Wednesday, October 3, 2012
As fortunate as they may have seemed at the time, it's hard to argue with the Philadelphia Eagles' results so far.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would be happy to settle for winning ugly.
The Steelers should get Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall back as they look to avoid falling in a 1-3 hole Sunday against the visiting Eagles.
Philadelphia (3-1) has been outscored by 17 points through four games, but it has a pair of one-point wins and a two-point victory to thank for its winning record. It's trailed at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter in all three wins.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have blown fourth-quarter leads in both of their defeats, watching a 10-point cushion disappear in a 34-31 overtime loss in Oakland on Sept. 23 before a bye week.
"There's no panic in here," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's still a marathon, but we need to get a win."
They'll have some help Sunday as they try to avoid falling to 1-3 for the first time since 2006 -- their last non-winning season. Polamalu, who's missed the last two games with a strained calf, and Harrison, who's yet to play due to a lingering left knee problem, are expected to return to a defense that's produced five sacks and allowed opponents to convert 48.5 percent of third downs -- both among the league's four worst.
Having two former Defensive Players of the Year back should help, but to safety Ryan Clark, their additions mean little if the defense can't produce.
"I think it's more pressure, honestly," Clark said. "No more excuses."
The Steelers have surrendered an average of 31.3 points in losing three straight on the road dating to their playoff loss in Denver, but being home should help. Pittsburgh has allowed just 9.3 points per game in winning nine of its last 10 at Heinz Field.
It'll see an Eagles offense that's fifth in the league in total yards (417.8 per game) but 30th in scoring (16.5). A staggering 12 turnovers were the biggest culprit in the unit's struggles through three weeks, but Philadelphia didn't give it away once in last Sunday night's 19-17 win over the Giants.
Still, it only survived after New York's Lawrence Tynes missed a 54-yard field goal in the waning seconds.
"I'd like to keep winning. I'd like to keep winning by more than one or two points. I'd like that, but I like winning," coach Andy Reid said Monday. "I honestly don't feel like we've come close to playing our best football yet."
Michael Vick was much better against the Giants after throwing six interceptions and fumbling five times in his opening three games. He also made a difference with his legs, scrambling six times for a season-high 49 yards.
"I just played smarter," said Vick, who's been knocked down 44 times -- 18 more than the next-most for a quarterback. "The thing is in this game you can't force opportunities against the defense, you have to let it come.
"I'll be honest, missing the preseason did affect me to a certain extent, but now I'm getting into my groove and seeing the field a little better. The guys around me are helping me and that's important."
Vick suffered a knee contusion late in last weekend's game but is expected to be at full strength Sunday.
There's also a chance left tackle King Dunlap (hamstring) could return, though perhaps not at his original position. He took some snaps at right guard in practice Wednesday with Danny Watkins out, a sign the Eagles are pleased with Demetress Bell's job filling in for Dunlap.
Philadelphia's defense allows 6.16 yards per pass attempt -- only San Francisco and Houston are better -- but the Steelers should provide a formidable threat. Roethlisberger is the NFL's second highest-rated passer (109.2) and has thrown eight touchdowns to one interception.
He's been sacked nine times, though that seems like nothing compared to the last time he faced the Eagles. Philadelphia brought him down eight times in that 15-6 win Sept. 21, 2008.
"He's a big guy. You can't tackle him low. You've got to tackle him high," said defensive end Trent Cole, who had one of those sacks. "That's going to be one of our keys to getting him down."
The Steelers are 16-19 in the regular season when Roethlisberger is sacked four times or more, and 65-17 when he goes down three times or less.
Being able to hand the ball to Mendenhall could be big for Roethlisberger. The Steelers are averaging a league-low 2.6 yards per carry without the former first-round pick, who has missed the first three games after tearing his ACL in January.
Roethlisberger is 13-1 in home games against NFC opponents.