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Spadaro: 6 storylines to follow Sunday vs. Steelers

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

Each week, prior to kickoff, let's take a look at some of the numbers that matter and keep them in mind when the game begins.

1. The Eagles have the NFL's fifth-ranked passing defense, allowing 188 yards per game. And get this: The Eagles are ranked No. 2 in fewest passing yards allowed per attempt, 4.9 yards. That's minuscule. What makes it relevant for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh is that the Steelers have some real talent at wide receiver with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and rookie George Pickens.

They will run vertical routes – Pickens is the one to watch here – while Claypool and Johnson are good catch-and-run receivers. Can rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett get the ball outside the numbers to his receivers against Philadelphia's outstanding cornerbacks – Darius Slay and James Bradberry are 1-2 in the NFL with the lowest passer rating on throws their way? It's a matchup to watch.

Pickett completed 10 of 12 passes throwing inside the numbers in Sunday night's loss to Miami and was 22 of 32 outside the numbers, but he threw three interceptions on those passes, averaging 5.3 yards per passing attempt as the Steelers fell to the Dolphins, 16-10. Watch out for tight end Pat Freiermuth, who averages 1.89 yards per route run, fourth best among NFL tight ends. He has been targeted on 25 percent of his routes, third highest among tight ends, and Pickett has completed 87 percent of his passes when targeting the tight end. The Eagles must A) Tackle very well on short routes; B) Limit Pickens and Claypool on the deep throws; and C) Keep Freiermuth under wraps in the middle of the field.

2. Takeaways, takeaways, it's been all about the takeaways for the Eagles' defense this season. The Eagles have had at least one takeaway in each of their six games and 14 overall, tied for first in the NFL in that category entering Week 8. In fact, the Eagles are the first team since 1940 to have 14 takeaways and only two giveaways in the opening six games of a season. No doubt, the turnover ratio will mean a lot on Sunday, as it does every week. Only four teams have given it away more than the Steelers' 12 turnovers, which includes a league-high 9 interceptions. Pickett, making his fourth NFL start, has thrown seven interceptions. When you're able to add a proven pass rusher like Robert Quinn to the mix, you expect even more havoc in the offensive backfield and more opportunities to get hands on the football.

3. Jalen Hurts has won 9 straight starts in the regular season. This is a remarkable statistic and the only one that truly matters. His ball security, decision-making, and big-play skills have all been on point through six games this season and he has been a steady force and a guiding hand in the fourth quarter of close games in recent wins over Arizona and Dallas. Plus, he just has the swagger and the confidence the face of a franchise needs. Hurts is unwavering in his commitment as he goes for his 10th straight regular-season victory on Sunday.

4. Philadelphia has been prolific in the second quarter of games, outscoring opponents 112-27 and a whopping 70 percent of the team's points have come in that quarter. Pretty remarkable, for sure, and to be fair, a good number of those points have come on drives that started in the first quarter of games. The Eagles want to be more prolific in quarters one, three, and four as well because dominating like they have in the second quarter of games will be difficult to sustain.

5. Since the 1970 NFL merger, there have been 15 games between 6-0 teams and teams starting a rookie quarterback, and the 6-0 teams have a combined 12-3 record in those games. One of the wins was when Ben Roethlisberger beat the Eagles in 2004, 27-3. Roethlisberger was 11-of-18 with two touchdown passes that day to deal the Eagles their first loss of the season after the Eagles started the season 7-0.

6. Pittsburgh is a team that historically brings pressure, so Hurts must be prepared for extra pass rushers and, potentially, linebacker T.J. Watt, who said on Friday that we'll have to "wait and see" if he plays on Sunday. He remains on Injured Reserve as he returned to practice this week, but could be activated before kickoff. (UPDATE: The Steelers did NOT activate Watt on Saturday. He is ineligible to play against the Eagles.) Arizona and Dallas combined to bring an extra pass rusher 49 percent of the time Hurts threw the football, an increase from the 33 percent Hurts saw in the first four games. How to have success against the blitz? It's something the Eagles no doubt looked into during their "self-scout" bye week and the Steelers are going to be aggressive and try to disrupt Hurts in the passing game and take him out of the running game. Big moment for Hurts against a defense that always offers something unpredictable.

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