NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-0) at Philadelphia (1-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Sports Network
The Sports Network
The Philadelphia Eagles nearly pulled off what would have been one of the signature wins of the young NFL season this past week. The team will now have to quickly shake off a tough loss when the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers come to Lincoln Financial Field this Sunday for an intriguing interconference showdown.
Philadelphia gave the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys all they could handle in an emotionally-charged Monday night matchup between the fierce division rivals at Texas Stadium, but came up just short in a thrilling 41-37 loss. That narrow defeat to the perceived conference standard-bearer not only may have gained the Eagles a greater measure of respect in the public eye, but provided a strong indication that the team that dominated the NFC East for much of this decade is primed for an improvement off last season's disappointing 8-8 finish.
The most encouraging aspect for Eagles backers may have been the play of standout quarterback Donovan McNabb, who proved that the injuries that have hampered his performance over the past few years were no longer an issue. The five-time Pro Bowl selection displayed decisiveness within the pocket as well as the mobility to elude a strong Dallas pass rush during a 281-yard, no- interception effort.
Pittsburgh has raised its status as well in the early going, with the 2007 AFC North titlists recording back-to-back impressive wins over Houston and fellow division member Cleveland to stamp themselves as one of the primary contenders in what may be a wide-open conference race.
The Steelers' 2-0 start has mainly been built on the strength of a dominating defense that was suffocating in last Sunday's 10-6 road decision over the Browns. Pittsburgh limited Cleveland to 208 total yards, including a meager 55 on the ground, and intercepted quarterback Derek Anderson twice on the evening.
Pittsburgh's formidable stop unit will likely face its most stern challenge to date from a Philadelphia squad that leads the NFL in passing yards (336.5 ypg) and ranks second overall in scoring (37.5 ppg) through the first two weeks of play.
The Steelers will attempt to counter the Eagles' high-powered offense with a potent ground game headed by speedy Willie Parker, the AFC's current leader in rushing yards. Establishing the run would also help to ease the burden on ailing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will start Sunday's tilt despite dealing with a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder.
The Eagles lead the all-time series with the Steelers, which dates back to the 1933 season, by a 45-27-3 count. Pittsburgh won the most recent meeting, a 27-3 romp at Heinz Field in 2004. Philadelphia won five of the previous six meetings, including a 23-20 win when the clubs last met in Philadelphia, in 1997. The Steelers are 0-7 in the City of Brotherly Love since last winning there in 1965.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with Philadelphia taking a 21-0 road decision in a 1947 NFL Division Playoff.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 1-1 against the Steelers all-time, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin will be meeting both Philadelphia and Reid for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh has been able to protect Roethlisberger's sore shoulder by feeding the ball early and often to Parker (243 rushing yards, 3 TD), who backed up a dazzling 138-yard, three-touchdown performance in the season opener by churning out a workmanlike 105 yards on 28 carries against the Browns. That heavy workload has refuted the notion that Parker would be splitting touches with 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall (28 rushing yards). The fumble- prone rookie didn't receive a carry in the Cleveland game, seeing action only as a kick returner. The Steelers have averaged a healthy 150 yards per game through the first two weeks.
Parker and Pittsburgh's beefy offensive line will be tested by a stout Philadelphia run defense that has surrendered a league-low 52 yards per outing so far. The unit held Cowboys bruiser Marion Barber to a pedestrian 63 yards on 18 carries on Monday, one week after keeping Rams star Steven Jackson squarely in check. A young and talented front seven is anchored by tackles Brodrick Bunkley (5 tackles) and Mike Patterson (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks), while second-year middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (13 tackles, 1 sack) and unheralded strong safety Quentin Mikell (15 tackles, 1 sack) have both been very active in run support.
The Eagles have shown to be more vulnerable against the pass, with the defense struggling to contain Dallas' dangerous aerial attack throughout Monday's loss. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo racked up 312 passing yards and three touchdowns for the game, while All-Pro tight end Jason Witten (7 receptions, 110 yards) repeatedly found the soft spots in the Philly secondary. Eagles nemesis Terrell Owens also burned his former team for two scores, including a 72-yarder on the opening drive. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz- happy scheme failed to produce a sack in Week 2 after recording four against the hapless Rams, with top pass rusher Trent Cole (12.5 sacks in '07) having gotten off to a slow start. Philly does possess one of the league's best ball- hawkers in cornerback Asante Samuel (2 tackles, 4 PD), who had a key pick of Romo on Monday, as well as a six-time Pro Bowler in veteran free safety Brian Dawkins (7 tackles, 2 PD).
Roethlisberger's (323 passing yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) arm may not be 100 percent at the moment, but it's still been quite accurate. The sturdy signal-caller has completed nearly 76 percent of his passes through the first two weeks, including a 13-of-14 showing in the Week 1 win over Houston. Eleventh-year wideout Hines Ward (11 receptions, 135 yards) remains Big Ben's go-to guy and hauled in his third touchdown catch of the young season during the Cleveland game. Speedy Santonio Holmes (7 receptions), who amassed 94 yards on five grabs last week, is the offense's best big-play threat, while tight end Heath Miller (5 receptions) is a sure-handed target who's particularly good in the red zone. Roethlisberger's been sacked five times and fumbled twice so far, numbers both he and the Steelers would like to see reduced.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Although the Eagles were without both Kevin Curtis (sports hernia surgery) and Reggie Brown (hamstring), the team's top two receivers a year ago, for the first pair of games, the passing offense hasn't suffered a bit with a different set of targets for McNabb (642 passing yards, 4 TD, 0 INT). Rookie speedster DeSean Jackson (12 receptions, 216 yards) has been an instant hit, with the confident youngster having produced back-to-back 100-yard efforts to start his career. Holdovers Greg Lewis (8 receptions, 140 yards) and Jason Avant (5 receptions) have also made early contributions to the league's top- rated aerial attack through two weeks. So has McNabb, who's hit on nearly 66 percent of his throws and has yet to be intercepted. Brown is expected to be available for Sunday's showdown but will likely serve as the No. 3 receiver behind Jackson and the 6-foot-4 Hank Baskett (4 receptions).
The 31-year-old McNabb displayed the legs of a much younger man during the Dallas game, and he may need to use that re-found mobility against a fierce Pittsburgh pass rush that has netted seven sacks so far this year. Outside linebacker James Harrison (13 tackles, 1 forced fumble), a Pro Bowl honoree last season, took down Houston's Matt Schaub three times in the opener, while well-rounded defensive end Aaron Smith (6 tackles) had two sacks in last Sunday's win over the Browns. The Steelers' heavy pressure has helped a solid secondary intercept four passes in two games, with All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu (7 tackles, 3 PD) snaring two of those picks. Regular right cornerback Deshea Townsend (2 tackles) missed the Cleveland contest with a bruised heel but will return to action this week, sending Bryant McFadden (10 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) back to his customary nickel role for a defense that has yielded an average of just 157 passing yards per game early on.
The Steelers have been even tougher versus the run, having allowed a mere 64 yards a week on the ground (3rd overall) and limiting opponents to a paltry 2.8 yards per rush. The defense completely shut down the Browns' Jamal Lewis in Week 2, with the accomplished back registering only 38 yards on 19 attempts. Polamalu and four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (3 tackles) are the keys to Pittsburgh's run-stopping success, with veterans such as inside linebacker James Farrior (10 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Smith usually making significant contributions as well. Pittsburgh will play Sunday's tilt minus starting right end Brett Keisel (5 tackles), who strained his calf in the Cleveland win. Nick Eason (5 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and 13th-year pro Orpheus Roye will likely rotate snaps in his place.
Philadelphia doesn't run the football a whole lot, but the team can boast one of the best two-way running backs in the game in the dynamic Brian Westbrook (149 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 5 total TD). The two-time Pro Bowl choice led the NFL with 2,104 yards from scrimmage last season and has scored both a rushing and receiving touchdown in each of the first two games. Westbrook may find the running lanes tougher to come by on Sunday, however, considering the Steelers' prowess in rush defense and the possibility of Philly being without Shawn Andrews, the team's top offensive lineman. The road-grading right guard left the Dallas game with back spasms and is a question mark for this weekend.
Westbrook was probably among the first three picks in most fantasy drafts, and the running back has paid off handsomely for his owners with five touchdowns through the first two games. His rushing yardage may be curtailed some by Pittsburgh's rugged front seven on Sunday, but Westbrook will still put up points as a receiver and is always a threat to find the end zone. Parker's been money as well so far, but the Steelers' fleet-footed back may be in for a tough afternoon against an Eagles defense that will be focused on stopping the run game. Start him at your own risk. There have only been a handful of higher-scoring quarterbacks than McNabb in the early going, so those who've got him should keep on riding the hot hand. DeSean Jackson may have hurt some of his supporters with Monday's careless unforced fumble that cost the rookie a touchdown, but it wouldn't be shocking if the exciting wideout redeems himself with a another big game this week. And don't dismiss Eagles tight end L.J. Smith, a favorite red-zone target of McNabb, just yet because of a slow start. The Steelers could be throwing it a lot on Sunday, so Roethlisberger, Ward and Holmes all appear to be solid plays. So does Miller, since Philadelphia had trouble covering the tight end last week.
It would be no surprise if both of these teams are still playing in January, but only one of them has been able to prove its worth with a strong showing against a high-caliber opponent. That would be the Eagles, whose performance in the Dallas game clearly served notice that this is a dangerous team capable of doing big things down the road. Philadelphia did give up a number of big plays through the air to the powerful Cowboys because of an inability to generate an impact pass rush, but expect that to be less of an issue against a Pittsburgh front wall that is considerably less skilled than Dallas' in protection. While the Steelers have certainly opened some eyes with their early play, wins over what looked like an unprepared Houston team and a Cleveland squad that may not be worthy of its lofty preseason billing still should be taken with a grain of salt. Pittsburgh is at its best when it runs the ball with authority and its defense forces turnovers, but neither is a given on Sunday. Look for Philly to slow down the Steelers on the ground and receive another effective afternoon out of McNabb. That should be enough for the Eagles to prevail at home in a game they really need to have.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 23, Steelers 14