A defense that relies on stopping the run, unleashing havoc in the pass rush, getting off the field on third down, and protecting the end zone inside the 20-yard line broke down in every one of those phases on Sunday in a 38-29 loss at Pittsburgh.
"Third down today. That's what I can speak on just today," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "We've got to get off the field. Third down hurt us bad today, especially with the penalties. I didn't realize that we had eight (on defense). That's just unacceptable. It starts in practice. We know that some of the stuff that showed up in practice showed up out there in the game with the offsides and the little things that we can correct. That's what hurt us in the end."
• Pittsburgh gained 136 ground yards on 32 carries and had some big plays out of their "gadget" attack featuring wide receivers Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a 58-yard run on jet-sweep action to set up a touchdown, and Chase Claypool, who had three carries for 6 yards and a 2-yard touchdown run. If you take away the 58-yard run, it's a different story, but you can't do that.
The Eagles, as has happened throughout the season, continued to get off the line of scrimmage and crash from the defensive end positions, opening up gaping holes on the edges that, earlier this season, Los Angeles used to its advantage as Pittsburgh did on Sunday. Sunday was the third game in which wide receivers scored touchdowns running the football on the Eagles.
• The third-down defense had been among the league's best heading into this game (ranked sixth), but the Steelers converted 11 of 15 attempts and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was perfect throwing on third down. His biggest play came late on a third-and-8 situation when he completed a 35-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass to Claypool, who had a favorable matchup in the middle of the field against linebacker Nathan Gerry. The Steelers lined up with an empty backfield and the Eagles countered with "quarters" coverage, meaning players in coverage were responsible for a quarter of the field. Roethlisberger saw that Claypool, lined up in the slot, had a matchup in space against Gerry and went to that play.
"Ben obviously checked to it. Once he saw in that particular coverage, quarters, he made a good throw, good catch," safety Rodney McLeod said. "It was the right play versus that coverage. It was a great call versus the coverage that we had. Ideally, would we like Nate to be on a receiver? No. We would prefer a defensive back but that was the call that was made defensively and they checked to a good play."
McLeod said the Eagles "didn't execute well" on third downs, and he was, obviously, right.
"They understood that we're typically in man (coverage) and they took advantage of that," McLeod said. "Ben is a very experienced quarterback. He's seen a lot and they had a plan on how they wanted to attack us."
Pittsburgh used its wide receivers as lateral running backs to take advantage of the Eagles pushing up the field defensively. The Steelers used some "bunch" formations and got the ball to receivers in screens. Roethlisberger got the ball out of his hands quickly and the Eagles just couldn't get stops.
• Roethlisberger was on point, completing 27 of 34 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked only one time and completed passes to eight receivers.
• Three times the Eagles were penalized for pass interference, twice against cornerback Darius Slay, who left the game with an injury and did not return. The Eagles just could not contain Claypool, a big, strong receiver who created separation with his body and did a nice job snatching the ball even in traffic. He finished with seven receptions for 110 yards and the three touchdowns on 11 targets.
• A problem all season, the Eagles allowed three touchdowns on three red zone trips. What had been a strength for the Eagles in recent seasons has become a real problem area.