Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Each week during the 2012 season we're hitting up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we have Alan Robinson, Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kulp: Pittsburgh is 1-2 heading into the intrastate matchup, and you wrote their campaign could very well hinge on this game. The team seems to be getting healthy right on cue, with Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all potentially available this week. Assuming they all play, are the Steelers' problems suddenly solved?

Alan Robinson: Not necessarily. The Steelers' problems are across the board, ranging from an inability to run the ball, get to the quarterback or stop teams in the fourth quarter, where they've been outscored 30-13. Harrison and Polamalu are potential game-changers, of course, but Harrison is 34, Polamalu is closing in on 32 and injuries are becoming an issue. Harrison hasn't even practiced on consecutive days since last season. What the Steelers need Harrison to do is bring some pressure some how. They have only five sacks in three games and their 3-4 defensive line is not playing well. But the question is how effective Harrison can be on a knee that has blown up constantly whenever he's tried to push it, and without a full week of practice in nine months. What the Steelers have to hope is this isn;t the mobile Michael Vick they saw in either 2002, when he rallied the Falcons from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter (the only time that happened against a Bill Cowher team) or in 2006, when he threw four touchdown passes against them.

The Steelers have evolved with the NFL and have featured a pass-first offense for awhile, but their ground attack has been non-existent so far this season. They're 31st in yards per game (65.0), dead last in yards per attempt (2.6) -- as you wrote last week, their worst start in 62 years. Mendenhall appears set to return from a torn ACL, but is that really going to be a cure-all?

He's twice rushed for 1,000 yards, and he might have had another 1,000-yard season if he hadn't gotten hurt against the Browns in the final regular season game last season. Unlike Harrison, Mendenhall has been practicing regularly since the season started, and the main thing is he's better than what they've got. Mike Tomlin was so desperate to find a hot running back that four different backs got carries against the Raiders. Yet the Steelers still haven't had a back gain more than 43 yards in a game this season. If Mendenhall can't do it, their only option might be to bring Jerome Bettis or Franco Harris out of retirement. One factor: This is a contract year for Mendenhall, and he's playing for a deal next year. That's often the recipe for a big season.

James Harrison has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season over the last five years, but has yet to play this season after August knee surgery. Through four weeks, only six teams have notched fewer sacks per game than the Steelers (1.67). As of today, Harrison wasn't listed on the injury report, but you wrote he'll need to get through a full week of practice without swelling. Do you think he will be ready to go, or perhaps only available on a so-called pitch count?

They need him as many snaps as they can get him, and now. They can't afford to lose this game, drop to 1-3 and potentially fall well behind two teams with 4-1 records (the 3-1 Ravens and Bengals both play 1-3 teams this week). It's a very big game for the Steelers so early in the season, and that could be one reason why they can't wait any longer to see what Harrison can do. The key will be if he gets through practice both Wednesday and Thursday; he hasn't gone back-to-back yet this year. He didn't even dress for practice when the knee acted up last Wednesday, before they broke for the bye week, but Tomlin said Harrison had some "intense workouts" over the weekend. If that's intense by James Harrison's definition of intense, that could be a good sign for the Steelers.

Despite their inability to generate a consistent pass rush without Harrison, and even with Polamalu missing two of three games, Pittsburgh is still ranked third in passing yards allowed (190.3 per game). What is their secret?

Mark Sanchez did nothing against them (10-of-27, 138). That skews the numbers; Peyton Manning was 19 of 26 for 253, 2 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half in his first game in 20 months; Carson Palmer was  24 of 34 for 209 and 3 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half. (Even if Denver stopped him the whole game, limiting the Raiders to 6 points). If LeSean McCoy opens things up for Vick by getting yards early on, Vick is very capable of doing to the Steelers defense what Manning and Palmer did. The difference is those games were on the road, no QB has lit up the Steelers at Heinz Field since Tom Brady in 2010.

The biggest difference between this year and last for the Steelers seems to be new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In what ways has the offense changed under his direction?

Roethlisberger is motioning a lot more at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense than he did under Bruce Arians, and he's also getting rid of the ball faster than before, when he was constantly looking to get the ball down field to Mike Wallace or to improvise. The receivers are running more underneath routes and are getting targeted more by a quarterback who generally prefers to throw the home-run ball but is strongly being encouraged to be more reluctant to take sacks. Haley wanted to run the ball more effectively at times when the Steelers needed to wind the clock, but the running game's awful start has prevented that. So far, the offense looks much like it did when the Steelers successfully took the ball out of Brady's hands last season at Heinz Field by having Roethlisberger control the clock, throw a lot of safe passes and win the time of possession battle. The Steelers have done that in every game, but it hasn't mattered because -- unlike that Patriots game last season that the Steelers won 25-17 -- they can't keep their opponents out of the end zone when it matters. The Broncos (3 times) and Raiders (5 times) combined to score on each of their eight meaningful second-half possessions.

For the latest news on the Steelers, check out the Tribune-Review sports page.

Eagles Inactives: Bennie Logan (groin) out vs. Vikings

Eagles Inactives: Bennie Logan (groin) out vs. Vikings

Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan (groin) is inactive for the team’s game against the Vikings at the Linc on Sunday afternoon.

Logan missed practice all week but was listed as questionable and was said to be a game-time decision. Beau Allen will start in his place, but the Eagles will likely use more Allen, Fletcher Cox, Destiny Vaeao and Vinny Curry at tackle.

While Logan is inactive, Ron Brooks (calf), Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) and Mychal Kendricks (ribs) are all active. The trio was listed as questionable coming into the weekend.

Joining Logan among the inactive players are: OL Dillon Gordon, OL Josh Andrews, OL Isaac Seumalo, CB C.J. Smith, S Terrence Brooks and WR Bryce Treggs.

Despite Tregg’s getting extended reps this week in practice, he’s still not playing.

For the Vikings, wideout Stefon Diggs (groin), who was listed as questionable, is active.

Vikings inactives: WR Laquon Treadwell, WR Jarius Wright, LB Kentrell Brothers, C Nick Easton, G Willie Beavers, DT Sharrif Floyd, TE MyCole Pruitt.

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
4 p.m. on TCN 

Having all but officially made the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Union, who are already locked into a first-round road match, could rest players Sunday in the season finale against the New York Red Bulls (15-9-9). But that doesn’t mean the Union (11-13-9) will be mailing it in.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playoff recovery
The Union had hope that last Sunday’s home match against mathematically eliminated Orlando City SC would work as a slump buster, breaking the club’s five-game winless run. 

Instead, with a 2-0 loss, it just extended the Union’s slump to six.

“We had a good meeting with the group, we talked a lot about accountability,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Everybody does have to look in the mirror.”

With their last win coming in late August, the Union seem fresh out of ideas. Passing up the ripe opportunity to gain confidence against Orlando City, the club must now host the best team in the Eastern Conference as a pre-playoff test.

“We shot ourselves in the foot in a big spot and we came up a little short,” said Curtin, whose club flubbed an outside chance to host a first-round game and will be on the road regardless of Sunday’s outcome. “It’s the past, though. We have to look forward to the challenge that Red Bulls will present. They are the perfect team to play in terms of a tuneup, to get up to speed with the tempo of a playoff game. It’ll be good for our guys, we’ll use that to get prepared.”

2. Refreshing the lineup
Because Sunday’s match comes just days before the Union’s midweek postseason game, Curtin could look to rest some starters against the Red Bulls, especially the injured ones.

“There are discussions,” he said. “You have to do what’s best. Maybe it’s a new face, a change or a tweak. We won’t change our formation, we won’t change the style that we play but maybe there’s a new body that comes out on the field and gives us a little bit of a lift.”

But Curtin’s team doesn’t just need a lift, it needs healthy bodies. C.J. Sapong suffered a concussion against Orlando City and will likely sit out Saturday. If he does, Charlie Davies could see a chunk of playing time. Davies has only played 81 minutes in eight games since being acquired by the Union in August.

Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius are also banged up with lower-body ailments.

“Charlie’s been a little bit sharper each day in training,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to forget that he as recently as a month and a half ago was beating cancer so, the sharpness and the fitness is starting to come back. He wants to start, he wants to play, like any striker does, but we have to be smart about what makes the most sense for the team to get a result this weekend.”

3. Mighty Red Bulls
With the Red Bulls already locked into a first-round playoff bye, claiming the top seed in the East, they could float into Sunday’s match like it’s an exhibition — resting starters and providing minimal effort. 

But while riding an unbeaten streak that dates back to early July, the Red Bulls aren’t likely to pull their foot off the gas just yet.

“It’s a challenging game for us,” Curtin said. “It’ll be a high tempo, playoff atmosphere. With Red Bull already securing their bye, I envision them playing their full-strength lineup because they don’t want to rest guys for two weeks, and then you could have some rust. We expect their best.”

Though the Red Bulls want to keep things moving Sunday, the Union also want to finish the season strong. Although the match doesn’t hold the importance it could have for either club, Curtin’s team, winless since late August, is grasping for anything it can to catapult itself into the postseason with momentum. 

“We want to finish the season the right way for our fans,” Curtin said. “We want to come out with some confidence after the game.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Sapong hobbled from a concussion, Sunday’s match could put Charlie Davies’ effort on display. The forward, who has been seldom used as he regains conditioning after beating cancer earlier in the year, was acquired by the Union for this exact scenario — providing quality attacking depth.

Red Bulls: Although the match is practically meaningless for the Red Bulls, it could mean something for Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 31-year striker could claim his second golden boot in three seasons. He currently leads MLS with 23 goals — one ahead of David Villa. He has a goal and an assist against the Union this season and 11 goals in his last nine games.

5. This and that
• The Union are 0-1-1 against the Red Bulls this season but did score a win in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16.

• The result of Sunday’s match will leave the Union with one of three postseason road opponents — New York City FC, Montreal Impact and D.C. United. The match will be played the following Wednesday or Thursday.

• With a win on Sunday, the Union would match a club-high in wins with 12 — a record set in 2013.