1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: The Steelers were the model for Bill Davis’ defense with the Eagles from 2013 through 2015, may it rest in peace. They run the prototype two-gap 3-4 base defense. When executed properly it’s a great scheme for stopping the run. The Steelers have had the most consistent run defense over the last two decades, as Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich pointed out on Thursday. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave and ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are the two-gapping space-cloggers up front. Inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons and outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats are the second-level sweepers. Shazier is quick and a playmaker. The Eagles, who have struggled to get much going on the ground, particularly in the first half, will have their work cut out for them if they want to establish the run. I’m still waiting for Doug Pederson and Reich to utilize Carson Wentz’s legs. A few zone read keeps could open some space for Ryan Mathews and company.
The Steelers’ pass defense is suspect. It lacks a serious rush threat. It is why 38-year-old James Harrison is still hanging around. Heyward has some pass rush ability. For the second time in three weeks the Eagles will face a defensive coordinator from the Dick LeBeau school. Two weeks ago it was the Browns’ Ray Horton. The Steelers’ Keith Butler would love to get the Eagles into third and long situations so that he can tap into his bag of zone blitzes. One problem there, though: Wentz has been very good against the blitz in his two starts. He isn’t a normal rookie quarterback. Wentz can read defenses pre-snap. He can check in and out plays and change protections to counter the blitz. He’ll be without Zach Ertz for another week, though. And his receivers haven’t been the most reliable. But the Steelers are susceptible on the back end. William Gay is a veteran cornerback, but he’s starting to show his age. Ross Cockrell isn’t much better on the other side.
Zach Berman: I’d expect the Eagles to have a similar game plan to the one they used against Chicago. Pittsburgh will be difficult to run against, and my guess is Pederson tries challenging the Steelers’ secondary. I don’t see a big day for the Eagles’ running game even though they’re hoping for improvement in that area. They can move the ball through the air on Sunday – look for Trey Burton to be used similarly to the way Washington used Jordan Reed against Pittsburgh, finding soft spots for a high-volume workload. But do the Eagles have a deep threat? They’ll try to see if Nelson Agholor can be one on Sunday. The Steelers don’t have a great pass rush, so I don’t expect Wentz to be under duress. But they have a sound defense and could force Wentz into turnover situations. He hasn’t thrown an interception in the first two games. That will change on Sunday.
2. How will the Eagles defense do?
McLane: If the Eagles can limit the damage Antonio Brown is likely to inflict upon them, they have a shot to keep the score under 30. Of course, the all-pro receiver is just one of several offensive weapons the Steelers have. This will be Jim Schwartz’s first real test. The Eagles defense has allowed just 17 points in two games. They’ve forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks. They’ve dominated in the second half. The Steelers are too multifaceted to be contained for 60 minutes, however. Even without the suspended Le’Veon Bell they’ve had one of the better rushing attacks in the league. The 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams leads the NFL in rushing and has done a great job of finding lanes behind a versatile offensive line. But Ben Roethlisberger is the lynchpin. He’s become remarkably accurate. He still can extend plays in and out of the pocket, but he doesn’t need to do that as much with Brown almost always open. Should the Eagles double Brown? They will likely shade a safety toward him at times, but the Steelers have too many other options for the Eagles to take away from other spots. Receiver Sammie Coates is a deep threat. Receiver Eli Rogers is a good route runner. Tight end Jesse James is a big target. With cornerback Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) likely out for another game, the Eagles secondary has its work cut out.
Berman: This is one of the best offenses the Eagles face this season even without Bell in the lineup. Brown is difficult to prepare for because of the way they move him around, and he’ll have a big day against the Eagles’ secondary. The key, as it will always be with the Eagles, is the pass rush. If they can win at the point of attack and get to Roethlisberger, then it can neutralize the pass offense. But Roethlisberger can extend plays and can find short passes if he’s under duress. I thought the pass rush won the game for the Eagles last week on defense, but I don’t see that happening on Sunday. This offensive line is impressive – especially the interior, where David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are among the best in the NFL. In addition to Brown, the Steelers can go deep to Sammie Coates and short to Rogers. They get Markus Wheaton back in the lineup and Williams can do damage out of the backfield. There are just too many weapons, and the Eagles won’t have enough ways to stop them.
3. Who’s a player to watch?
McLane: How about former Eagles defensive end, now Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The former Army ranger was one of Chip Kelly’s projects except the former Eagles coach had Villanueva at the wrong position in Philly. Mike Tomlin said this week that he looked at Villanueva during the national anthem when the Eagles played the Steelers in the preseason a few years back and thought to himself how the 6-foot-9 player would possibly make a good tackle. The Eagles eventually released Villaneuva, the Steelers signed him to the practice squad and he spent the next few years adding about 60 pounds as he converted to tackle. It should be interesting to see how does against Connor Barwin and the Eagles’ edge rushers.
Berman: Give me Trey Burton. I was impressed with the way he played last week and I think he continues on Sunday. Wentz likes him, he has reliable hands, and he can run. He had five catches for 49 yards on Monday, and I can see him topping both of those totals against the Steelers. The Eagles are eager to play their three-tight end set when Ertz is healthy. It could be an asset for the Eagles then, but my bet is you’ll continue to hear Burton’s name.
4. What’s your prediction?
McLane: Sunday game will be a barometer for the 2-0 Eagles. Cupcake time is over. The Steelers are deep, talented and well coached. The Eagles seem to be better than anticipated, and Wentz’s accelerated development has certainly altered expectations, but does that mean they’re already in Pittsburgh’s class? I don’t think so. They still have too many soft spots. Roethlisberger will be sure to target corner Jalen Mills. Butler’s front seven shouldn’t have much trouble winning the run battle up front. Anything is possible on any given Sunday, and I don’t think the Eagles will be outclassed, but they will drift in the second half. Steelers 29, Eagles 20.
Berman: The Eagles deserve all the credit that’s come their way during the first two weeks, and there shouldn’t be an outcry of negativity if they lose Sunday. The Steelers are a bona fide Super Bowl contender with an impressive roster and good coaching staff. Both will be evident. The Eagles will move the ball, but turnovers finally become a factor and the Steelers offense will be an upgrade over Cleveland and Chicago. Give me Steelers 24, Eagles 17.