What to watch for: Eagles @ Steelers 10/07/12

This is terrible.

This Sunday on a ketchup-stained field at the mouth of the Allegheny River, two teams that were once forced by the pressures of war to form an unholy alliance will resume their bitter intrastate rivalry for the first time since 2008.

Yes, the Eagles and a sizable number of their fans will be paying every toll on the Turnpike en route to a matchup against Big Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and the 1-2 Pittsburgh Steelers. And despite the difference in record, these two teams bring some remarkably similar strengths and weaknesses to the table.

Before we look into the individual matchups, let’s check out just how alike these teams are:


1. Weak Offensive Lines – The Steelers tried to address their offensive line in the draft, taking guard David DeCastro in the first round and tackle Mike Adams in the second. But the Football Gods had different plans, and both were struck down with preseason injuries.  DeCastro was placed on IR. Adams is healthy now, but is listed as the backup to Max Starks, the long-time Steelers starter who was actually cut during the offseason but re-signed due to a lack of depth. This unit is ranked dead last in rushing yards per attempt (2.6 YPA). They have only given up 13 QB hits (tied for 5th best) but they’ve played one fewer game than any other team in the top 10. Also, their bad play is mitigated by Roethlisberger’s incredible escape skills (more on that later). For the Eagles, well, with Dallas Reynolds penciled in as the starting C for the remainder of the season and the LT position up in the air between King Dunlap and Demtress Bell, it is a safe bet to expect trouble from this unit all season.

2. Strong Wide Receivers – When it comes to wide-receivers, both of these teams are stacked. Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant or Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders. Take your pick. The Steelers’ top 2 have the edge in size, and their Eagles counterparts have an edge in speed (slightly). Avant can’t do as much as Sanders in the open field, but his hands are among the best in the league.

3. Houdini playing Quarterback – If you stood them next to each other, it would be hard to believe that Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger are the same species, much less play the same position. Are there two more different looking dudes in the whole world? But their play has one very important parallel: They are both escape artists. And when they escape from a collapsing pocket, they are both at their most dangerous. Vick, obviously, has the speed to outrun almost any front-seven player in the league. Ben, on the other hand, uses his tremendous size and an unmatched pocket awareness to shrug off NFL defenders as if they were small children. Due to the aforementioned plethora of receiving options for both teams, look for some of the biggest gains to be made on broken plays when the downfield receivers have time to improvise and shake loose of the defense.

4. Good Pass Rush that Doesn’t Show Up on the Stat Sheet – Yes, this oddly specific tendency is shared by the two Pennsylvania teams in 2012. If you watched the Giants v. Eagles game, I don’t have to tell you how effective and important the pass rush was even though the unit didn’t sack Eli Manning a single time. The Steelers’ pass rush has been similar this year. Although they have recorded only 3 sacks the whole season, they are also giving up only 190.3 passing yards per game. This week, the Eagles’ DL rotation will be as dangerous as ever while the Steelers get star OLB James Harrison back from injury. Between starters Harrison and Lamar Woodley and talented young backups Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, the Steelers will be able to rotate pass rushers without putting ineffective players on the field.

Now, with all that said, let’s move to the one-on-ones:

Pictured: Brandon Boykin

1. Brandon “Candy Bar” Boykin v. Antonio Brown – Earlier this week, Antonio Brown called Brandon Boykin a “candy bar.” Uhhh… right. While I’m not sure exactly what that insult means, it’s a certainty that Brown said it because the Steelers coaching staff found something in Boykin’s game that they think can be exploited. Boykin has played well this year so far for a rookie, and made some big plays late in the Baltimore game. But after another decent performance last week, he has clearly earned some extra attention from opposing offensive coordinators. Whether it’s Brown, Wallace, or Sanders lined up in the slot, keep an eye on Boykin this Sunday.

2. Heath Miller v. Mychal Kendricks – Kendricks has done very well for himself so far this season, but Heath Miller might be his toughest competition yet in pass coverage. Miller has had a long, consistent career as Roethlisberger’s safety valve. In three games this year, Miller has 15 catches for 129 yards and 4 TD. While the yardage numbers don’t look particularly impressive, Miller hurts defenses the worst with third down receptions. According to cbssports.com, Miller has caught 6 passes on third down this season. All 6 receptions moved the chains, and 2 were touchdowns. Given that the Steelers have the best third down conversion rate in the league at 56.25% (2nd best Atlanta converts 46.94%) and Miller is one of Big Ben’s favorite targets, Kendricks’s coverage will be crucial to determining the outcome of this game.

3. Rashard Mendenhall v. His refurbished right knee – ACL tears are hard to come back from. Please don’t let that ridiculous athletic freak up in Minnesota fool you, guys don’t come back to form for at least a full year after an ACL reconstruction surgery. Especially not running backs. I can tell you from personal experience that the biggest obstacle to returning after a severe ligament injury like this isn’t athletic. It’s mental. Mendenhall has to remember how to trust his knee again, and that is no small thing. When you run in practice, or during a drill, you have the luxury of thinking through your motions and using rationale to remind yourself that your injury really is fixed. On the field of play, however, there is no thinking. You can only react. And until you are in that position for the first time, there is truly no way to prepare. If Mendenhall finds himself thinking about his knee too much, he won’t be able to plant and twist and cut as effortlessly as usual. With that said, there is just about no way Mendenhall can perform worse than backups Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have in his absence. But if you think he’s going to look like the running back you remember, you’ll probably have to wait a few months.

Posted on October 6, 2012, in Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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