By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) play host to the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field, a critical matchup likely will be the home team’s third-down offense against the visitors’ third-down defense.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference those situations should be among the key subplots during the game. The Steelers, despite their sub-par record, have been excellent on third down with better than a 56 percent conversion rate (27-for-48). The Steelers also have been successful three times in four fourth-down attempts.
The Eagles defense has allowed opponents to convert just 14 of 52 third-down opportunities (26.9 percent), and just one fourth-down conversion in four attempts, so they are quite stingy in that situation.
“(That’s) our strength versus their strength,” Tomlin said. “I think it’s going to be a big challenge for us. (But) they’re 3-1, so they’re making the necessary plays in all three phases to be successful, (and) they’re stepping up in critical moments.
“They made a defensive stop late in the game in Baltimore. They did what they had to do to get out of the stadium last week, and that’s the sign of a good football team as they are.”
Offensively, quarterback Michael Vick, tailback LeSean McCoy and wideout DeSean Jackson are the top performers. McCoy, a former Pitt player who Tomlin acknowledged is among the NFL’s best backs, leads the Eagles with 384 rushing yards and a touchdown, while Vick has 130 yards and a score. Jackson has 20 catches (16.6 per reception) and one touchdown, while tight end Brent Celek has been somewhat of a surprise with 18 catches and a 17.5 average.
Vick is still the catalyst of the Eagles’ offense, and while he might not be considered a premier quarterback by some he is dangerous in the pocket or out of it. Vick has completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 1,146 yards and four scores, but he also has thrown six interceptions and been sacked 11 times for a dismal 72.7 passer rating. Yet, the Eagles have lost just once in four games.
“We have to minimize what he’s capable of doing,” Tomlin said. “He’s great when plays break down. He’s great on the move (with) a strong arm and quick release. We’ve got to rush him and rush him hard, but at the same time we have to be under control. We can’t give him any escape lanes. They also can feature his running ability, especially in the red area.
“So, he’s been a weapon for them. … He’s extremely quick and fast. He can get out of tough spots, and he has a quick release. He’s also got a strong arm, so the entire field is in play for him. (So), all 11 players on the field are responsible for him. (And) you’ve got to have guys with a search light on him for when he breaks containment.”
Defensively, Tomlin believed the Eagles’ depth up front with as much as an eight-player rotation, really helps them rush opposing quarterbacks. He cited strong play from ends Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham as being “great edge players (who) set the pace for the group. Cullen Jenkins, Fletcher Cox and Derek Landri are the top tackles.
The linebacking corps in Philly’s four-three defense is quite different after being reshaped this season.
“They went out and acquired DeMeco Ryans from the Houston Texans,” Tomlin said. “He’s been a top-notch player, a Pro Bowl-caliber player for a number of years in the league. He’s good versus the run and the pass, and he’s particularly adept at reading the quarterback’s eyes in zone drops and things.
“He leads the group and is the quarterback of the defense, if you will, in all packages, base defense, nickel and dime. They’ve got Mychal Kendricks, who’s a young guy starting for them at an outside linebacker position. He’s very fast, a relentless pursuer of the ball, and he’s made some top-quality plays.”
While the front seven isn’t loaded with role players, the Eagles’ secondary is set with two premier cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was acquired from Arizona. Rookie Brandon Boykin is a key contributor in passing situations, and he doubles as a kick-returner.
“Their secondary is very strong, (and) they challenge receivers,” Tomlin said. “Their corners can play at the line, but they also can run the field. (So), they match some, but I don’t know what they’re going to do against us.”
Notes: A conference call with Philly coach Andy Reid is scheduled for Wednesday, so Tomlin believed that would be a better question for him. The other Eagles conference call is set with McCoy.