By Jeremy Hritz
There seems to be a quiet confidence for the Pittsburgh Steelers surrounding this Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Eagles. Whether that is attributable to the possible return of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and Rashard Mendenhall, or to the urgency that the Steelers have as the result of potentially being 1-3 if they lose, the underlying feeling from the players and Pittsburgh media this week is that the Steelers will win this game.
While I hope this sentiment is accurate, the Eagles present many reasons for trepidation.
When looking at the Eagles, what is clear is that all of their strengths align with the weaknesses of this year’s Steelers.
On offense, the Eagles boast a top-five running back in Pitt grad LeSean McCoy, who in four games has amassed 384 yards on 81 attempts, averaging nearly five yards per carry. McCoy brings a shiftiness and an ability to make tacklers miss that could cause fits for the Steelers. So far this year, the Steelers have struggled to stop the likes of Willis McGahee, Shonn Green, and Darren McFadden. While those backs are respectable, they are not anywhere near the caliber of player that McCoy is. The Steelers currently rank 14th overall in rushing defense, giving up slightly over 100 yards per game. If they do not shore up this area of their game, the Eagles could control the clock and keep the Steelers offense off of the field.
Additionally, the Steelers will finally face an offense that has an explosive receiver in Desean Jackson and a tight end in Brent Celek that has been a playmaker so far this year. If the Steelers continue to struggle to get a pass rush, Michael Vick could take advantage of Jackson’s speed and Celek’s ability to get open with his big arm.
Offensively for the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger and the receivers have been excellent. Yet despite the numbers they have accumulated in three games, the pass protection is still shaky. After three games, Roethlisberger has been sacked nine times. The Eagles will bring a ferocious pass rush with them into Pittsburgh this Sunday that last year racked up 50 sacks. While having only recorded seven sacks in 2012, the Eagles defense has the potential to make it very difficult for the Steelers passing offense to get going, and with the ineffectiveness of the running game, scoring points could be nearly impossible.
While the Steelers have the potential to win this game, they have to show that they have addressed the areas of weakness that have been exposed in the first three games. And if Polamalu, Harrison, and Mendenhall return, those weaknesses should be improved.
At the conclusion of this season, this contest against the Eagles will either be remembered as the game where the true identity of the 2012 Steelers was revealed, as a win can redirect the team in the direction of the playoffs, while a loss would mean 1-3 and a hole very improbable for the team to dig out of.