I don't think there's much doubt that the Steelers defense has played better through two games than the Eagles. And I think a careful analysis of the personnel on both defenses would lend support to the claim that the Steelers defense has better athletes and is a more complete unit than the Eagles. On offense, the picture is not as clear. Let's break it down by position:
Sheesh. This is actually a tough one right out of the gate. When he's healthy, there's not many better in the league than Donovan McNabb. McNabb, who is undeniably off to a torrid start to 2008, actually had a very respectable 2007. In the 14 games he started last year, the Eagles were 8-6. His TD:INT ratio was nearly 3:1 (19:7), and his yards per attempt, arguably the most important stat, was an even 7.0, one of the better rates of his very productive career. Here's the deal. When you go 4-5 and then 5-5 in the games you start as the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, you're going to get plenty of criticism. Especially if those records come in the wake of falling short year after year in either the NFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl. Throw in a knee injury and everyone's ready to write him off for good. As Lee Corso might say, 'not so fast.'
At just 31 years of age, McNabb is in that murky area of a career. He's past his physical prime, which Big Ben is entering. But he's not yet a statue or overly fragile. In the case of QBs, the extra years of experience can be a good thing. In other words, McNabb's not done. His knee's just fine for now and so too are the Eagles.
What I am interested in seeing is how McNabb deals with a Steelers defense that is likely to get after him on Sunday. Will Andy Reid help McNabb by calling plays that get the ball out of his hands quickly? If so, will McNabb be accurate? This is going to be a great chess game between Dick LeBeau and Andy Reid. Not sure who to give the edge to here. Over the long haul, I'd take Roethlisberger, but for one game, at Lincoln Financial Field in early fall weather, I'm not so sure. EDGE: Push
Another tough call. All fans of the game know who Brian Westbrook is and what he brings to the table in terms of versatility. He's a dynamic pass-catching threat, return man, and ball carrier. The Eagles have phased Westbrook out of the return game in 2008, but he's as integral to the team's offensive gameplan as ever. Through two games, he's carried the ball 37 times, caught 8 passes, and his 5 combined TDs have fantasy owners round the country delighted.
With the accolades out of the way, I don't think Mr. Westbrook is going to enjoy the same type of success against this coming Sunday. I expect our CBs to do a tremendous job in run support, and I think we might see Lawrence Timmons spying Westbrook at times. Regardless of how LeBeau plays his hand, I think he'll ultimately keep Westbrook in front of our defense, and rely on our excellent blend of players who take savvy angles to the ball, are sound tacklers (Ryan Clarke, James Farrior) and raw athleticism (Polamalu and Timmons) to slow the little man from Villanova down.
If we can keep Westbrook under 150 combined yards receiving and rushing, I think we'll have done a fantastic job. And conversely, if Willie Parker can have some of the same kind of consistent success that he had in the first two games, our offense should be in fine position to mix in some play-action and other tough to defend wrinkles in the passing game. It should be noted that the Eagles have only surrendered 104 total rushing yards through the first two games, but of course, in their opener, the Rams were behind by so many so quickly, that the running game all but disappeared as an option. And against Dallas, why run if you're Jason Garret, when your offense isn't being slowed down one iota in the passing game? SInce this is not a fantasy draft, I'm going with Parker here. EDGE: Steelers
Several have already called me out in the comments section for giving FWP and the Steelers the edge here. Totally legitimate qualm, as there may not be a more versatile RB in the league than Westbrook. However, let me direct you to the last time these two teams played. The year was 2004, it was Week 8 I believe, and the Eagles had won 7 straight, including knocking off undefeated New England. McNabb was the QB, Terrell Owens was doing his thing, and the Eagles were essentially at the heighth of their powers. Westbrook's line that day?
6 carries, 17 yards, 0 TDs. 3 receptions, 4 yards, 0 TDs.
New day, new year, new teams. But the infrastructure of both our defense and their offense is largely the same. And on that day, when the Eagles were a well-oiled machine and Brian Westbrook was in his physical prime, we made him a total non-factor.
As Jim Wexell pointed out in our most recent interview with him, there just may not be enough plays to get Heath Miller the ball as some might like. But that still doesn't diminish what he brings to the Steelers offense as a run-blocker, decoy, and occassional pass-catching threat. Miller's huge catch late in the 4th quarter against Cleveland all but iced the game for us, and I hope that play was indicative of how Bruce Arians plans to use him moving forward: i.e. in big moments.
LJ Smith is no slouch either for Philly. He's got 6 catches so far and 1 TD. McNabb will often look his way in the redzone, as evidenced by his healthy 13 TD catches over the three year span from 2004-2006. But I don't think he's as complete a player as Miller. And the guys below him on the depth chart aren't as versatile as Matt Spaeth is either. I think we may need to look Miller and Spaeth's way a few more times this week to contend with all the kamikaze blitz looks that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. EDGE: Steelers
The Eagles are battling the injury bug at WR early in 2008. Kevin Curtis is scratched from this week's game with a hernia. And his running mate on the other side, Reggie Brown, might make his first appearance in 2008 after posting a commendable 61 catch for 12+ ypa season in 2007. Browns' hamstring injury has opened the door for rookie DeSean Jackson and boy has he ever stormed through it. He has back-to-back 100+ yard games to start his career, with 6 catches in each. His 18 yards per catch are outstanding and exactly the type of big-play threat that McNabb has been looking for all these years.
The question on Sunday will be whether our corners, safetys, and even LBs, can wrap up the pint-sized Jackson in open space. At just 5'9" and with blazing speed, we'll sure be tested. Oh, and he's also average 10+ yards per punt return, including a 60 yarder, so consider special teams on call as well.
Regardless of Jackson's explosiveness, the Steelers collection of WRs outmatches what Philly brings to the table. Hines Ward, despite catching a case of Ike Taylor-itis last week, looks healthy and great. Santonio emerged last week after a quiet week 1, and Nate Washington still looms as a deep threat. The Eagles' secondary had a tough time slowing down Tony Romo & Co. I don't suspect they'll be able to correct everything in time to slow down a Pittsburgh offense that is likely licking its chops to get to work, after the gusting winds and rain limited some of their capacities last week in Cleveland. EDGE: Steelers
Time to wrap this up, but the edge goes to the Eagles in this department, despite Pittsburgh's very promisng play in the trenches through two games. Shawn Andrews, John Runyan, Jamaal Jackson, Todd Heremans and William Thomas are all mainstays on the line, having all been in Philadelphia for their entire careers. That's continuity. Another week, another chance for the big eaters up front to prove that last year is long over for Pittsburgh. EDGE: Philadelphia