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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.