The Eagles (1-2-1) are traveling to the other side of the state to face the Steelers (3-0) in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
Here are five matchups to watch:
Eagles OTs vs. Steelers OLBs
The Eagles lead the NFL with 17 defensive sacks this season, but the Steelers are second with 15 and have played one fewer game. This is a really impressive Pittsburgh front that features Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. It’s stacked. And it’s a different kind of front than the Eagles have seen.
The interior of Pittsburgh’s DL is really tough but I’d argue they’re even better on the edge where Watt and Dupree have combined for six sacks in three games.
For the most part, Watt rushes from the left side and Bud Dupree from the right. So that means we’ll see Watt against Lane Johnson (and hopefully not Jack Driscoll) and Dupree against Jordan Mailata. In his first NFL start, Mailata held his own but Dupree will be a bigger challenge. And this is also the first time he’ll see a 3-4 defense.
JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Darius Slay
The Eagles have suffered several injuries in their secondary through the first quarter of the season but at least they can rely on Slay. He’s every bit as good as advertised.
Through four games, he has given up just 15 catches for 153 yards and has been locking down some really good receivers. Having a corner of his caliber has completely transformed the Eagles’ defense. Slay doesn’t have his first interception as an Eagle yet but that will come. For now, he’s showing his elite cover skills and his toughness.
Against the Steelers, he’ll likely face their top target, Smith-Schuster. In three games this season, Smith-Schuster has 17 catches for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns. After a breakout 2018 season, Smith-Schuster played in just 12 games last season and had just 42 catches for 442 yards. But he has already matched his TD total from last year and is off to a good start in 2020.
Back in Smith-Schuster’s rookie season in 2017, he had his breakout game (7 catches, 193 yards, 1 TD) against Slay’s Lions. But in that game, Slay spent most of his afternoon facing Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster caught just one pass on him for four yards and did his damage against Quandre Diggs and Nevin Lawson.
Miles Sanders vs. NFL’s top rushing defense
We’ve already talked about the Steelers’ DL as it pertains to rushing the passer but the Steelers are also very good against the run. They have given up just 162 yards on the ground in three games against the Giants, Broncos and Texans. That’s an NFL-best average of 54.0 rushing yards per game and they’re giving up just 2.66 yards per attempt.
Last week, Sanders dealt with a glute injury during the week but that wasn’t why Doug Pederson claimed Sanders wasn’t on the field late in the fourth quarter. Pederson said the situation dictated that Corey Clement and Boston Scott were out there. That took the Eagles’ best offensive threat off the field.
In total against the 49ers, Sanders got just 13 carries and 15 touches, which simply isn’t enough. He’s too good to not get the ball in his hands more. The fear here is that Pederson will completely abandon the run if it isn’t going well early. He has obviously done that plenty in his time as the Eagles’ head coach.
James Conner vs. Eagles linebackers
We know about the Eagles’ struggles at linebacker and this week they’ll be without T.J. Edwards, who they really could have used for this game in particular against the Steelers’ power running attack. The Eagles will go into this game with Nate Gerry, Duke Riley and Alex Singleton.
It’s not just Conner anymore, though. The Steelers also have Benny Snell Jr. and these two guys are both power runners.
Here are their stats this season:
Conner (6-1, 233): 40 attempts, 224 yards (5.6), 2 TDs
Snell (5-10, 224): 29 attempts, 129 yards (4.4)
The Eagles’ defensive line will need to do their part to stop the backs but the linebackers have to clean up. They can’t afford to miss too many tackles on Sunday.
Steelers’ right side of OL vs. Eagles pass rush
The Eagles lead the NFL with 17 sacks through four games and 13 of them have come in the last two weeks. The Eagles’ pass rush is working to plan right now. They aren’t just good but they’re deep and wearing down offensive lines as games go on.
The Steelers haven’t had as many injuries on their OL as the Eagles, but they do have a few and they are on the right side of their offensive line.
At right tackle, the Steelers are starting Chukwuma Okorafor in place of the injured Zach Banner. According to PFF, Okorafor is the 63rd best tackle in the NFL.
And keep an eye on Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro. He’s scheduled to make his return from a knee injury in this game. The Steelers had been playing rookie Kevin Dotson, who is still the backup at that spot without Stefen Wisniewski.