It's been four years since the Eagles last played the Pittsburgh Steelers. In that Week 3 matchup of the 2016 season, Carson Wentz was brilliant, completing 23 of 31 pass attempts for 301 yards and two touchdowns in an unexpected 34-3 rout.
The Eagles started the year 3-0. Wentz was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month, showing the league a glimpse of what was to come the following season.
The Steelers, meanwhile, rebounded from the loss to finish 11-5 and reach the AFC Championship Game. They went back to the playoffs the following season, when it looked like the Super Bowl could potentially be an all-Pennsylvania affair. However, the Steelers haven't been back to the postseason since, while the Eagles are one of just four teams to make it in each of the past three years.
Pittsburgh hasn't missed the playoffs in three straight seasons since the 1998-2000 campaigns and it appears the Steelers are back on the road to the postseason.
The Steelers are 3-0 to open 2020. Their three opponents – the Giants, Broncos, and Texans – are a combined 1-11, but the Steelers have gotten it done on both sides of the ball. With a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the offense has scored at least 26 points in each of their first three games for the first time since 2007. The defense leads the NFL averaging 5.0 sacks per game and has the top-rated run defense, allowing just 54 yards per game.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers react to their early-season bye. Pittsburgh was supposed to play in Tennessee last week, but the Titans' COVID outbreak postponed the game until later in the season. The Steelers spent most of the week gameplanning for the Titans, so it's not like they got a huge head start on the Eagles.
Eagles Game Plan analyst Greg Cosell says that the Steelers' defense will present "the toughest challenge" thus far for the Eagles' offense. There are first-round draft picks at all three levels of the Steelers' defensive unit. Add in a creative, blitz-heavy scheme to take advantage of that personnel, and there are plenty of potential headaches. The Eagles rallied with 14 fourth-quarter points to beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road for their first win of the season. Combined with the previous week's tie against the Bengals, that's good enough for first place in the NFC East at the quarter pole mark of the season.
Wentz has relied more on his legs to aid the offense with a banged-up offensive line and injuries to key playmakers at wide receiver and tight end. He has 102 yards on the ground in the past two games and three straight games with a rushing touchdown. Running back Miles Sanders, who grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, ranks fifth in the league and third in the NFC in rushing yards since Week 2 (he missed the opener) with 236.
As good as the Steelers' pass rush is, the Eagles' defensive line has been just as good. The Eagles lead the league with 17 sacks. Over the past two games, the Eagles have generated 13 sacks and 33 QB hits.
For more news and notes on the showdown, check out our Game Preview, presented by Unibet.
Player Spotlight: Steelers LB T.J. Watt
The brother of former NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Steelers pass rusher has been one of the league's best over the past two seasons.
The former first-round pick was deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019 when he led the AFC with 14.5 sacks. He has 3.5 out of the gate in 2020. Since entering the NFL in 2017, Watt has recorded 38.0 sacks, which ranks fourth overall and first among all NFL linebackers over that span. He has 26 sacks in 26 career games at Heinz Field.
Typically, the Steelers line up Watt over the right tackle – which makes for an outstanding matchup against the All-Pro Lane Johnson. Another former first-round pick Bud Dupree will be opposite of left tackle Jordan Mailata. The Eagles look to have the same offensive line alignment in consecutive games for the first time this season.
Watt isn't just good once he gets to the quarterback. His 15 forced fumbles are the most in the league since the start of the 2017 season. His 15 combined interceptions (3), forced fumbles (8), and fumble recoveries (4) since the beginning of last year also paces the NFL.
Watt did miss practice on Thursday with a knee injury, but he declared that he's good to go after Friday's practice.
Sure, he's got the last name, but his game has been just as good as his older brother's. The Eagles will need to account for him come Sunday afternoon.
Fans in the Stands
Sunday will mark the first time that the Eagles play in front of fans this season.
"Obviously, it's positive," Head Coach Doug Pederson said. "We're excited that it's getting closer to maybe having fans even here at the Linc (Lincoln Financial Field), but having fans at Heinz Field is going to be great. It's going to be great for both teams, I think. As we've said, players feed off of that emotion and off of the crowd.
"Even though it's a small number, the voices will be heard, and guys are looking forward to doing that and playing in front of a few fans. It's always good when positive things happen to be able to celebrate in front of fans. So, we're looking forward to it and hopefully it will work out to where when we come back home, we'll have fans at our stadium as well."
Head Coach Doug Pederson on preparing for the Steelers' blitz packages: "On first and second down, they pressure quite a bit and it's something that we've studied all week. We put our guys in those situations, not only in the run game, but also in the pass game with protections to try to handle all the pressure that they do.
"And it's all about recognition with the quarterback, with the center, running back, with the tight end, whoever is in protection, recognizing it, recognizing the front, the coverage, whatever, and just doing their job. It is something that we've studied. We prepare our players that way and now it's a matter of just execution."
Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz on the Steelers' offense: "They challenge the whole field with the run game, with the pass game. You have obviously an experienced quarterback that is not afraid to throw balls into tight coverage. Trusts his receivers. You see that a lot. Got a lot of different playmakers at those wide receivers. They have got an experienced offensive line. There's a lot of things, but it's one of those teams that I think if you devote too many resources to take in any one player or one aspect of their offense away, they certainly have the capability to make you pay in other ways. So it's going to take a good, solid team outing to play well on Sunday."
Eagles Game Plan analyst Greg Cosell on Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger: "I gotta tell you. I think he's throwing the ball really well. I don't think there's a problem (following the 2019 elbow injury). He's a big man and people might have a certain sense of him. I never thought he was a power thrower in the sense of like Matthew Stafford. I think he can muscle up and drive it when needed. But I think at his core, he's much more of a finesse thrower who can power at times.
"He's obviously very experienced. He knows what kinds of throws to make. He can still stand in the pocket late in the down and deliver the football. He's probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but I think he's played very well through their first three games."
Cosell on Steelers CB Mike Hilton: "He plays on about 70 percent of their defensive snaps. Hilton is one of the best blitzing slot corners in the NFL."
Eagles Hall of Fame WR Mike Quick on DE Derek Barnett's performance vs. San Francisco: "He takes on the former Washington left tackle in Trent Williams and I think he just destroyed him, play after play. ... I thought he was fantastic in the football game and he's starting to show up the way we expected when he was a number one draft pick out of Tennessee."
Quick on Jordan Mailata's debut: "I thought it was quite the debut for Jordan Mailata. I thought he played outstanding. You think about a guy who two and a half years ago didn't know how to put on a uniform. And he's playing in front of a national audience, first start in the National Football League. Were there some negative plays? Of course. But I thought he was excellent overall with the way he played the game."
Cosell on Steelers RB James Connor: "Connor's been hurt a lot, but when he's healthy, he's a strong runner who has shown a little bit of juice this season. He's lost a little weight. He looks really good running the ball."
Cosell on Steelers G David DeCastro: "He's one of the best pulling guards in the league."
Cosell on comparing Steelers WR Diontae Johnson to Football Team WR Terry McLaurin: "I think that Johnson may even be a little shiftier than McLaurin. McLaurin is obviously extremely fast vertically. Maybe a touch more than Johnson. But I think Johnson has a little more shiftiness and elusiveness run after the catch."
Cosell on RB Anthony McFarland: "The guy I'm fascinated by, and I really enjoyed his tape coming out of Maryland, was Anthony McFarland. He is now sort of their change-up back. You can run him on base runs, but he also has a lot of juice to get outside and be a receiver. I think he's a really intriguing kind of satellite player in the context of their offense."
Schwartz on DE Genard Avery: "That was sort of the breakout game we've been waiting for from him. He's always been a skilled pass rusher. It's just fitting him in with all the other stuff. I think he's really done a good job of refining his technique and limiting his – sticking with what works best for him."
By the Numbers
30-7-1 – The Steelers are tied for the most wins and have the best win percentage among AFC teams at home against NFC teams since 2001 (when Heinz Field opened).
100 – The Steelers have had a 100-yard rusher in each of their first three games – Benny Snell in Week 1 and James Connor in Weeks 2 and 3.
17 – The Eagles lead the league entering Week 5 with 17 total quarterback sacks.
5 – The Steelers lead the league entering Week 5 with an average of five quarterback sacks per game. This is after leading the league with 54 total sacks in 2019.
60 – The Steelers have recorded at least one sack in 60 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. The Steelers did not sack Wentz in the 2016 meeting.
26 – The Steelers scored at least 26 points in each of their first three games for the first time since 2007.
20 – It's been 20 years since the Eagles won at Pittsburgh, a 26-23 ridiculous come-from-behind overtime win in 2000. The Eagles have won four of the last six games in this series.
54 – Steelers have the No. 1 run defense in the league, allowing just 54 yards per contest.
290 – The Steelers have the second-best overall defense in terms of yards allowed per game.
Behind Enemy Lines
On the unexpected bye week for the Steelers following the Titans' COVID outbreak: "This is my opinion here, just so everybody understands this. My opinion is the Steelers got screwed, despite not having done anything. Our original bye was supposed to be between a game at the Ravens and a game at the Cowboys, which would have been November 1st. Now, instead of getting a break between the Ravens trip and the Cowboys trip, the Ravens get a break before they play us. And we have to play at Tennessee, at Baltimore, and at Dallas in a row. Again, unfair, but I don't think anybody really cares. There's not going to be any tears shed, certainly, for the Steelers."
On the key to the Steelers' 3-0 start: "Having Ben (Roethlisberger) back, the significance of that, I cannot put into words. Everything is better because Ben is back. The defense is better because Ben is back. The last six, eight games of the regular season, the Steelers never scored more than two touchdowns. And so, as an opponent, you know that you can play conservative. You don't have to take chances. You know that if you score 17 points, you're probably going to win. With Roethlisberger back, opponents don't have that luxury anymore. He's not lighting it up in terms of the Dak Prescott-kind of numbers that you're seeing coming out of the NFC East. But his rating is 105 with seven touchdowns, one interception.
"Leading up to this past weekend's game, the Steelers were leading the NFL in sacks. My understanding is that the Eagles have a little bit of a problem at their offensive tackles. I'm just here to tell you that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the edge rushers, they're the real deal. The number of hits on the quarterback, regardless of the number of sacks, has been in the double digits virtually every week. Whoever the opposing quarterback is, figures to take some punishment. They've also been pretty good with run defense."
Do the Steelers still blitz as much as in the past? "They're pretty creative with it and they do blitz, but the other thing that they've been able to do with Watt and Dupree and then Cam Heyward and Tyson Alualu, he was like the 10th overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's filled in at nose tackle and he's doing a decent job not only against the run, but in terms of pass-rush efficiency from that position. He's among the league leaders among the defensive tackles. They have the ability. They also got Stephon Tuitt back from injury. They have the ability to rush four or five, but they will also send corners, safeties, you never know."
What's the scouting report on WR JuJu Smith-Schuster? "JuJu was nagged by some injuries last year. He didn't really have as good a season as he did the previous ones. I attribute some of that to not having Ben there. Ben's back. Ben looks for him in a lot of situations. JuJu is a big, physical guy, kind of taller and heavier. But in terms of the way he plays the wide receiver position, he's kind of like Hines Ward. He'll muck it up in the middle. He's not afraid to go over the middle. He makes physical-combat catches, those kinds of things. His age in years (23) is really remarkable for the amount of experience that he's had in the NFL.
"Diontae Johnson is a second-year guy. He is someone who, in some of the good ways, is comparable to Antonio Brown in his ability to win matchups coming off the line of scrimmage. And Chase Claypool, he's a rookie. I never believed that he would be able to contribute as he has to this point. The numbers aren't spectacular, but in the game against Denver, and I don't know if I've ever seen a stat line like this, he made three special teams tackles and caught an 84-yard touchdown pass. He's another one of those big, 6-3, 240, runs a sub 4.5 (second 40-yard dash). I don't want to hang anything on him, any nicknames or comparisons, but, you know, Calvin Johnson. He's a gunner on punts. He covers kickoffs. He has enough to run away from a defensive back, Ben drops one in the bucket, and he goes 84 yards for a touchdown with it. They're unique, physical specimens."
Take a look at the best practice photos of the week as the Eagles prepare for their Week 5 game against the Steelers.
Final Injury Report
For the Eagles
• WR DeSean Jackson (hamstring)
• WR Alshon Jeffery (foot/illness)
• CB Avonte Maddox (ankle)
For the Steelers
• LB Marcus Allen (foot)
• FB Derek Watt (hamstring)