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Lawlor: The Final Word Before Kickoff

Posted Sep 24, 2016

The Eagles are off to a 2-0 start, but not everyone around the league is buying into this team right now. One of the big reasons is that the Eagles’ first two opponents, the Bears and Browns, have not won a single game. OK, that's fair. The Eagles have a chance to change the minds of doubters this week when they play the Steelers, who are also 2-0 and look like Super Bowl contenders. This is a measuring stick game.

I understand some of the doubts people have. An outsider sees the coaching change, the personnel department turnover and the big move for a rookie quarterback as signs that the Eagles are rebuilding. That's faulty logic. You need some context here. Yes, the Eagles did make a coaching change, but the team never hit rock bottom under Chip Kelly. The Eagles went 27-21 in the previous three years. Compare that to other teams that made coaching changes. The Browns won a total of 14 games in the previous three years. Miami won 22 games in that period. The Giants won 19. There was more talent in place that most people realized.

The Eagles also made really smart changes. Howie Roseman regained control of the team. He already had a detailed, thorough knowledge of the roster and that helped him to know who could play and who couldn't. Roseman played a part in acquiring a lot of the players so that meant he wasn't going to be in a rush to make changes for the sake of it. You see so many new coaches and general managers make extreme changes and wonder if that doesn't create some instability. The Eagles don't have that issue.

Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie along with Roseman hired Doug Pederson as the head coach. Pederson had worked here previously, which helped the transition. Pederson didn't feel the need to make changes as a way of asserting his authority. He embraced the core of players that was already in place. He went beyond that and kept several members of the coaching staff. Pederson saw stability and familiarity as good things.

Call it what you want, but don't call it rebuilding. That's just not accurate.

Pederson, Roseman and Lurie wanted to compete this year. They weren't going to jettison older players, load up on rookies and build for the future. The Eagles expected to be a pretty good team this season. The Sam Bradford trade made some people wonder about that, but one of the reasons the trade was made is that the coaches were so impressed with Carson Wentz that they thought he could help the team win. To this point, the Eagles are really benefiting from the move. They got the draft picks in the trade, gained salary cap space and are still getting very good quarterback play. Win, win and win.

Now, the 2-0 Eagles host the 2-0 Steelers with a chance to show the world they are a legitimately good team. This is a game the Eagles can win. They don't need luck or major breaks to go their way. The Eagles are good enough to win the key matchups and earn the victory. It all starts with defense.

If you want to beat Pittsburgh, you need pass rushers who can get to and affect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. You don't want him comfortable in the pocket. You also don't want him escaping from one rusher and extending a play. Those can turn into huge plays. You need four rushers who can pressure Big Ben. You need players who will relentlessly go after him. The Eagles are good in both areas. Fletcher Cox can destroy a blocking scheme all by himself. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin attack off the edge and know how to hit the quarterback. They don't slow down until they hear the whistle. Effort will not be an issue. Graham is playing the best football of his career. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver in a big game.

The secondary faces a huge challenge. Antonio Brown might be the best receiver in the NFL. You aren't going to shut him down. The Eagles should use some double teams and creative coverages on him at times. Other times they need to rely on the rushers to pressure Roethlisberger. You cannot build your whole game plan around stopping a wide receiver. One of the big problems with Brown is that he can make incredible catches even when tightly covered.

The Eagles have given up some big plays in the first two weeks. The big problem with those has been playing the ball poorly. There is no point in being near the receiver if you don't locate the ball and then make a play on it. You can bet defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin are beating that into the heads of the defensive backs this week. Schwartz said he can live with giving up some big plays if it is because his guys are being aggressive. It does bother him when the defensive backs are there and don't make a play on the ball.

Running back DeAngelo Williams is off to a great start, leading the NFL in rushing after two games. I am really impressed with him. Williams has excellent vision and is a patient runner. He seems to maximize every run, whether that means getting 1 yard or 11. Young runners would be wise to study him. Roethlisberger and Brown are the stars, but Williams is just as important to that offense right now.

On paper, a rookie quarterback like Wentz going up against the Steelers’ defense sounds like a huge mismatch. We'll see about that. Pittsburgh is 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. You can throw the ball on them. One of the problems for the Steelers is that they don't rush the passer all that well right now. They have only one sack. They aren't great in coverage either. The Steelers can be especially vulnerable when you spread them out and throw the ball a lot.

Before we turn this game into a shootout, I do have to note that Pittsburgh has only given up one passing touchdown this year. They lead the NFL in red zone defense. Moving the ball on them is one thing. Scoring touchdowns is a different story. Pederson will need to call some creative plays to help the Eagles. I also think Wentz's ability to run could be an X-factor. There haven't been called runs so far this year. This might be a week to mix them into the offense.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the Eagles respond to the challenge of playing one of the best teams in the league. Beating Cleveland and Chicago was fun, but the Eagles want to get back to being one of the top-tier squads in the NFL. That means playing well against top competition. This is a chance to do that.

You can bet the Eagles will be aggressive. Schwartz is going to attack Big Ben. Pederson isn't going to play it safe with Wentz. He will trust his rookie quarterback to make plays. The Eagles will play to win, not to keep it close. It won't surprise me at all to see the Eagles win the Battle of Pennsylvania.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.


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