The Philadelphia Eagles will head into their week five matchup against the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Steelers in sole possession of first place for the first time since they captured the NFC East division title in 2010. Sure, they’re a shaky first place team. They barely survived games against the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Giants, with a blowout to the Arizona Cardinals in between. But they’re still in first place, and the Ravens and Giants were two pretty impressive teams last season. Those wins mean a lot for the Eagles.
The Eagles and Steelers only play each other every four seasons. The last time they played, the Eagles stomped the Steelers by a 15-6 score, collecting nine sacks. But the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl a few months later, while the Eagles lost the NFC championship game to the Cardinals. The time before that, the Steelers steamrolled over the Eagles by a 27-3 score, ending the Eagles’ shot at a perfect season. But it was the Eagles who advanced to the Super Bowl, which they lost by three points to the New England Patriots, while the Steelers lost in the AFC championship game.
This matchup will be the first, and probably the last, for Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger. Vick’s contract allows him to be cut after the season without any extra penalty for the Eagles. Roethlisberger will likely be around until the end of his career, in seven or eight seasons, but it’s highly unlikely that the Eagles quarterback in 2016 will still be Vick.
For this article, we’re going to compare each position group for the 2012 teams. But only 2012 stats matter, so for example, Vick looks like a bad quarterback because he has poor numbers, even though in reality, he’s an above average quarterback.
For Vick, it’s not about the numbers. He’s played poorly, yes, throwing six interceptions and fumbling three times. But he has also engineered last-minute game-winning drives against the Browns, Ravens, and Giants. He’s been doing what every quarterback should strive to do. He’s forgetting about his mistakes and he’s going out there with the game on the line and he’s getting it done for the Eagles.
For Roethlisberger, the numbers have been sensational. He’s completed 68.2 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and one interception, and he’s led the Steelers to 77 points in three games.
Advantage: Steelers, easily
This one isn’t even close. LeSean McCoy has been his usual dominant self so far this season. He’s rushed 81 times for 384 yards (4.7 per carry) and a touchdown. He was at his best against the Giants last week, collecting 121 yards in the second half.
For the Steelers, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have been brutal. Combined, they’ve carried 56 times for 142 yards and a touchdown. Luckily, they have Rashard Mendenhall returning in week five. They’ll need him, but McCoy is still significantly better.
Advantage: Eagles, easily
A happy DeSean Jackson is having a very productive season for Philly, catching 20 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown through four games. Those numbers put him on pace for 80 catches and 1332 yards, both easily career-highs. Jeremy Maclin is having a miserable season, although Damaris Johnson has exceeded expectations as a rookie.
Both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are having brilliant seasons, combining for 35 catches, 474 yards, and four touchdowns. That’s an average of nine catches, 118 yards, and a touchdown per game. The Steelers haven’t gotten a lot of contributions from their third and fourth receivers–Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery–but their top two have been all they’ve needed.
Brent Celek is having a monster season. He’s caught 18 balls for 315 yards. Although he doesn’t have a touchdown, he has eight catches of more than 20 yards.
Heath Miller only has 15 catches for 129 yards, but he’s scored four touchdowns. Like Celek, he is a very reliable target in the middle of the field.
The Eagles are badly hurt by injuries on their offensive line. Left tackle Jason Peters, arguably a top three linemen in the league, suffered a torn Achilles tendon in a freak accident in March and will likely miss the entire season. Center Jason Kelce, one of the more up-and-coming linemen in the league, partially torn his ACL a few weeks ago and will miss the remainder of the season. The Eagles still have veterans Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, and 2011 first round draft pick Danny Watkins.
The Steelers are also hampered on the offensive line, although they wouldn’t be as talented as the Eagles if they were fully healthy. First round pick David DeCastro suffered a severe knee injury and will likely miss the whole season. The current Steelers’ offensive line is all homegrown, but only Marcus Gilbert is having a solid season, particularly in pass blocking. Max Starks and Ramon Foster have struggled, rookie second round pick Mike Adams is slow in his progression, and even two-time All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey is having a down year.
The Eagles entered the season with off-the-charts expectations for their defensive line, but they haven’t quite lived up to their reputation. Still, defensive ends Trent Cole, Jason Babin, and Brandon Graham are having solid seasons, and defensive tackles Derek Landri, Cullen Jenkins, and especially rookie Fletcher Cox, have been exceptional.
The Steelers run a 3-4, but their three starting defensive linemen have not enjoyed much success this season. The Steelers rank 21st in the league in opponents’ yards per carry, and Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Casey Hampton have a total of zero sacks this season.
Advantage: Eagles, easily
The linebackers for the Eagles are incredibly improved over the disastrous 2011 group, thanks to veteran DeMeco Ryans and speedy rookie Mychal Kendricks.
But the Steelers have one of the best groups of linebackers in the league, with veterans Larry Foote, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and third-year player Chris Carter. They also return former Defensive Player of the Year winner James Harrison this week.
Advantage: Steelers easily
The Eagles have one of the best cornerback duos in the National Football League. Veteran Nnamdi Asomugha still hasn’t lived up to the massive expectations since he signed a five-year, $60 million deal with Philadelphia, but he’s a significantly above average corner. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is having one of the best years by any NFL corner, surrendering just a 27.2 passer rating to go with three interceptions. One of the big stories will be the play of rookie nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who has both succeeded and struggled through his first four games.
Veteran Ike Taylor is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2011 season, although he hasn’t played well yet this season. On the other side of the field, Keenan Lewis has been giving up big chunks of yardage this season. Unproven Cortez Allen is the nickel corner, although he has big upside.
Advantage: Eagles, easily
The Eagles have big expectations for Nate Allen, who is fully healthy from a torn patellar tendon suffered late in the 2010 season. So far, he’s been about average, with struggles against the run but some success against the pass. Kurt Coleman is having a poor season, with five missed tackles in four games.
Ryan Mundy has struggled filling in for injured former All-Pro Troy Polamalu, but Polamalu returns against the Eagles, giving the Steelers a huge boost in their pass defense. Ryan Clark has played well, surrendering a 16.7 passer rating and ranking as the Steelers’ best defensive player so far this season.
The Eagles have had some major struggles on special teams so far this season. Kicker Alex Henery is 8 for 9 on field goals but he still hasn’t shown clutch ability yet and he struggles to reach the end zone on kickoffs. The Eagles have gone through a pair of punters and their rookie returners, both Johnson and Boykin, have both been awful in 2012.
Shaun Suisham has been perfect on field goals this year, and the combination of Brown and Chris Rainey has performed well on returns. But rookie Drew Butler is struggling at punter.
Advantage: Steelers, easily
The Eagles are surprisingly near the bottom of the league in offensive scoring, although they’ve come through with a pair of touchdowns and a field goal on their three drives with the game on the line. They have a near-dominant defense, led by a balanced attack at each of the the three units. They could definitely use some improvement on special teams.
The Steelers will go as far as Roethlisberger takes them. Their running game is awful. It will improve with the return of Mendenhall, but it’s still going to be on Big Ben to win games, especially with the porous offensive line. On defense, the Steelers are aging but still have some respected players, notably Harrison and Polamalu.
It’s very simple. The Eagles have never beaten an AFC playoff team on the road under Andy Reid. That would be zero wins and nine losses. I think the Steelers will go to the playoffs this season, and I think they’re more desperate for a win this week than the Eagles. I wouldn’t bet against Roethlisberger at home either. The Eagles can afford a loss. The Steelers cannot. Expect a Steelers fan, and don’t be surprised if it’s closer to a blowout than a close game. I’m thinking 23-13 Steelers (after a 23-6 lead).