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.

Flyers-Oilers 10 observations: Two big rallies and the win streak pushes forward

Flyers-Oilers 10 observations: Two big rallies and the win streak pushes forward

Ten observations from the Flyers' 6-5 win over the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night, their seventh straight win and longest win streak since Dec. 2-15, 2011 (see Instant Replay).

1. And the Flyers (somehow) did it. They won their seventh straight game on a night Steve Mason wasn't his best — five goals allowed for the third time this season — and the team defense was largely atrocious. Michael Raffl scored a beautiful goal for the game-winner at 18:31 of the third period and the Flyers held on. This game had a 1980s feel to it. Lots of scoring. Highly entertaining. And the Flyers found a way to win it. This team is on a roll.

2. From the Flyers' perspective, the most entertaining moment of the opening 20 minutes came with 5:31 left in the first period, when Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning and Oilers center Connor McDavid exchanged words post-whistle in the Philadelphia zone.

Manning broke McDavid's collarbone last season, which forced McDavid to miss a chunk of his rookie season. Nothing more than a little pushing and shoving with some trash talk.

Still, the sequence brought the most excitement in the first period. Speaking of which …

3. For a team that entered on a six-game winning streak, the Flyers' first-period effort was disheartening. They needed more than nine minutes to get their first shot on goal, and had more shots in the final two minutes — five — than they did the first 18 minutes.

No real scoring chances, either, out of the nine first-period shots. Raffl had a nice chance, but Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson was able to make the stop.

That's two straight games the Flyers have had poor first periods. Tuesday, they were tied, 1-1, with the Panthers, but faced a 1-0 deficit Thursday. Better first periods are needed.

4. Boy, the Flyers woke up quick after the 10-minute mark of the second period.

Down 2-0, the Flyers scored three goals in one minute and 12 seconds in the second period — 12:31, 13:24 and 13:43 — to get the Wells Fargo Center jumping.

Mark Streit started it off with a power-play goal, followed by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and then Claude Giroux. Bellamare beat Gustavsson with a well-placed wrist shot, which may have been the fourth-liner's best shot of his NHL career, for his first of the year.

Giroux's diving slapper gave the Flyers a 3-2 lead 19 seconds later. The loudest the building may have been this season. It had a playoff atmosphere after Giroux's goal.

5. Let's talk about McDavid. We hear about how fast he is, how skilled he is, how special he is, and he is every bit as advertised. You see it more when you see him in person.

McDavid scored his first power-play goal of the season at 4:35 of the second period, his 12th goal of the campaign. He rocketed home a one-timer from Leon Draisaitl off a rebound.

The 19-year-old kid leads the NHL in scoring and just scored his first PPG. The kid is special. Very special. Side note, McDavid chirped Manning after his PPG.

6. And, of course, McDavid was a factor in another Oilers goal. After the Flyers took momentum with their three goals in just over a minute, McDavid took it right back.

While the Oilers were shorthanded, McDavid was double-teamed in the corner left of Mason by Andrew MacDonald and Bellamare, but he was able to shovel the puck to Mark Letestu, who then found Andrej Sekera for a blast by Mason to make it 3-3 at 16:15 of the second period.

The credit for that goal goes all to McDavid. Tremendous strength by a 19-year-old who was being pinned against the boards by a 30-year-old and 31-year-old, respectively.

Sekera's goal was the seventh shorthanded goal allowed by the Flyers — most in the NHL.

7. I was skeptical of using the Bellemare line against McDavid, but at 5-on-5, Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov did a decent job against McDavid. Still, the Oilers' captain finished with a goal and assist. The Flyers held McDavid without a breakaway.

The Bellemare line did a tremendous job at 5-on-5.

8. The fans grew restless with the referees in the third period. First, Brayden Schenn put a loose puck into the net, but Gustavsson had covered it and the whistle had blown quickly. And then, McDavid tackled Ivan Provorov on a break. Should have been a penalty.

9. We hear about McDavid all the time, but Edmonton has another young star in Draisaitl, who found himself off the McDavid line against the Flyers.

No problem for the 2014 No. 3 overall pick. Draisaitl had a goal and two assists and displayed an uncanny ability to find open players and get them the puck.

In a game featuring McDavid, it was Draisaitl who stole the show. Wow.

10. It was Goaltender Heritage Night at the Wells Fargo Center, but there were no special ceremonies. The honorees, voted by the fans, were Bernie Parent, Ron Hextall, Pelle Lindberg, Pete Peeters and Brian Boucher. Outside of some interviews during stoppages and a cool, little presentation during introductions, there was nothing to write home about. There was an uptick in goalie jerseys in the crowd.

Personal favorite? A Brian Boucher No. 1 Philadelphia Phantoms sweater.

Instant Replay: Sixers 99, Pelicans 88

Instant Replay: Sixers 99, Pelicans 88

BOX SCORE

NEW ORLEANS -- The Sixers avoided setting a franchise mark of consecutive road losses with a 99-88 win over the Pelicans in New Orleans.

Prior to Thursday’s victory, the Sixers had lost 23 straight away from Philadelphia. Their last road win was Jan. 20, 2016 against the Magic. They also had dropped 23 consecutive games on the road from March 29 - Dec. 23, 2015. 

The Sixers held Anthony Davis, the NBA’s leading scorer, to 26 points, below his season average of 31.6. They were led by Ersan Ilyasova, who dropped 23 points again after scoring 23 in the Sixers’ last game against the Grizzlies. 

Third-quarter transformation
The Sixers trailed the Pelicans 57-52 at halftime and struck back defensively in the third. They held the Pelicans to 5 for 25 shooting from the field and 2 for 12 from three in the quarter. The Sixers outscored the Pelicans 19-12 in the quarter to regain the lead. 

Inside the box score
• Davis recorded a 26-point, 11-rebound double-double. He shot 8 for 21 from the field, 0 for 2 from three and 10 for 12 from the line. 

• Ilyasova scored 23 points (9 for 16 from the field, 2 for 6 from three, 3 for 4 from the line), eight rebounds and four assists.

• Joel Embiid contributed 14 points (5 for 15 from the field, 0 for 5 from three, 4 for 5 from the line), seven rebounds, two assists, four blocks and three steals in 27 minutes.

• Sergio Rodriguez gave a solid 16 points (6 for 13 from the field, 4 for 8 from three) and eight dimes.

• Nik Stauskas and Dario Saric combined for 27 points off the bench.

• St. Joe’s alum Langston Galloway dropped 19 points (8 for 16 from the field, 3 for 6 from long range) off the Pelicans’ bench.

Trusting the process in New Orleans
It follows Embiid on the road. Fans chanted “trust the process” while he was at the free throw line. The volume was more quiet than at the Wells Fargo Center, but the effort was there nonetheless. 

Injury updates
The Sixers were without Jahlil Okafor, who remained in Philadelphia battling gastroenteritis. Jerryd Bayless also missed the trip because of left wrist soreness. Former Sixer Jrue Holiday sat out with turf toe. 

Up next
The Sixers will return home to Philadelphia to get in some practice before heading back on the road. They will play the Pistons in Detroit on Sunday.