his outstanding play.  So far, this season is proving that Big Ben could be at an individual career peak.

Swing Game: The Huge Difference Between 2-2 and 1-3

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    The Good

    The Steelers have been a far superior home team than road squad in the last two years.  Having the advantage of home-cooking, the team hopes to duplicate their recent Steel City successes and improve to 2-2.


    The Bad

    Nobody can be sure what effect that adjustments during the bye week, the return of healthy players and general soul-searching will have on the club. 

    The running game rests on the leg of a back whose injury was once projected to keep him out for all of 2012, and the defense has been absolutely ghastly minus Polamalu and Harrison. 

    Will their return truly escalate the unit's performance from pathetic to powerful?


    The Ugly

    Four games, no matter the outcome Sunday, do not make an entire season.  However, a home loss by the well-rested Steelers to the battle-tested Eagles would drop the team's record to 1-3...

    ...in a division that features one-loss teams in both Baltimore and Cincinnati!!!!

    Though there is only a one-outcome difference between the two records, the complexion of 2-2 and 1-3 are entirely different. 

    Sunday's result will either mark a fresh start for the Men of Steel (see: 2011) or a cavernous hole (see: a mix of results, ranging from great seasons like 1989 and 2002 to darker and more recent seasons like 2003 and 2006).

    This is a huge swing game in the standings, and it could determine Pittsburgh's ability to keep pace long term in the AFC North.  Does this team have hopes for a division title, or will they be in the middle of a tight AFC Wild Card race? 

    A loss to the Eagles could make 2012 a long, hard-fought slog for the Steelers.