Eagles (2-0) vs. Steelers (2-0)
4:25 p.m. on CBS
The Eagles look to jump out to a 3-0 start in 2016, but face their toughest test yet Sunday when they host the unbeaten Steelers, who are a trendy Super Bowl pick this year.
So far, the Eagles have defeated a pair of opponents still in search of their first win, raising questions as to just how good they really are. A victory over Pittsburgh, or even a close game, would legitimize some of their early success.
1. The battle for Wentz-ylvania
Carson Wentz isn't playing merely for an Eagles victory this week. The 23-year-old out of North Dakota State is already chasing history in just his third NFL game.
With a win over the Steelers on Sunday, Wentz could become just the second rookie quarterback ever to guide his team to a 3-0 start. The other? Mark Sanchez, who guided the Jets all the way to the AFC Conference Championship Game in 2009.
Of course, beating the Browns and the Bears is one thing. Beating the Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers in the battle for Pennsylvania is quite another.
Don't let Pittsburgh's 31st-ranked pass defense and Wentz's performance through two games fool you into thinking he should be able to throw on this secondary with ease. The Steelers are going to play things differently than the Eagles' previous two opponents, using far more zone coverage and trying a lot more disguise their intentions pre-snap.
If Wentz excels against this defense too, that should serve to quiet some of the skeptics — they're out there — not to mention put another feather in the young signal-caller's cap.
2. Who's got Roethlisberger?
In order for Wentz to even have a chance at making more history, the Eagles' defense will have to hold up its end of the bargain against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Roethlisberger has this unit firing on all cylinders, ranked eighth in the NFL in yards per game (405.5) and fourth in points (31.0).
Roethlisberger was always tough to bring down. Nowadays, even pressuring the 13-year veteran isn't easy because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. For much of his career though, he was among the most sacked quarterbacks in the league, yet even then getting to him and getting him on the ground was two different animals.
It's telling there's only one member of the Eagles' defense who has ever sacked Roethlisberger in a regular season game. That would be Connor Barwin, who once wrestled Big Ben to the turf while a member of the Texans in 2011.
Now many Eagles players — especially those along the defensive line — have only faced Roethlisberger one time in the regular season, or never. Regardless, the fact is only one person in that locker room has ever taken the man down in a meaningful game, so when Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham finally do get their shot, it remains to be seen if they'll be able to finish the play.
3. Antonio Brown, meet Jalen Mills
You can't talk about the Steelers and not mention Antonio Brown, who improbably has become the best wide receiver in the NFL over the past few years. Since 2013, the four-time Pro Bowler has 389 receptions for 5,169 yards and 33 touchdowns. Remarkable.
Brown should have plenty of opportunities to add to his prolific totals against the Eagles' questionable cornerbacks Sunday. Nolan Carroll is a solid veteran coming off an ankle injury last season, but had a rough 2016 debut against the Browns in Week 1, getting beat twice on deep passes. Then last week, seventh-round rookie Jalen Mills saw his most extensive action and was caught biting on a double move that resulted in a big 49-yard gain against the Bears.
It was Cleveland and Chicago, two offenses currently incapable of consistently hitting those kinds of plays, but not Pittsburgh. If the Eagles allow Brown to go one-on-one against these cornerbacks, the seventh-year wideout could eat them alive.
Brown getting matched up on Mills specifically might result in some on-the-job training for the 22-year-old. To his credit, Mills has exceeded expectations by even getting on the field in his first season and has played the game without fear. But when he's lining up against Brown, it might help to have some.
4. Time on the Eagles' side
Maybe there is something to controlling the clock after all. After finishing dead last in time of possession for three years in a row under coach Chip Kelly, through two weeks the Eagles are leading the league in the category, averaging nearly 38 minutes per game on offense.
Is it any coincidence they're 2-0?
Yes, to an extent. While three of the top four teams in time of possession in 2015 made it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs (Seattle, Arizona, Carolina), the No. 1 team in the NFL last year was the Falcons, who went 8-8, and rounding out the top five was the 3-13 Chargers.
That being said, there's no denying that ball control has aided Wentz immensely. Doing something as small as sticking with the run keeps the offense on schedule to convert on third and fourth down. It can also help the quarterback and shorten the game. It helps the defense stay fresh too since they aren't constantly on the field.
The offense still has to make those conversions though to keep the football, and the defense has to makes stops on third down as well, which the Eagles have done well — seventh-best in the NFL. Time of possession is typically a byproduct of those two things, but not necessarily a big indicator of success.
5. Pittsburgh hates Philly
There may be a rivalry among the cities' sports fans, but these two teams only meet once every four years. And the Steelers are probably happy keeping it that way.
Meetings between the two teams have gone decidedly in the Eagles' favor, with a 17-9-2 record against Pittsburgh since 1960. However, it's particularly in Philadelphia where the Steelers have struggled for whatever reason, with eight consecutive road losses in the series going back to 1966.
With a sample size that small and so much turnover every year, let alone dating back to the '60s, it's hard to put a lot of stock in these records. Both teams have retained only a handful of players since their last clash in 2012, so it shouldn't be predictive of anything.
Yet games between the Steelers and Eagles historically tend to be on the low-scoring side and close, and Pittsburgh doesn't fare well in doesn't play well in Philly. We'll see if any of those trends are broken on Sunday.
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