The Eagles and Steelers will renew their cross-state rivalry on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. It will be the 80th meeting between them with Philadelphia leading the all-time series: 48-28-3. How about that? Of course, the Steelers have six Super Bowl rings to the Eagles’ one.
Be that as it may, it’s an underrated rivalry and (don’t laugh) could be a 2020 Super Bowl preview — if, and only if, Philly gets their “underdog” mojo back and proves last week’s win wasn’t just a fluke. This team believes they have finally figured it out, but the players understand they have to prove it.
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Key Matchup: DE Brandon Graham vs. LT Alejandro Villanueva
The two actually know each other, or at least had the proverbial cup of coffee together in 2014. Villanueva went undrafted out of Army and spent that summer at Eagles camp fighting for a roster spot with Graham. Philly tried to turn him into a defensive end, then released him when that didn’t work.
Another bad Chip Kelly idea. Go figure. Now he’s a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the Steelers, one of the best in the business. Graham knows and respects his game. He and his 54 career sacks (three this year) will be ready.
“Big boy, Army strong,” Graham recalled of Villanueva. “To see him switch to the offensive line and then make the Pro Bowl and get paid, man I’m just telling you it just shows you his dedication to this game and it means something to him.”
Eagles Quarterback Situation
Carson Wentz is coming off his best game of the season after struggling mightily through the first three weeks, the worst three-game stretch of his career. The 27-year-old was efficient (not extraordinary) last week: 18-of-28 for 193 yards, with one passing TD and one rushing score.
Wentz has been incredibly nimble on his feet, racking up 111 yards on 19 carries plus 3 TDs and 10 first downs. Watch out for that. However, his arm continues to be a work in progress, with worrisome accuracy issues. Backup Jalen Hurts remains a gadget-play decoy specialist — at least for now.
“We’ve encouraged him to use his legs especially on passing situations when things break down,” Doug Pederson said. “He’s really good at it, he breaks tackles, he gets out of it, he’s extended plays and he’s been successful.”
State of the Eagles’ Defense
The Eagles’ vicious pass-rush has been talked about at length in this space. They lead the NFL in sacks (17), two sacks better than the Steelers (15) in one more game. It’s a tribute to a fresh defensive end and tackle rotation, a staple of Jim Schwartz’s Wide 9-ish scheme. He likes to gas out the opposition’s offensive line by constantly subbing in new bodies. That means a lot of well-rested chances for Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Javon Hargrave, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and surprise new studs Josh Sweat and Genard Avery.
The Eagles rarely blitz but get to the quarterback often. It puts a lot of pressure on their secondary, something that has been a bit of a weakness this year outside of shutdown corner Darius Slay. More due to injuries than poor play, perhaps because of the loss of Malcolm Jenkins’ leadership on the backend. The linebackers, mainly Nate Gerry, have been atrocious.
Player to Watch on Offense
Everything on offense starts and ends with Miles Sanders, the Pittsburgh native who has both a 412 area code and Pirates logo tattooed on his body. Sanders has 236 rushing yards on 51 carries — and probably should have a lot more. Doug Pederson has been mysteriously monitoring his touches despite giving him a clean bill of health.
He missed camp with a hamstring injury and then popped up on the injury report with a glute. Sanders and the team insist he’s fine. The Eagles should lean on him. He’s also a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Don’t Sleep on Possible Breakout Star
Pick a practice-squad wide receiver. Anyone. The next man up mentality turned ex-Lions receiver Travis Fulgham into an overnight sensation following his 42-yard TD last week. Look for John Hightower to break out versus Pittsburgh.
The burner from Boise State has flashed great chemistry with Wentz in practice and converted a crucial 4th-and-4 against San Francisco. He has reliable hands and can out-run most corners thanks to his track-star speed.
“He’s just come along. He’s always had the physical skills and the talent,” Wentz said of Hightower. “Just continuing to process the game, process what he sees form defenses and staying on time. Whether it’s him or Travis last week or Greg [Ward] … they are all ready at any time.”
Eagles Final Injury Report
Philly will be missing three players on Sunday, all would-be starters: CB Avonte Maddox, WR Alshon Jeffery, WR DeSean Jackson. They are down to rookies and practice-squad wide receivers. Starting safety Rodney McLeod is dealing with a “mild” hamstring injury but feels fine and will suit up. Stud defensive tackle Fletcher Cox took a “maintenance day” on Friday but won’t be limited.
The Eagles need to make it two straight wins. There is little wiggle room after digging themselves a 1-2-1 hole — even if the NFC East is as bad as everyone says it is. (For the record, it is). On paper, they have no business beating the undefeated Steelers. Which is exactly why I’m picking them to pound out a hard-fought victory.
The defense will draw on sneaky tips from former Steeler Javon Hargrave and disrupt Ben Roethlisberger’s rhythm, maybe a third-quarter strip sack changes momentum. Wentz does just enough on offense and Philly rides the elusive legs of Sanders to victory.
The hometown kid should be juiced up to beat the team he grew up rooting for, with fans actually in the stands to see it. Prediction: Eagles 27, Steelers 24.
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