The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-2 and headed off their early bye week to host the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday. If they are to keep the postseason squarely within the realm of possibility, this is a game the Steelers need to win, and it's obviously not impossible for them to do so.
The Eagles are a different sort of team, however—their approaches on both offense and defense are unique and present a very specific set of challenges. Here's a three-step game plan for the Steelers to employ in their efforts to defeat Philadelphia this week.
The Eagles have two serious weapons on offense—quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy—who the Steelers must stop if they are to come out on top this week.
It's not been a banner year for Vick thus far. He's completed just 56.8 percent of his passes, is averaging 286 yards per game, has thrown four touchdowns to six interceptions and has been sacked 11 times.
Again, a combination of Vick's mobility and an offensive line ill-suited to protect such a quarterback has resulted in him taking a heavy dose of punishment. He's also carried the ball 27 times so far this season, for 130 total yards and a score, plus three fumbles, one lost.
The Steelers' biggest task will therefore be to put pressure on Vick and force him to make throwing errors while at the same time not allowing him to escape and take off down the field. The return of safety Troy Polamalu should greatly assist these efforts. Vick will have to consistently be aware of where he is on the field and have to make adjustments on the fly, not all of which will be correct.
Then, after the snap, Polamalu's versatility and speed make him the perfect defender to keep pace with Vick. He can contain him in the pocket, come at him with a blitz or pursue him should he try to run.
Limiting Vick's options isn't the only thing the Steelers defense needs to worry about—they must also contain McCoy. Though not much of a scoring threat (he has just one rushing touchdown on the year), McCoy nonetheless can eat up yardage play after play. He has 81 carries already this season for 384 yards and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
At the same time, the Steelers run defense is not as strong as it's been in years past—they're giving up 101 rush yards per game on average this year and, more importantly, 5.7 rushing first downs per game.
Of particular concern to the Steelers should be the 13 tackles McCoy has either evaded or broken so far this year, tied for fourth overall among running backs. The Steelers defense has 14 missed tackles to their name this season, and they'll need to rely heavily on executing that fundamental skill in order to hold McCoy's numbers down.
Yet again, this is another area in which Polamalu's return to action will greatly help the Steelers. Polamalu's biggest strengths are in run defense and in the pass rush, and he'll be all over the line of scrimmage, daring both Vick and McCoy to run (or to not run, as it were). Though Polamalu has issues with over-pursuit, considering the way he plays his position, he'll often serve as the first line of defense in stopping McCoy this week.
It won't just be Polamalu tasked with keeping McCoy at bay, however. Linebacker James Harrison, taking the field for the first time this year, will play a huge role in stopping both McCoy and Vick (when the latter decides to run) as well as fellow backers Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. The same can be said for defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel.
When facing the Eagles offense, it's head-on-a-swivel time for defenders tasked with stopping them. Containment of McCoy and Vick will go a long way toward a Steelers victory this week.
Experiment with the Run Game
There's a reason why the Eagles defense ranks fifth overall in average passing yards per game—the Wide Nine formation and how opponents respond to it. The system is designed to bring pressure by stretching out the defensive line along the width of the field, making it hard on offensive lines to block them in their pursuit of the quarterback.
The result is that teams ultimately often have to throw less and run more against them, especially those with poor pass-protecting offensive lines. Though the Steelers have improved in this area so far this season, they would still be smart in trying to exploit the one weakness the Wide Nine defense presents—large gaps through which running backs can cut with ease.
The Steelers rank 31st in the league in rushing yards per game, at 65, thanks in part to reliance on north-south runners Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer as well as an offensive line that has struggled in run blocking. But the combination of the return of Rashard Mendenhall to active duty and the Eagles' relative susceptibility to the run means that it's as good a time as any to try to get the ground game back on track.
Mendenhall is not the greatest running back in the league, to be sure, but his career average of around four yards per carry is far better than what Dwyer and Redman have been doing in the previous three games, and he brings a dimension to the run game that the Steelers have lacked in his absence.
That's mainly speed and shiftiness. Mendenhall is no McCoy, but he's been the Steelers' best rushing bet for the past four season and racked up more than 1,200 rushing yards in 2010. He's a legitimate scoring threat, with power to match his speed and—most importantly—can fight through tackles in ways that Redman, especially, cannot.
Pittsburgh's offensive line has struggled to create holes for their backs to run through, but the Eagles' Wide Nine alignment is ready-made with holes, if the linemen can just maintain them. Then, Mendenhall could easily have the opportunity to break off one of his signature long runs.
More success in the run game will also help out the Steelers when passing the ball. One reason why Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been able to take many deep shots down the field is because their run game hasn't been working. With some successful runs, Roethlisberger can then use play-action to buy time and be able to hit receivers Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders deep down the field.
This week, with Mendenhall set for a heavy workload—perhaps as many as 15 carries—the run game should have improved enough to allow for more overall creativity and risk-taking from the offense as a whole.
The Steelers have more than a fighting chance to stop the Eagles from both passing and running the ball well, but they cannot set them up for easy yards or scores by giving them good field position on kicks and punts.
The one area that the Steelers have been especially weak on special teams is in kickoff coverage, and they cannot let the Eagles returners burn them for big gains this Sunday.
Pittsburgh is allowing an average of 33.2 yards on kickoff returns this year, the second-most yards allowed in the league, including a 51-yarder torn off by Mike Goodson of the Oakland Raiders in Week 3.
Eagles kick returner Brandon Boykin isn't the most successful returner in the league, averaging 21 yards per touch, but against the Steelers on Sunday he could look like an All-Pro candidate if they cannot get their coverage unit under control.
The Steelers weren't satisfied with their special teams play heading into the season, which is why they decided to relieve Al Everest of his duties as special teams coach and give the job to assistant Amos Jones.
Things haven't gotten much better with Jones running the show, but that's not necessarily Jones' fault—Pittsburgh has been shaky at all things special teams for seasons now, and it's hard to pinpoint just how they can fix it.
While things like their own kick and punt return game and their punting and kickoffs could be better, what they really need in this game is to keep the Eagles pinned back deep into their own territory. That's how pressure on Vick can be even more successful, and, even if it's not, simply forcing Philadelphia to march 80 or 90 yards per drive in order to put up a touchdown could easily be too much for them against the Steelers' now-healthy defense.
The goal on Sunday is to make nothing easier for Philadelphia, and that starts with keeping them from any sort of field position advantage via giving up a big kick or punt return. While wins and losses can often hinge on the giving up (or not) or making (or not) big plays, the seemingly little things make a great deal of difference.
This is a game of inches, of course, and the Steelers need to be careful not to give up yards before the Eagles even run a play.