Pittsburgh Steelers go for three wins in a row to start season

A history lesson, tape review, prediction, complete breakdown and much more in this Steelers-Eagles game day preview

MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT

Steelers 20, Eagles 14

Oct. 24, 1965 at Franklin Field, Philadelphia

After quarterback Bill Nelson got hurt in the 1965 preseason, Steelers Coach Buddy Parker called the Philadelphia Eagles and offered young defensive lineman Ben McGee for veteran quarterback King Hill. But young Dan Rooney, the newly installed first lieutenant under his father, Art Rooney, nixed the deal. Parker insisted, and when he didn't get his way he resigned. So young Rooney promoted assistant coach Mike Nixon to the head job two weeks before the start of the season. It didn't seem like it at the time, or during the entire 2-12 1965 season, but the Steelers were on their way to turning it around. The win at Philadelphia -- the last time the Steelers won there -- was accomplished with Nelson completing 6 of 16 passes for 79 yards. The star was safety Jim Bradshaw, who intercepted three passes and returned one 82 yards for a touchdown. Eagles quarterbacks Hill and Jack Concannon combined to throw four interceptions that day.

TALE OF THE TAPE

"The wide-9 defense Jim Schwartz runs in Philly has those party-crashing defensive ends who get up the field out of a track stance pointing right at the tackles. Those ends, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham, will head up an eight, nine-man rotation up front. They keep fresh hound dogs up front and keep coming after you. It gets tough because they're two-deep at every spot up front and that creates a situation where the O-linemen need to know all of the tendencies and techniques. They run five big ones -- defensive linemen -- across the board, so it's man-on-man blocking and it's a WWE battle royale. The best way to beat it is to trap it, run screens and run play-action. But before you can do any of that you have to run the ball, and that is going to be a job." -- Steelers Radio analyst Craig Wolfley.

TOP QUESTION

Can the Steelers beak the Philadelphia jinx?

The Steelers are 0-1 at the new Lincoln Financial Field with the lone loss coming in the brutal nine-sack knockout by the Eagles in 2008. Before that, the Steelers were 0-3 at Veterans Stadium, 3-8-1 at Franklin Field, 3-12 at Shibe Park and 0-1-1 at Philadelphia Municipal Stadium. The Steelers have to go all the way back to the Baker Bowl to find a Philadelphia field at which they won more than they lost. The Steelers were 2-1 there from 1933 to 1935. A win today would not only break an 8-game and 51-year losing streak in Philadelphia, it would give the Steelers a .500 record at a football field in Philly, which has not been an easy feat.

THREE QUESTIONS: With CB ROSS COCKRELL

Q: What have you been seeing on film from the Eagles wide receivers?

RC: "All three of them are interchangeable. They all run very similar routes. They all go into all the different spaces, all different areas. (Jordan) Matthews is primarily in the slot, but he goes outside; (Nelson) Agholor lines up outside but goes on the inside as well. They all pretty much have the same skillset, they just do it in different ways.

Q: Keith Butler said added some schemes in the red zone. Are you guys getting more complex back there in the secondary?

RC: "I think so. I think we're getting a little more complex, especially now since we're playing a rookie quarterback. We're going to make sure we're showing him a lot of different things."

Q: Last season it seemed you guys were just trying to learn about what you had, talent-wise, in the secondary. Is there more organization and order this season?

RC: "There is. I just think our communication's at a much higher level. People understand our concepts. We're communicating through them and it's allowing us to play fast and make plays on the ball. We do have rookies, but I think they've done a tremendous job of getting here, getting in the books, getting in the film room and building on their talent."

GAME BREAKDOWN

What to look for from the Steelers this afternoon (4:25 p.m.) at Philadelphia:

ON OFFENSE:

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley echoed the sentiment that the Steelers must find a way to run on the Eagles' rotationally fresh front four (and five), "starting with Fletcher Cox on the inside," Haley said. To that end, the Steelers have the NFL's leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams, but they're unlikely to forget they have the AFC's No. 1 receiver against the NFC in games since 2010, when Antonio Brown entered the league. Brown is coming off a 4-for-39 performance against Cincinnati, which was the least productive game for Brown with Ben Roethlisberger in four years. Last year, after Brown was held to a 6-for-47 performance with Roethlisberger by Cincinnati, Brown responded the following week with a team-record 17-for-284 performance against Oakland. This week, with Markus Wheaton returning at less than 100 percent, expect Brown and Roethlisberger to find rookie Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills -- starting again for the injured Leodis McKelvin -- early and often.

ON DEFENSE:

Dick LeBeau had his Steelers defenses feasting on rookie quarterbacks during his tenure as defensive coordinator, but last season first-year coordinator Keith Butler didn't have the opportunity. Today he does, but Carson Wentz, the second pick of the draft, hasn't been playing like the usual rookie. He's the first rookie quarterback in 45 years to start and win his team's first two games without throwing an interception. And he's doing it in a way that has hurt the Steelers over the years: by throwing to backs and tight ends and throwing "heavy in the misdirection passing game," according to Mike Tomlin. However, the Eagles' top receiving tight end last year, Zach Ertz, will miss the game with a rib injury. The top receiving threat out of the Eagles backfield is speedy Darren Sproles, who'll be met by the equally speedy Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.

PREDICTION

The Steelers don't win in Philadelphia, and they don't -- like so many other teams -- win under the following scenario: follow a win on Monday night with a win the following week and then a road game. The Steelers are 0-3 under Tomlin when asked to win on the road after two such games. Of course, the Steelers have Roethlisberger and an angry and determined Brown going up against a rookie cornerback, as well as a maturing defense going up against a rookie quarterback. So let's lean on the latter points, but be wary of the lousy site and situation and keep the prediction tight. Steelers, 23-20.

BY THE NUMBERS

1: Rushing touchdown needed by Williams for 60 in his NFL career.

10: Rushing yards needed by Williams to tally 8,000 in his NFL career.

27: Conversion rate on third down against the Steelers, third-best defensively in the NFL.

31: Average points scored by the Steelers, a point over Todd Haley's stated goal.

148: Brown's catches against NFC teams, the most by an AFC receiver since 2010.

526: Brown's receptions the first six seasons of his career, the best six-season start in NFL history by one over Randy Moss and three over Larry Fitzgerald.

DOWNLOADS

* Brown's first touchdown catch this season, early in the second quarter, erased a 6-0 Washington Redskins lead, the last lead against the Steelers. That, according to Butler, could account for his defense having only one sack so far. "Sometimes when you’re ahead, you try to keep them from having big plays on you and you don't blitz much," Butler said. "We’re willing to rush five, maybe even sometimes six. We just haven’t done it like we have in the past sometimes because we have a pretty good offense, too. We’re here to win games. We would like to have the numbers that the hierarchy of the defenses in the league has, but it’s worth it to me to win a ball game."

Rob Golden came out of college as a cornerback and now finds himself lining up sometimes at linebacker when Butler calls on his 6-DB dime package. What's it like for the 202-pound defensive back to be in there so close to interior offensive linemen? "It's very different," Golden said. "At first you have to deal with alignments. You've got to be able to be more physical, see the run, see the pass. We usually play it in more pass situations, but if we get the run I have to be ready for it."

* Matthews and Agholor are the Eagles' leading receivers, but the third receiver, Dorial Green-Beckham, is tall and fast and an untapped powderkeg of talent. Considered the consensus No. 1 prep recruit in the country in 2011, the 6-5, 237-pounder was kicked out of Missouri for repeated violations and spent last season, his rookie season, with the Tennessee Titans. The Eagles traded an offensive lineman for him on Aug. 16.

Steelers linebacker Stevie Johnson played with DGB last season and saw the talent. "He's got that in him," Johnson said. "It's just got to come out. He's still young so I think over time it'll start to come out in him just because of his size. He's a good player. Last year in Tennessee he showed a lot of different flashes. He did some good things for us last year. We didn't win that much but he was a guy who could show up and show his size and show his speed at different times. It's kind of like if he gets going, it's like 'Oh shoot, he's going to be hard to stop.'"

* Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith shuddered at the thought of meeting with reporters on "Coordinator Thursday," when Haley and Butler are typically mobbed by reporters each week. Smith was requested because his placekicker, Chris Boswell, is 2-for-2 and, at 91.2 percent, the most accurate kicker in team history; and also because his punter, Jordan Berry, is coming off a sensational game against the Bengals. But Smith slipped through the media net and didn't provide an interview. And this may be why: His unit is facing return specialist Darren Sproles this week. Sproles is averaging 14.8 yards per punt return and is a reigning two-time Pro Bowler at the position. Sproles is the only player in NFL history with more than 15 rushing TDs, 25 receiving TDs and 5 punt-return TDs. His nine career kick returns for touchdowns ranks sixth all-time.

PARTING SHOT

"I did a lot of work on him. I had him clearly the best. I haven’t studied him as a pro, but what I have seen watching the games he looks like he is doing a good job. No. 1, he was in a pro-style offense (in college), a lot of under center stuff, which you don’t get to see a whole bunch these days. But I think the thing that stood out was his understanding of the game. They put a lot on his shoulders in college, and you saw him operating almost every play, having to, whether it was signaling to receivers, making calls at the line to change the play, he did a lot of that. Whenever you see a young guy doing that, I think it’s an advantage. " -- Haley on scouting Wentz.


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