By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
Let me point out the obvious: football is a team sport that is a collective effort. Even with that being said, individual matchup’s can easily swing the momentum of a game. Look no further than Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller. The former Super Bowl MVP has made a career out of almost singlehandedly changing the direction of a game through tremendous impact plays. As one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL, his ability to wreak havoc in opposing backfields is unparalleled by most players.
The Steelers have a golden opportunity in front of them to start 3-0 for just the 3rd time during the Mike Tomlin era (the other two times coming in 2007 and 2010). Surprisingly, the previous time the Steelers began the season 3-0 was all the way back in 1992 during Bill Cowher’s first season with the Steelers when he led them to a division title. If the Steelers can start the season 3-0, they would put themselves in a nice situation in the AFC North and alongside the Patriots atop of the AFC. The Steelers ability to do this will be largely dictated by the individual matchup’s versus the Eagles.
WR Antonio Brown vs. CB Nolan Carroll
The Eagles secondary has been one of the worst units in the NFL over recent years (yeah, Steelers fans! There is a team that has secondary woes worse than yours!) but what is surprising about their secondary is that they have not allowed a single touchdown yet this season. While their competition has been far from great (the Browns and the Bears), the Eagles are allowing only 194.0 passing yards per game and have the 3rd-ranked defense in the NFL. They have been solid, but they have yet to face an offense like the Steelers, which features the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown. Brown has 2 touchdowns so far this season but is coming off of a shaky performance against the Bengals in a game where the terrible field conditions had a negative impact on both teams. Although the Steelers have options outside of AB, Brown can’t afford to have too many games like that this season and he will be looking to rebound against the Eagles. If he is able to find a rhythm with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, it will be a long day for the Eagles defense.
CB Ross Cockrell/S Sean Davis vs. WR Nelson Agholor/Jordan Matthews
This is going to be one of the biggest matchup’s to watch during Sunday’s game and we won’t truly have a gauge for it until kickoff. Ross Cockrell is coming off of the best game of his young career last week when he held Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green to 2 receptions for 38 yards. Cockrell has been one of the unheralded stars for the Steelers defense on the way to becoming the unexpected #1 cornerback for the team. His solid play has given the Steelers more options with the rest of their cornerbacks, namely Artie Burns who is finally coming around as a player. Which player Cockrell will face has yet to be determined as he will either remain on the outside and face Nelson Agholor or will be glued to the Eagles top receiver Jordan Matthews, who primarily plays in the slot but has the ability to bump outside. Most of Matthews reps have came from the slot, where he has developed a nice relationship with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. Due to rookie Sean Davis’ emergence as a viable slot cornerback, the Steelers might be compelled to keep Cockrell on the outside against Agholor. If that is the case, Davis will be tasked with keeping the Eagles’ leading receiver at bay and will serve as his biggest test of his 3-game career so far. On the outside, expect to see Cockrell successfully shut down the underwhelming but promising 2nd-year receiver.
LT Alejandro Villanueva vs. DE Connor Barwin
Alejandro Villanueva has ironed out a lot of the wrinkles he had issues with during the preseason and has put together a nice start to the 2016 season. Against the Redskins, Villanueva held outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to 2 tackles, did not allow a single sack, and helped pave the way for running back DeAngelo Williams and his 143 rushing yards. Against the Bengals, Villanueva again did not allow a single sack and held his own for most of the game. Connor Barwin is one of the leaders of the Eagles defense and always finds a way to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis. While Barwin only has 2 total tackles and 1 sack on the season, he has been a presence for the Eagles front seven, which is one of the more underrated units in the league. Barwin the the Eagles defensive line have the chance to cause the Steelers offensive line some problems due to the wide-9 pass-rush the Eagles use, meaning that Villanueva is going to have to use his athletic frame to cut off Barwin’s pass rushing lane in space if he plans on keeping Roethlisberger upright.
QB Carson Wentz vs. the Steelers Defense
Through the 1st two games of his so far impressive yet short career, Carson Wentz has been stellar versus blitzes, completing an astounding 84.2% of his passes. The next closest percentage is over 10% lower. Surprisingly, Wentz only has a 52.9% completion percentage when there is no blitz. The Steelers are arguably the best team in the NFL against rookie quarterbacks. The last time the Steelers lost to a rookie quarterback was in 2012 when the Brandon Weeden led Browns beat the Steelers. Realistically, those percentages don’t tell the whole picture due to the teams that Wentz has played so far this season. The Steelers might be inclined to bring just 4-man rushes and lock up the Eagles in coverage to confuse the rookie quarterback. While Wentz is incredible above the shoulders, Keith Butler will use different fronts and blitzes unlike anything Wentz has ever experienced. The rookie will probably still put up solid numbers due to the Steelers bend-don’t-break defense, but the Steelers will have to do everything in their power to prevent big opportunities from happening.
Fun fact: the Steelers haven’t one a game in Philadelphia since 1965. This Steelers team is also arguably one of the most complete rosters Pittsburgh has had in quite some time. Carson Wentz will likely throw for somewhere in the mid- to upper-200 range. Believe it or not, the Steelers actually have a better record when they allow more passing yards in a game. Raw stats aren’t everything. While Wentz performs well under pressure, the Steelers will still throw blitzes at him and see how he responds. The Steelers offense is superior to the Eagles underrated defense and if the Steelers can have a balanced attack on the ground and through the air, they can expose the Eagles defense. If Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams can have solid performances, the offense will be back right on track with what fans are used to seeing. While the Eagles are the NFL’s darling Cinderella story through the 1st two weeks, the Steelers are still the all-around better team. If they can win in the trenches, the Steelers will walk away from this game victorious.
Final Score: Steelers 30, Eagles 14
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