Somebody asked Brandon Graham what’s going on with the Eagles defense, which gave up 38 points to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers Sunday.
If you’re counting, it’s the third time in five games that the Eagles have given up 27-plus points to their opponent. They’ve lost all three of those games.
“Third down today,” Graham said. “I can only speak on today. Third down hurt us bad today.”
Indeed it did. The Steelers converted 11 of 15 third-down opportunities in their 38-29 win, including one for a game-clinching touchdown with three minutes left.
On a third-and-8 at the Philadelphia 35, Roethlisberger took advantage of a coverage mismatch that had Eagles linebacker Nate Gerry trying to cover the Steelers' fleet-footed rookie wideout, Chase Claypool. Claypool easily raced by Gerry and hauled in his third touchdown catch of the day to cement the victory.
Roethlisberger, who went into the game with a 110.8 third-down passer rating, completed all 13 of this third-down pass attempts against the Eagles for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Ben also connected with Claypool for a 32-yard TD on a third-and-six early in the second quarter, as well as a five-yard score on a second-down screen in the third quarter.
The Eagles actually went into the game ranked sixth in the NFL in third-down defense (37.0%). But that was largely built on solid third-down performances against Washington (5-for-18) in Week 1 and Cincinnati (3-for-13) in Week 3.
The Rams converted 7 of 12 third-down chances against them in their Week 2 win, and the 49ers made 5 of their 11 third-down chances last week. In their last three games, opposing quarterbacks had completed 19 of 26 third-down passes against the Eagles. But no one carved them up as badly on third down as Roethlisberger.
With the Eagles still experiencing growing pains in their transition from a mostly zone-coverage defense to mostly man coverage, the Steelers had a lot of success with rub or pick routes against the Eagles Sunday.
Roethlisberger also got the ball out quickly, effectively neutralizing an Eagles pass rush that came into the game with a league-high 17 sacks.
Claypool finished with 7 catches for 110 yards and 3 TDs. He had 5 catches for 110 yards and 2 TDs on third down.
“They understood we’re typically in man,” safety Rodney McLeod said. "They took advantage of that. Ben is a very experienced quarterback. He’s seen a lot.
“They had a plan on how they wanted to attack us, running some shade [pick] plays out of bunches. [They used] a quick game to eliminate the pass rush. We have to look at the film and understand how teams are going to try and attack us with us playing a lot more man this year, and be prepared for it.”
This wasn’t a case of the Steelers' converting a lot of third-and-shorts. Nine of their 15 third-down situations were five yards or more. They converted five of those, including both of Claypool’s third-down TDs. The first one came compliments of a costly missed tackle by safety Marcus Epps. Another Claypool touchdown was set up by a successful third-and-5 conversion when cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc blew a tackle against Steelers tight end Eric Ebron that would’ve forced a punt and prevented a score.
“They’re really good at rub routes, pick routes,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “They got us today on a couple of those and stayed on the field. And we gave them some opportunities with penalties, and then their execution on offense.”
Claypool’s 35-yard touchdown catch-and-run on the third-and-8 play was the most troubling. There is no excuse for having a linebacker on a wideout with Claypool’s speed on a critical third-and-long play.
McLeod said the Eagles had played man coverage on the previous two plays -- a two-yard completion to Ray-Ray McCloud and an incompletion to Ebron -- but switched to a "quarters'' zone coverage on the third-and-8 play, with Gerry the lone linebacker on the field.
The Steelers went to an empty set with Claypool in the slot. He came off the line, slowed, then blew by Gerry.
“I tried to get back and help Nate,” McLeod said. “They made a good play. Ben checked to it once he saw us in that particular coverage. Good throw and good catch against our coverage.”
McLeod acknowledged that “ideally” you don’t want a linebacker on a wide receiver like Claypool.
“We would prefer a defensive back,” he said. “But that was the call that was made defensively and they checked to a good play [against it].”
The defense needs to get their act together on third down, and quickly. In the Eagles' 23-23 overtime tie with the Bengals two weeks ago, they gave up a 42-yard catch and run to running back Giovani Bernard on a third-and-15 play in the fourth quarter that helped give Cincinnati a 7-point lead with three minutes left.
“We just didn’t execute well [on third down],” McLeod said. “That was a point of emphasis coming into this game. Every game honestly. Defensively, if we want to have an opportunity to win the game, we have to perform well on third down, in the red zone and [create] turnovers. Those situations matter. We came up short today.”
The Eagles, who had 13 sacks and 53 total quarterback pressures in their previous two games, had just one sack Sunday, and that came on the Steelers' first possession. Roethlisberger came into the game with the third fastest snap-to-release average in the league, and that average didn’t get any higher Sunday.
“The ball was coming out fast,” Graham said. "It’s respect for us. They were getting it out. Hitting the perimeter.
“But we have to make sure we’re tackling and rallying to the ball. That’s something we can keep on getting better with. Because we’re seeing how teams are attacking us. They’re trying to take the d-line out of the game. That’s what we’re going to see moving forward.”