It wasn’t a must-win. It looks like there will be no such thing as a must-win in the NFC East this year until Week 16 or 17. But the Eagles needed a win Sunday against the favored 49ers to restore some lost confidence, and they got it. Now, they face another tough road challenge this weekend against the undefeated — and well-rested — Steelers.
The Eagles have won in Pittsburgh just once in the last 30 years. That was in 2000, Andy Reid’s second season. They beat the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium, 26-23, on four David Akers field goals and a pair of Donovan McNabb TD passes to Jeff Thomason and Brian Mitchell.
Here is my scouting report on Sunday’s game:
When the Eagles run
The Eagles' injury problems on the offensive line have impacted both the run and pass games. They have three starters already missing, and right tackle Lane Johnson missed 40% of the snaps last week with ankle problems. The Eagles are 18th in rushing (111.5 yards per game) and rush average (4.2).
Last weekend, with Johnson in and out of the lineup and Jordan Mailata making his first career start at left tackle, the 49ers held Miles Sanders to 46 yards on 13 carries. He had just 11 yards on four carries in the second half and averaged 3.6 yards per carry on first down.
The Eagles' two backup running backs, Boston Scott and Corey Clement, aren’t getting a lot of work and haven’t been very productive when they have carried the ball. In the three games Sanders has played, he’s had 51 of the team’s 65 rushing attempts by running backs.
Quarterback Carson Wentz has become an important part of the ground game of late. He rushed for 102 yards on 16 carries in the last two games. Ten of those 16 carries produced first downs. Wentz’s 12 rushing first downs this season are the third-most among NFL quarterbacks.
The Steelers have the No. 1-ranked run defense in the league. They’ve held opponents to 2.6 yards per carry on first down and have allowed just six runs of 8 yards or more in their three games. Fifteen of their opponents' 61 rushing attempts have lost yards.
When the Eagles throw
Injuries have put a major dent in Wentz’s receiving corps. Against the Niners, he was missing both of his field stretchers — Jalen Reagor (thumb, out several more weeks) and DeSean Jackson (hamstring) — as well as Alshon Jeffery (foot), JJ Arcega-Whiteside (calf), and last, but certainly not least, tight end Dallas Goedert (ankle).
Two of the four wideouts who played against the Niners were Saturday practice squad call-ups (Travis Fulgham and Deontay Burnett). A third was a fourth-round rookie (John Hightower). There’s a possibility Jackson could return this week, which would help.
The Eagles' most experienced wideout was/is slot receiver Greg Ward, who was promoted from the practice squad late last season. Ward has been a godsend for Wentz, particularly on third down. He is second on the team in receptions with 18. A team-high eight of them have been on third down, seven of which have resulted in first downs.
Hightower played 84% of the snaps in the Eagles' last two games and had a big fourth-down catch vs. the Niners. The injury-ravaged offensive line needs to hold up this weekend.
The Steelers have 15 sacks in three games. They have four players with 14 or more total quarterback pressures in those three games: linebackers T.J. Watt (18) and Bud Dupree (17), and defensive ends Stephon Tuitt (17) and Cam Heyward (14). The Eagles moved Wentz around more last week. He responded with his best game of the season.
When the Steelers run
The Steelers are eighth in the league in rushing (139.7) and ninth in rush average (4.7 yards per carry). They’re going to run the ball Sunday. They’re averaging 30 rushing attempts and have a 44.1 run-play percentage.
James Conner is a 6-foot-1, 233-pound power back who is off to an impressive start. He’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and 6.3 in the Steelers' last two games. Benny Snell (5-10, 224), who rushed for 113 yards against the Giants in Week 1, is the same kind of punishing runner as Conner. Conner is seventh in the league in average yards after contact (3.65), with 146 of his 224 rushing yards having come after he was hit. The Steelers have an experienced offensive line that has three players with at least 75 career starts.
The Eagles are seventh in opponent rush average (3.9). In the first four games, they showed a weakness for misdirection plays. In a four-play span Sunday against the Niners, they gave up 10 yards to wide receiver Deebo Samuel on a reverse, 8 yards to tight end George Kittle on a jet sweep, and then a 38-yard touchdown run to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a bubble screen that ended up being a lateral.
The Eagles gave up 92 rushing yards to wide receivers and tight ends in their first four games. They held everyone else to 3.3 yards per carry.
When the Steelers throw
For the most part, this isn’t a big-strike passing offense. Ben Roethlisberger has just seven completions of 20-plus yards in three games and is 22nd in the league in yards per attempt (7.1). The Steelers' top three wideouts — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington — all are averaging 10.6 yards per catch or less. Their most dangerous field-stretcher is rookie Chase Claypool, who has only six catches, but three have been 24 yards or longer, including an 84-yard TD catch against Denver in Week 2.
Roethlisberger’s go-to guy, Smith-Schuster, has a team-high 17 catches and three touchdowns but is averaging just 9.4 yards per catch. Eighty-two percent of his snaps this season have come out of the slot. It will be interesting to see whether Jim Schwartz puts Darius Slay on him when he lines up inside.
Roethlisberger already has seven touchdown passes and only one interception in 109 attempts. Not including last season, when he played in just two games, Roethlisberger had thrown 59 interceptions the previous four seasons. He has the third-fastest snap-to-release average (2.28) in the league, and has been sacked only five times.
The Eagles have a league-high 17 sacks, including 13 in their last two games. With the Eagles' other starting corner, Avonte Maddox, out, Schwartz moved safety Jalen Mills back to the outside against the Niners. He’ll likely stay there this weekend.
Jake Elliott has made 6 of 7 field goal attempts, including a 54-yarder against the Bengals in Week 3. His next-longest kick has been 42 yards. Steelers kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud is averaging an impressive 28.8 yards per return. But he probably won’t get many opportunities Sunday. Eighteen of Elliott’s 21 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
Cam Johnston had another excellent punting day Sunday. He’s third in the league in both gross (51.6) and net (45.9) average. He has put an NFL-high 10 of his 19 attempts inside the 20. Twelve of his punts have been returned, but the Eagles' punt-coverage unit has held opponents to 5.7 yards per return, the sixth-best mark in the league. The Eagles will be without their two top gunners — Rudy Ford and Craig James — which could make things a little more challenging against. Steelers punt returner Diontae Johnson (7.6 yards per return).
Ward has been handling punt returns with Reagor out. He is sure-handed but has more fair catches (5) than returns (4).
The Steelers are 19th in punt coverage (8.9-yard average on 8 returns). Kicker Chris Boswell has an impressive 87.4 career accuracy rate. He’s made all five of his attempts this season, but none have been longer than 41 yards. Punter Dustin Colquitt is in his 16th NFL season, but it’s his first with the Steelers. He’s 28th in net average (36.8). Eight of his 13 punts have been returned this season.
The Steelers got an unexpected week off last week when their game against Tennessee was postponed because of a COVID outbreak on the Titans. The Eagles, meanwhile, are coming off a Sunday night game on the West Coast.
Steelers 20, Eagles 17
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. ?: CB Darius Slay typically shadows the other team’s best wide receiver. But Smith-Schuster has lined up in the slot 82% of the time this season. Will Slay slide inside with him, or will Schwartz use one of his nickel options — Cre’Von LeBlanc or Nickell Robey-Coleman? ADVANTAGE: Steelers
Eagles DTs Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, and Javon Hargrave vs. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey and Gs David DeCastro and Matt Feiler: Roethlisberger gets the ball out quickly, so the Eagles need to get inside pressure on him. But Pouncey and DeCastro have a combined 13 Pro Bowl invitations and four first-team All-Pro selections. ADVANTAGE: Even
Eagles LT Jordan Mailata v. Steelers OLB Bud Dupree: Mailata played well Sunday in his first career start. But Dupree is going to present a much bigger challenge for him than the 49ers' Kerry Hyder. The Steelers also are going to use a ton of blitzes. ADVANTAGE: Steelers
Keys to the game
Third down. The Eagles converted just 4-of-13 third-down opportunities Sunday night vs. the Niners. They must do better this week against a Steelers defense that is 19th in third-down defense (42.9%). Opposing QBs have a 107.0 third-down passer rating vs. the Steelers. But Wentz has struggled on third down. He has a 61.3 third-down passer rating and a 55.0 completion percentage.
Field position. Eagles opponents had an average drive start of the 34.9-yard line in the first three games. In Sunday’s win over the Niners, it was the just the 23.2. Big difference. The Eagles' three takeaways played a major role in that. They can’t give Roethlisberger short fields.
Stop the run. The Steelers have one of the league’s better offensive lines. Conner is averaging 6.3 yards per carry in the last two games and is a tackle-breaker. The Eagles have done a good job vs. opposing RBs but have been burned by misdirection runs by wide receivers. If they can put the Steelers in obvious third-down passing situations, they’ve got a chance.