Background/Storylines: Eagles (3-1) and Steelers (1-2)
The Philadelphia Eagles may have a +/- of -17, but they’re 3-1 and that is all that really matters. With Lawrence Tynes missing two consecutive long kicks to give them a 19-17 victory over the rival New York Giants, the Birds lead the NFC East and proved that they can play a whole game without too many stupid mistakes or turnovers. They’ve managed to beat some of the top teams—New York and Baltimore—in the league so far, and will look to make it 3-0 against the AFC North even without starting weak-side linebacker Akeem Jordan, who’s still out with an injury.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off of their bye week, and they’re certainly still fuming after a disastrous 34-31 loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders in Week 3. At 1-2, Mike Tomlin’s team is in do-or-die mood, seeing as a 1-3 start to the season would likely be the end as they try to stave off Cincinnati and Baltimore in the extremely fierce AFC North. Luckily for them, they’ll be getting back starting running back Rashard Mendenhall along with defensive stars Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been Pittsburgh’s MVP to date with a 109.2 passer rating and an 8-1 TD-INT ratio.
Fantasy Watch: Michael Vick (PHI) and Steelers D/ST (PIT)
LeSean McCoy will certainly have some success early in the game on draw plays and other delayed runs, but as the Eagles start to fall behind early in the game, Reid will look to the passing game more and more often. The Steelers may have the 3rd-best pass defense in the league, but their coverage on deep routes relies heavily on the ability of its corners—Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor—to play effective man-to-man coverage with minimal or no safety help. While Vick will likely a take a beating and throw one or two interceptions, the several big plays that he’ll convert on as well as the sheer volume of passes he’ll throw make him a must-start fantasy QB in almost all formats.
My projected stats for Vick: 337 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 31 yards rushing
On the flip side, you’d be foolish to bench the Steelers D at such an opportune time. Sure, they’ll give up 15-25 points against a solid Eagles team that features four or five top-tier weapons, but they’ll rack up the sacks and interceptions like nobody’s business against a banged-up offensive line and mistake-prone QB. And, don’t forget that Troy Polamalu and James Harrison return from injury to make this one of the scariest units in the league.
My projected stats for Steelers D/ST: 21 points allowed, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions
Key Matchup: Marty Mornhinweg vs Dick LeBeau
The Steelers defense, which has been described as “Blitzburgh” due to LeBeau’s blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme, will throw everything—including the kitchen sink, to quote 97.5 the Fanatic host Joe DeCamara—at the Eagles dynamic offense. Seeing Eagles long-time offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg go head-to-head with Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will likely be the most interesting part of the entire game.
Countering a scheme like Pittsburgh’s 3-4 is tough; not only do they use strong safety Troy Polamalu in a non-traditional role, but the blitz can come from anywhere at anytime and it’s the job of the offensive line to pick it up. It will take some creative play-calling from Mornhinweg to not only keep the Steelers linebackers away from Michael Vick on every play but to also design intermediate routes that can catch the defense off-guard. It’s really a matchup that relies on preying on your opponents’ weakness: the Steelers will try and break the levies and sack Vick as often as possible while the Eagles will try and beat Pittsburgh’s corners who play in man coverage.
X-Factor: Mychal Kendricks (PHI) and Ike Taylor (PIT)
Of all players on the Eagles’ defense, Mychal Kendricks will have the most important role of any on Sunday. Not only will he have the task of containing the now-healthy Rashard Mendenhall on outside runs, but stopping tight end Heath Miller in the end zone will also be the rookie’s responsibility. For years Miller has been heralded as a fantastic blocking tight end, but he’s finally started to make an impact in the receiving game this year with four touchdowns in three games. If Kendricks can keep up his stellar play, however, the Steelers could find themselves being forced to test Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more and more often.
As I said above, the biggest weakness of LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme is the pressure it puts on its two cornerbacks, especially on deep routes where the deep safety has to pick which route he helps with. The corner who gets no help is basically left on an island, and unless you’re Darrelle Revis, the term “island” rarely is of advantage to the defense. With the less experienced Keenan Lewis likely to receive more help against Jeremy Maclin from free safety Ryan Clark, the prime time, one-on-one matchup will feature DeSean Jackson against Ike Taylor. Taylor can make-or-break the game for his team; if he can’t stay with D-Jax, the Eagles offense could break things open early on. If he can limit No. 10, there is a chance the Eagles are shut out by one of the league’s premier defenses.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Eagles 21
The Eagles are definitely the more talented team, and on a neutral site in Week 1 I’d give them a seven-point win. But at Heinz Field against a desperate Steelers team with 2 weeks to prepare, it’ll be tough. I definitely expect Vick and Jackson to connect on a couple long touchdowns, but for the most part the Eagles are stymied by the Steelers’ ferocious pass rush and Ben Roethlisberger does just enough to lead his team to the victory.