Despite everything that happened – the defense struggling to get off the field, the offense turning the football over at a critical time that led to seven Pittsburgh points, the 10-minute period of time late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter when Pittsburgh scored 17 straight points – the Eagles were right there with the game on the line. But a fourth-quarter drive stalled, and then Jake Elliott's 57-yard field goal went wide right and the Steelers scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession to wrap up a 38-29 win over Philadelphia on Sunday at Heinz Field.
So close, and yet so many questions about the Eagles after a fight on Sunday. There are no moral victories in this game and we'll look at the reasons the Eagles came up short in this one, but the team showed a tremendous amount of heart fighting back from 17 points down. The offense had its best game of the season and the Carson Wentz-Travis Fulgham connection is very, very real.
In the end, though, the late second quarter and early third quarter Steelers blitz, along with an inability to win the fourth quarter, made all the difference in the game.
It all unraveled so quickly. From a tie game late in the second quarter until midway through the third quarter, Pittsburgh scored 17 consecutive points on three successive possessions to open up a gap the Eagles just couldn't cover as the loss dropped the Eagles to 1-3-1 on the season.
Not much went right for the Eagles other than some first-half highlights – notably a 74-yard Miles Sanders touchdown run, four Travis Fulgham receptions (he had five in the first half) on a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended on a Sanders 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game 14-14 – as the Steelers hit the defense with an array of quick, underneath throws from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that moved the chains, took some shots down the field in the passing game, and used a gadget-driven run game to produce big plays. The Steelers converted eight of their first 10 third downs and 11-of-15 overall. A Carson Wentz interception was converted into a Pittsburgh touchdown run by James Conner early in the third quarter. Let's go inside the game …
1. Eagles cornerbacks were called for three pass interference penalties, two on Darius Slay. The first one, a very questionable call, came on a second-and-16 play from the Philadelphia 28-yard line. Roethlisberger threw for wide receiver James Washington and Slay appeared to have Washington under wraps in coverage as the pass sailed out of bounds in the end zone. A late flag gave Pittsburgh possession at the Philadelphia 7-yard line and four plays later wide receiver Chase Claypool, a weapon with four total touchdowns on the day, took a handoff from Roethlisberger for the touchdown from 2 yards out and the Eagles were in a hole.
2. Pittsburgh's offensive strategy to offset the Eagles' pass rush was to get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands quickly, and he did a great job playing pitch and catch with his receivers, converting third downs (11 of 15 conversions) and not allowing the Philadelphia defensive front to take over the game. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on all three of its trips inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line.
3. The defense couldn't handle Claypool, a rookie second-round draft pick who had seven receptions for 110 yards and three touchdowns on 11 targets (the fourth touchdown was on the ground). His final score came late in the fourth quarter with the score 31-29 when, lined up in the slot, he put a stutter-step move with linebacker Nathan Gerry in coverage and easily created separation for the clinching catch-and-run 35-yard touchdown play.
4. Other than the Sanders 74-yard touchdown run, the offense didn't get much of a running game going. Sanders gained 6 yards and a touchdown on his other 10 carries.
5. An error late in the first half may have cost the Eagles three points. On a first-and-10 play at the Philadelphia 38-yard line with 43 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Wentz completed a pass to rookie John Hightower on the sideline and, instead of heading out of bounds, Hightower tried to turn up the field and was tackled 1 yard short of a first down. The Eagles were forced to use their second timeout of the half. The could have used that timeout later in the half when Wentz found J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for 37 yards deep into Pittsburgh territory, but Doug Pederson had none remaining and, instead of lining up for a field goal that would have tied the game at halftime, the Eagles watched as the clock wound down to zero.
6. The first five minutes of the third quarter were a disaster. Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff of the half 75 yards on six plays – the biggest one a gadget run to another rookie wide receiver, Ray-Ray McCloud, who took a pitch from Roethlisberger and raced 58 yards to the Philadelphia 5-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a wide receiver screen to Claypool on the left side of the formation and, behind a cadre of three blockers, easily scored a touchdown as the Eagles just couldn't bust through the blocking wall. On the next possession, Wentz's pass intended for tight end Zach Ertz, who was bumped off his route, was intercepted and the Steelers had the ball at the Philadelphia 23-yard line. The turnover led to a James Conner 1-yard touchdown run and a 31-14 Pittsburgh advantage.
The Eagles came roaring back with a 75-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Greg Ward, followed by a two-point conversion completion to Hightower. Then the Eagles drove 80 yards and scored on a Wentz pass to Fulgham from 4 yards out and suddenly the Eagles were down only 31-29. Gerry and Duke Riley forced an Eric Ebron fumble and the Eagles had the football back at their 45-yard line with 6:19 remaining.
They picked up one first down, at the Pittsburgh 44-yard line, before the drive unraveled. Wentz was sacked for a loss of 3 yards and then completed a pass to Sanders for an 8-yard gain. A third-and-5 pass to Fulgham was broken up by cornerback Joe Haden. Elliott came on to attempt a 57-yard field goal. His kicked sailed by wide right. Then the defense, on a third-and-8 play, had a mismatch of Gerry covering Claypool, and it wasn't even close. Claypool's fourth touchdown of the day ended it for Philadelphia, a team that hopes to take the positives from a tough loss and build on them the rest of the season.