ITB Scouting Report: Eagles vs. Steelers
EAGLES (1-2-1) vs. STEELERS (3-0)
On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1) take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
The Steelers, coming off an extended layover due to last week’s postponement, come into this game relatively healthy and presumably hungry to return to action. While their vaunted defense isn’t quite of the "Steel Curtain" mold, the perennial AFC North powerhouse complements the unit with an offense brimming with explosive components.
While the Eagles hope to continue their good fortune in this historic cross-state rivalry, they must overcome drastic deficiencies in n all three phases and play a mistake-free brand of football in order to slay Goliath.
Eagles Offense vs. Steelers Defense
LT Jordan Mailata vs. ROLB Bud Dupree: Dupree is second on the Steelers with 2.5 sacks behind T.J. Watt, but the former Kentucky standout has been the pass rusher who typically warrants double teams. The 6-foot-4, 269-pound sack artist is explosive off the edge and does a fantastic job of keeping his balance upon contact. Dupree also demonstrates efficient hand usage to strike and swipe, and plays with good pad level. For as athletic as Mailata is, he won’t face many pass rushers more gifted than the ascending Dupree. This will be another pivotal measuring stick for the ex-rugby player.
RB Miles Sanders vs. Steelers’ front seven: The Steelers boast a league-best run defense, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry. Sanders, the key who can unlock the potential of the Eagles’ offense, struggled to find his footing against the 49ers after compiling 95-yard rushing outings in consecutive weeks against the Rams and Bengals.
It's unlikely that the Eagles will find success pounding the football between the tackles behind two inexperienced guards who struggle to generate push. The Eagles must conjure ways to get their athletic lineman out in space and scheme up outside runs for Sanders to get the offense in an early rhythm.
TE Zach Ertz vs. Steelers secondary: Ertz has endured a relatively quiet first quarter of the season, logging just 19 receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown on 29 targets. Even with the offensive pieces crumbling around him, the Pro Bowl tight end has failed to make an impact. Due to a severe lack of firepower on offense, teams are selling out to stop Ertz and forcing someone else to beat them.
But, when Ertz has had opportunities to make plays, the tight end has encountered uncharacteristic drops, minimal separation, and has appeared lackadaisical at times. For the Eagles to take the Steelers down Sunday, they’ll need a signature performance from Ertz.
And as detrimental as Steelers linebackers can be to an offensive game plan, they aren't nearly as adept at dropping into coverage. Look for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to be tasked with shadowing Ertz.
Eagles Defense vs. Steelers Offense
DTs Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Malik Jackson vs. Steelers’ interior OL: The strength of the Eagles’ defensive line resides along the interior. While Jackson has been the most impressive defensive tackle through four games, Hargrave – among the crown jewels of the 2020 crop of free agents – is beginning to round into form. The former Steeler relies on quickness and active hand usage to get upfield and push the pocket. This could be the week where it all comes together for him.
One caveat is the Steelers are fairly formidable along the interior of their offensive line with David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. The veteran linemen are technically sound and equipped to handle a diverse assortment of pass rushers.
If the defensive tackle contingent is unable to ride its momentum into this week, it could be easy pickings for Ben Roethlisberger.
LB Nathan Gerry vs. TEs Eric Ebron & Vance McDonald: Gerry’s inadequacies have been well-documented, and his tough start to the season won’t get any easier this week.
The Eagles’ top linebacker frequently falls victim to poor eye discipline, the inability to read and diagnose plays consistently, and subpar instincts. The Steelers boast two tight ends with varying skill sets.
Veteran Eric Ebron has been further down the pass-catching pecking order than originally expected when he signed in free agency, but the former first-round pick has the speed and athleticism to stretch the seams. Additionally, Vance McDonald has a skill-set similar to Tyler Higbee's – Higbee gave Gerry fits in Week 2 – in that he can make plays in the screen game and can be tough to tackle once he gets a full head of steam.
CB Jalen Mills vs. WR Diontae Johnson: JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the Steelers’ top receiver, but Johnson is their most dynamic. The 24-year-old has 14 receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown on a team-leading 25 pass targets. The Toledo product has an exceptionally quick release, is a nuanced rout- runner, demonstrates phenomenal body control, and has the tools to work all three levels of the field.
With Slay expected to shadow Smith-Schuster, Mills draws the shortest straw and will match up with Johnson for much of the afternoon. Mills, who struggles with fleet-footed receivers who boast quick releases and a vertical element, will be targeted early and often.
Steelers kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud, a third-year journeyman now on his fourth team, currently ranks 12th in the NFL in kick return yardage (144) and fourth in average yards (28.8). McCloud, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound receiver, often shows glimpses of his running back background in his return style.
Though hardly a burner, the Clemson product wastes little time getting north-south on his opportunities, relying solely on vision and contact balance to navigate through traffic.
As effective as McCloud has been in his five returns, he likely won’t have much of an opportunity. Eighteen of Eagles kicker Jake Elliott’s 21 kickoffs have been touchbacks. He’s averaging 63.6 yards on kickoffs.
Speaking of Elliott, the Eagles’ fourth-year kicker is 7-for-8 on field goal attempts through four games (87.5%). He connected on a season-long 54-yard field goal against the Bengals.
With safety Rudy Ford reverting back to injured reserve and with cornerback Craig James’ status for Sunday still up in the air, the Eagles may be without their top two gunners. They will also be without linebacker T.J. Edwards, who leads the unit with 88 snaps.
Injuries aside, the Eagles need to contain Diontae Johnson, the Steelers’ elusive second-year receiver/punt returner, who is averaging 7.6 yards per return.
While Philadelphia punter Cam Johnston ranks third in the NFL in average yards per attempt (51.6), rookie linebackers Shaun Bradley and Davion Taylor – along with newly appointed gunner Travis Fulgham – must rise to the occasion.
Eagles are seeking their first road victory over Steelers since a 26-23 overtime win at Three Rivers Stadium on Nov. 12, 2000.
The Eagles (17.0) and Steelers (15.0) rank first and second in the NFL in sacks, respectively. This marks the first time the Eagles have led the league in sacks through the first four weeks since 2011.
Philadelphia owns a 48-28-3 all-time record against Pittsburgh, in a series that dates back to 1933.
Eagles WR Travis Fulgham: That’s right, last week’s practice squad call-up could again play a vital role this week if properly utilized. Fulgham, now a household name thanks to his game-winning 42-yard touchdown reception in his Eagles debut, is poised to see a significant snap share against the Steelers. Last week, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound pass-catcher logged 37 offensive snaps last week, accounting for 60 percent of the total.
On Sunday, Fulgham will likely see a lot of Steven Nelson -- the Steelers’ No. 2 cornerback – in coverage. Although Nelson has been a pleasant surprise for Pittsburgh over the past 18 games, the 5-foot-11, 194-pound defender lacks the desired length and play strength to consistently matchup with rangy boundary receivers.
On his touchdown catch, Fulgham demonstrated the ability to win in a critical contested-catch spot and track the ball efficiently. As his rapport with Carson Wentz continues to build, look for the quarterback to entrust his big-bodied target with increased opportunities.
Steelers LOLB T.J. Watt: While Bud Dupree typically commands double teams, Watt frequently finds himself 1-on-1 with opposing tackles. In this case, it could be Eagles rookie RT Jack Driscoll who draws this assignment, as stalwart Lane Johnson continues to nuse a nagging ankle injury.
Watt, who possesses a lightning-fast get-off coupled with a vast array of pass-rush moves and a relentless motor, always has game-wrecker potential. Whether the Wisconsin product squares off against a hobbled Johnson or the rookie Driscoll, it could prove to be a game-altering matchup.
The Steelers, who call for a lot of looping and stunting from their pass rushers, present a unique challenge for a largely inexperienced Eagles’ offensive line.
Jordan Mailata, who will make his second NFL start, will clash with Dupree, while either Lane Johnson or rookie Jack Driscoll (or both) will lock up with Watt. While Pittsburgh’s customary 3-4 alignment is sure to lead to protection breakdowns from Mailata, the former Australian rugby star is coming off an encouraging debut and has the athletic traits to overcome some inevitable miscues.
However, while the tackles could very well be under siege for much of the afternoon, the inexperienced interior lineman – guards Nate Herbig and Matt Pryor – will have their hands full containing Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Stephon Tuitt. Heyward and Tuitt each possess prototypical length and explode off the ball with leverage and quickness, but it’s the superhuman strength and power of Alualu that ties it all together. Herbig and Pryor struggle against power and explosion at the point of attack and will be tested by an array of complex looks.
Defensively, Jim Schwartz must get creative with how he dials up pressure against a veteran-laden Steelers offensive line. The Steelers’ strength in the trenches happens to be along the interior with Pouncey and DeCastro – which could effectively mitigate what the Eagles do best from a pressure standpoint. Last week, Genard Avery thrived as a stand-up rusher off the edge in limited snaps – a successful formula I anticipate Schwartz concocting once again. I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the remarkable development of LT Alejandro Villanueva, an Army alum and one-time Eagles project. Villanueva, an intriguing, albeit undersized prospect, was originally signed to play defensive end under Chip Kelly. However, the experiment didn’t last long, as the Army standout was subjected to waivers ahead of roster cut-downs.
Villanueva, who caught the attention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin during a preseason game, signed to Pittsburgh’s practice squad one week later and was subsequently moved to offensive tackle. Within a year, Villanueva added nearly 100 pounds to his frame, and the rest is history.
Since 2015, Villanueva has appeared in 83 games (77 starts). He also has a two-yard touchdown reception on his resume.
The much-maligned Eagles appeared to turn the corner in the latter stages of last week’s prime-time matchup. However, it will take a near-flawless performance for the team to leave Heinz Field with a victory. Pittsburgh is fundamentally sound on defense and has the offensive weaponry to keep the Eagles on the ropes for four quarters. The score will be closer than some think, but a savvy, physical Steelers team should smother the reeling, undermanned Eagles. Steelers 23, Eagles 17
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. Listen to more Eagles-Steelers breakdown in the latest "Inside The Birds" podcast right here: