The Steelers were mauled by the Eagles 35-13 in Philadelphia on Sunday in a game that was defined by its physical mismatch. Unfortunately, I was in attendance for the carnage, and can attest to the fact it was as bad as it seemed. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how the Eagles whipped the Steelers, with some silver linings for comfort.
Broad Street Bullies
Lincoln Financial Field sits a few blocks from Broad Street, on which the old Philadelphia Spectrum was located. The Spectrum was home to the Flyers, who, in the 1970s, earned the nickname “Broad Street Bullies” for their rough-and-tumble tactics. The Bullies won a pair of Stanley Cups with their nasty, physical brand of hockey. Two generations later, the Eagles are reviving that spirit, minus the dirty play and missing teeth.
Philadelphia has molded itself into a championship contender by building from the inside-out. They are big and physical, with high draft picks and marquee free agents along both lines. The difference in the size and speed up front between the Eagles and Steelers was evident in person. Philly looked noticeably bigger and faster, and they put those advantages to use right away.
On Pittsburgh’s opening possession, the Eagles stuffed Najee Harris on an inside run, then chased Kenny Pickett out of the pocket and tracked him down for a short gain. That brought up 3rd and 8. Philly came with the blitz, and this was the result:
You can see tight end Pat Freiermuth break open in the middle of the field at the 35-yard line. By then, however, Pickett was on his back. Left tackle Dan Moore got beaten outside by edge rusher Hasson Reddick, while right guard James Daniels was abused by the 3-tech tackle and driven straight into Pickett’s lap. Meanwhile, no one picked up the linebacker looping from Pickett’s left. Reddick hit Pickett low, the tackle and backer hit him high, and Pickett went down in a heap. It was probably the worst way the game could have started for the offense — a three-and-out, ending in a play where Pickett got hammered. In retrospect, it set a tone for the afternoon.
A look at the box score might suggest otherwise. The Steelers rushed for 144 yards, which was a season high. But that number was deceiving. Most of those yards were earned in mop-up time when Philly was conceding the run, or on quarterback scrambles, draw plays and reverses. When the Steelers ran the ball from traditional structures, they went nowhere. Harris had just 32 yards, with 18 coming on one play. The rest of his carries looked like this, with the line unable to generate any sort of push or simply being beaten off the ball by Philly’s front:
This was an outside zone run. The Eagles clogged all the gaps on the play-side, leaving Harris no choice but to cut back. When he did, he ran smack into the backside end, who pinched across Moore’s face and beat him into the B-gap. To a man, the Eagles played with a lower pad level, made first contact and hustled to the whistle. By contrast, look at how many Pittsburgh blockers are standing and watching as the play ends. Granted, Harris cut back away from the point of attack. But you want your offensive linemen to finish each play with their hands on a defender, not by passively observing. Philly won this play, and others like it, with technique, physicality and effort.
Philly’s domination up front effected the passing game, too. It discouraged Matt Canada from attempting throws into the middle of the field, which take longer to develop. The Steelers hit one such throw to Freiermuth on their scoring drive in the 1st quarter. Pickett got a clean pocket from the line, stepped up and delivered a strike between the linebackers for a nice gain:
Mostly, though, there was too much pressure in Pickett’s face for him to feel comfortable setting his feet. He was sacked six times and avoided several others by scrambling away. This relegated the passing attack to an array of bootlegs, receiver screens and timing throws to the sideline, like this:
Pickett was accurate with these throws, but it was tough to sustain drives in this fashion. The Eagles tightened up when they needed to and took them away. For example, the screen to Diontae Johnson shown above gained 14 yards. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, they ran a similar screen to Steven Sims. That play lost three yards. On the drive after that, they threw another to Johnson that was nearly intercepted.
A bigger problem was how the pressure began to effect Pickett. The speed at which the rush closed in caused him to look for his check downs almost immediately. 16 of Pickett’s 25 completions went for six yards or less. Many of his incompletions were throw-aways as he ran for his life. He fumbled once while trying to avoid being sacked. The play that bothered me most, though, is the one shown below. In the still frame, you can see Pickett with the ball on the Eagles logo near the 50-yard line. There is a blitzer coming free to his right, and Pickett clearly sees him and prepares to bail from the pocket. Had he stayed in and held the ball, though, he would have found tight end Connor Heyward (83) breaking open in the middle of the field:
It’s hard to blame Pickett for bailing. The blitzer is unblocked, and if he stands in he’s going to get whacked. This play is in the 4th quarter, and Pickett had been whacked plenty by that point. He had begun to take his eyes off of his receivers and to anticipate the rush, which is a huge problem for a quarterback. That’s precisely what happened here, as Pickett looked at the blitzer, tried to escape, and was dropped for another sack:
Think back to Pickett’s debut against the Jets in Week 4, and the throw he made to Freiermuth while getting popped in the mouth by defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. Pickett barely flinched as Williams bore down, releasing the ball before Freiermuth was out of his break and delivering a strike:
On Sunday, Pickett didn’t do that. Former Steelers’ coach Bill Cowher alluded to it after the game, saying the Steelers could be damaging Pickett’s confidence by subjecting him to this type of pressure. If Pickett’s confidence becomes shaken, bad habits, like looking at the rush instead of his receivers, could develop. The hope is they won’t, and that Sunday was an exception against a ferocious defense. That’s the hope. The reality is Pickett and his teammates were overwhelmed by the Eagles. Thankfully, they now have the bye week to lick their wounds and recover.
Downtown A.J. Brown
In another glaring mismatch, receiver A.J. Brown spent the afternoon toying with the Steelers’ secondary. Brown finished with six catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns, most of which came on simple go routes the Steelers seemed incapable of defending.
Brown’s first touchdown came on a 39-yard strike from quarterback Jalen Hurts on Philly’s opening drive. Brown aligned in the slot, where he was covered by safety Terrell Edmunds, and ran a switch route with the outside receiver. The clip below picks up the play as Brown heads vertical around the 20-yard line. Edmunds trails him, with fellow safety Minkah Fitzpatrick tracking the route over the top. Both defenders appear to be in good position. But Edmunds slows down after some contact around the 10-yard line, and Fitzpatrick fails to attack the ball at its highest point. Instead, he makes a basket with his hands and tries to catch it like a receiver. This allows Brown to swoop in underneath him and take the ball away:
You can see Fitzpatrick’s frustration in how he reacts after the catch. He knows he made a poor play here. His mistake was in choosing to play the ball rather than attacking Brown. Had Fitzpatrick gotten to Brown’s hip, then punched at the ball through Brown’s hands, this would have been an incompletion. But by giving Brown space, he allowed him a clean path to the football. That’s a no-no against a physical receiver.
Here’s another no-no. Why play press coverage if you’re not going to actually press? On Brown’s second touchdown, this was the case. Watch below as corner Ahkello Witherspoon walks up on Brown to the right of the screen. Then, at the snap, Witherspoon falls inside, allowing Brown a clean outside release. This makes no sense, especially considering Witherspoon’s help was coming from the inside in the form of Fitzpatrick, who was aligned on the near hash. Hurts, meanwhile, had as pretty a pocket as one could expect from which to throw. With Brown’s easy release, this looked like a pat-and-go warmup drill for the Eagles:
This play prompted the Steelers to back Witherspoon off of Brown. Philly responded by double-moving him. It wasn’t even a good double move. You can see it to the top of the screen below. But Witherspoon got caught peeking inside at the bubble screen, which Philly used to sucker him. Fitzpatrick couldn’t get over in time and Brown had his third TD:
At 6’2-226 pounds with 4.4 speed, Brown has similar measurables to Chase Claypool (Claypool is actually slightly bigger and faster, at least on a stopwatch). But Brown plays more dynamically. He is more aggressive to the football than Claypool. And he gets into his routes faster. And the Eagles scheme him open, running picks and double moves for him, and getting him the ball where he can run after the catch. These are all things Steelers’ fans wish Claypool would do, and the Steelers would do for Claypool. I saw in A.J. Brown what Chase Claypool could be. It was glorious, and also maddening.
Odds and Ends
Here are some other observations from ‘The Stink at The Linc’:
- Jaylen Warren got most of his yards in garbage time. Still, he needs to assume a bigger role in the Steelers’ offense. Warren runs decisively and looks like he could score every time he touches the football. Meanwhile, Najee Harris looks slow and unsure, constantly pattering his feet, never seeming to find full speed. The difference watching live is palpable. I’m not saying Warren should become the starter. But five or six touches a game isn’t enough for this kid.
- The secondary was brutal on Sunday. Witherspoon got abused by Brown. Fitzpatrick could not get over the top of verticals in Cover-2. The Steelers got suckered twice on bubble-and-go routes for touchdowns. But, if there’s a silver lining, Cam Sutton looked good in coverage, again. Sutton had two more pass break-ups and was glued to his receivers most of the afternoon. He is quietly turning in his best season.
- The sloppy penalties on offense are infuriating. In the first half alone, the Steelers were called twice for illegal formations where the tackles didn’t line up on the line of scrimmage, once for an illegal man downfield on an RPO (about the fifth time that’s happened this season) and once for delay of game. That’s just discipline. And it’s on Matt Canada to fix it.
- Speaking of Canada, the 4th-and-goal call that saw Claypool throw a touchdown pass to Derek Watt was creative. I give Canada kudos for the gimmicks and gadgets he includes in the game-plan each week. Now if he could only get the basics right.
Here’s an example. Trailing 28-10 early in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers had 3rd and 4 from the Philadelphia 11-yard line. There were so many concepts they could have run here, but the one they chose — a fade ball to Claypool out of a bunch set — was extremely inefficient. The scheme did nothing to stress Philly’s defense. They played a basic match coverage and simply locked on receivers accordingly. Pickett wound up throwing to the back of the end zone because, really, where else could he have thrown? Nothing attacked the middle, or created conflict for the defense, or schemed a receiver open. There are just so many dead plays in this offense. That’s on Canada, too.
There were lots of Steelers’ jerseys in the crowd. Unofficially, T.J. Watt led the way, followed closely by Minkah, Najee and KP8. Among ex-Steelers, Troy Polamalu was well-represented, as was Hines Ward. I saw a Rocky Bleier jersey, a Louis Lipps jersey, plus Heath Miller, James Harrison, Rod Woodson, Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis, Antwan Randle-El, Casey Hampton (on a guy who looked like Casey Hampton) and James Farrior. I didn’t see a single Ben Roethlisberger jersey in the house.
The jersey of the day. though, went to this woman, whose photo I could not resist taking on the way out:
Enjoy the bye week, Steelers fans. You deserve it.