Sunday's matchup against the Steelers is about more than just the battle for Keystone State supremacy. It's about setting a tone that can carry on for the remainder of the season. And so far this season, the Eagles defense has been excellent at doing just that.
At 3-1, the Eagles are winning games thanks to dominating defense and timely offense. The Eagles played their most complete game of the season against the Giants last Sunday night, avoiding turnovers and riding an impressive defensive performance to a 19-17 win for sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
On the other side of the state, the picture is not as rosy. Pittsburgh is 1-2 coming off their bye week, with their only win coming at home against the Jets. Injuries to defensive superstars safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison have limited the Steelers in the first month of the season. But unfortunately for the Eagles, Pittsburgh is getting healthy just in time for Sunday.
On offense, the Steelers are also expecting to have starting running back Rashard Mendenhall back. Mendenhall tore his ACL in Week 17 of the 2011 season and has not seen a snap since. Without him, a team normally known for its running prowess is ranked 31st in rushing offense, averaging only 65 yards per game on the ground. With their feature back returning, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins expects the Steelers to run the ball and play physically.
"We've played against some pretty good backs already this year, and that's no different," Jenkins said. "He's a talented back. He's going to come out; they're going to try to establish the run on us. For us, it's just about ourselves. It's about the team being gap sound, everybody being where they're supposed to be, just trusting everybody, playing with energy and getting stops."
Mendenhall is far from their only threat. The Steelers passing attack is ranked third in the league and employs several talented and fast receivers. At 6-5, 241 pounds, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a load to bring down. As a result, he can extend plays and buy time for his receivers, like starters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, to get open.
"Their offense is pretty tough," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "Pittsburgh has always had playmakers. Playmakers on the outside; Roethlisberger, his ability to make plays, so you have to stay tight on coverage throughout the entire play with these guys because they have the ability to make a lot of big plays on you."
For the Steelers, a team that is traditionally among the league's best is finding itself in an unusual situation Sunday. After starting the season 1-2, this game is as close to a "must-win" game for Pittsburgh as a Week 5 game could be. In each of his first five seasons with the Steelers, head coach Mike Tomlin has sported a 6-2 record at the season's midway point. At home, the Steelers were 7-1 in 2011 and are 1-0 this season. The desire to win in front of the home crowd is a threat the Eagles are taking seriously.
"When you're playing in Pittsburgh, I think your approach has to be, whether they're 0-10 or 10-0, the approach is the same," said cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "It's a tough place to play, and you know that they're going to bring their best. It'll be a physical game. It'll be a tough game, a fast game. But you're still preparing like you're playing against one of the best teams, because at home they are one of the best teams."
Much of the team's early success this year has come courtesy of the defense. Sunday is an opportunity for the defense to show they can be counted on not just to be dependable, but that they can be among the best in the league.
"The defense, I think we're just playing well together and we're feeding off each other," safety Nate Allen said. "We have a good chemistry as an entire defense and you know everything is coming together pretty well."
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