An intrastate rivalry awaits the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, as they will travel to western Pennsylvania to take on the 1-2 Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is a game plan for how the Eagles can beat the Steelers.
Attacking the 3-4 Zone Blitz
One of the big keys for beating the Steelers will be figuring out how to move the ball against the zone blitz of the Steelers. This becomes even more important with the return of linebacker James Harrison.
However, the Steelers plan on rotating both Harrison and LaMarr Woodley throughout the game. Harrison will rotate with Chris Carter; Woodley will rotate with Jason Worilds. Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons man the inside linebacker spots.
These guys will blitz early and often, and they will blitz from anywhere and everywhere. At any given time, any one will show blitz and attack, or show blitz and back off into zone coverage, in an attempt to confuse the offensive line.
It will be key for this Eagles offensive line to communicate, especially with a center in Dallas Reynolds who will be starting just his third career game.
Running the ball could actually be effective, as Pittsburgh ranks 21st in yards per carry at 4.3 and 14th in total rushing yards per game at 101 yards per game. If Reid can somehow find a way to keep running the ball, eventually something will open up. That was proven last week against the Giants.
After a rough first half running the ball, McCoy opened the second half with some big runs. Goal-line rushing must improve for this team. They've got to get some push up front at the goal line.
The Eagles may also be able to take advantage in the passing department. There are times where the middle of the field is left vulnerable to short routes. If I'm Reid, I'm also looking to get tight end Brent Celek involved as much as I can. He was key in moving the ball against the Giants, no reason he shouldn't be here, as well.
The pass rush has also struggled to get in gear, as noted by the fact that they have sacked the quarterback just five times this season, 27th in sacks per game. It will be worth watching how much pressure the Steelers can get on Michael Vick throughout the afternoon. If he has enough time, he should be able to find his receivers.
Scouting the Secondary
Troy Polamalu is back. And the secondary is instantly much, much better. This goes without saying, but Polamalu is that good. If you've watched him, you have to agree. Whether you love him or hate him, you have to respect his game.
Here's an example: Early in the Denver game, the Broncos tried running to the left side with Knowshon Moreno. Brandon Stokley up-ended Polamalu, sending him to the turf. Polamalu immediately got up and made the tackle on Moreno for a loss.
Steelers fans have to be happy that he is back. And it's obvious they could use him. The rest of the secondary has their issues.
Outside of Polamalu, Pittsburgh has some players back there who struggle in coverage on open-field tackling—guys like Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis. And it's not like Ike Taylor has ever been elite, either. Also, through three games, the Steelers defense has a grand total of one interception. That belongs to Ryan Clark.
But overall, the passing defense has been good, yet again. They rank third in passing yards allowed per game, at 190, and 12th in yards per attempt allowed, at 6.9.
Going back to the pass rush—if it is not there, guys like DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin can find soft spots in the zone coverage, and Vick will just have to find the open receiver. Stokley and Eric Decker had some success against the Steelers. That could be a good sign for guys such as Maclin and Jason Avant.
Demaryius Thomas had 110 yards versus this defense, with 71 of them coming on one play. That was a simple screen off a play fake where the defense bit and the Broncos blocked perfectly, springing Thomas.
The Eagles have historically been known as a strong screen running team, so it will be interesting to see if the screen is used, and how often, perhaps to Jackson.
Going back to Celek and the tight end discussion, Jacob Tamme had five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh. It was a one-yard quick out route on the goal line, where Tamme was lined up in the slot.
Celek is pretty athletic himself and can be flexed out at times, similar to what Tamme did on that particular play. Just something to think about and maybe something Reid should have in his back pocket.
Bottom line: The Steelers defense is tough, but you can move the ball against them. Plus, the Eagles tried to simulate the crowd noise they will hear at Heinz. How effective that was will be proved Sunday.
Stopping Big Ben
By far, the biggest key for the Eagles on defense will be slowing down, if not stopping, Ben Roethlisberger.
Big Ben is one of the strongest quarterbacks in the game with a great arm and a great ability to scramble. He is arguably the best at being able to extend the play and find an open receiver downfield. This secondary will be tested. Pass rush will be key in this one. But the Eagles will have to get to Roethlisberger fast.
The Steelers will run a bunch of pass plays that get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands quickly, and that is due to the fact that the Steelers offensive line has been struggling. It clearly shows that they are missing David DeCastro. Look for quick screens, quick slants and things of that nature.
The Steelers are a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of allowing sacks. They have allowed nine sacks so far this season, but that is three per game, since they have only played three games. Watch the two offensive tackles, Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert, to see how they hold up. Starks, especially, since he is Ben's blind side.
With Ben's ability to scramble out, staying home will be must for the defensive ends. They cannot allow No. 7 to get outside; otherwise, they are in big trouble. Stay home, don't get too anxious and they should be fine.
The "New-Look" "Running Game"
For a team that has based their history on smashmouth football, the Steelers' running game has been flat out awful through three games, ranking 30th in rushing yards per games. The leading rusher so far is Isaac Redman, who is averaging 2.3 yards per carry on 32 carries. Jonathan Dwyer is better, but not by much. He's carried 24 times, but is averaging 2.9 yards per.
Steelers fans have to be happy that Rashard Mendenhall is returning this week. The question is: How effective will he be? This is his first game since tearing his ACL at the end of last season, and some sources say he will be "eased back" into the lineup.
Through four games this season, the Eagles have been pretty good against the run, ranking 12th in yards per game, at just 91.5. They have been susceptible to the big run, which has been expected due to the Wide 9 style.
But all season, they have employed a "bend, but don't break" style of defense. They get the stops when they need to, especially on the run, and for this matchup, it is hard to be scared of the rushing attack. DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have been sure-fire tacklers and could both have solid days stopping the run.
Defend the Aerial Attack
When it comes to the wide receivers, the Steelers have themselves quite a crew. Mike Wallace is arguably the best deep threat in the NFL, Antonio Brown is a very good underneath receiver and Emmanuel Sanders has improved as a No. 3.
I could see Nnamdi Asomugha shadowing Wallace and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie covering Brown, although Brandon Boykin probably wants a piece of Brown after Brown called Boykin the "candy bar" of the Eagles defense (h/t F. Dale Lolley, Observer-Reporter.com).
If the Eagles are going to win this game, they cannot allow Brown and Wallace to run free. The best bet would be to have Asomugha and Cromartie lock onto the receivers all day. Don't even worry about zone coverage. These guys are very good man corners; let them get physical with the receivers.
Minimizing the damage through the air will go a long way toward determining whether the Eagles leave Pittsburgh 4-1 or 3-2.
This will be a fun matchup featuring two of the best deep threats in the NFL. Expect both teams to take deep shots. Whichever team's pass defense comes to play will walk out of Heinz a Week 5 winner. Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman must be on their toes at all times against these speedy receivers.
One more thing: Kick coverage must improve. Period. No more constant returns to the 40. The Eagles nearly lost to the Giants because of that.
So it seems simple. Establish the run game; slow down Ben Roethlisberger. Easier said than done. Of course, not many people expected Philadelphia to be 3-1 coming into Week 5. Or Pittsburgh to be 1-2. Anything can happen. It sure will be interesting to watch.
Andy Reid discovered he actually has a running game last week. Here's hoping he continues to play with his new/old/always had toy.
Eagles 24, Steelers 20