Eagles at Steelers: 3 Matchups to Watch in Cross-State Clash
Coming off an improbable win in prime-time against the San Francisco 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1) prepare to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field. While the injury-riddled Eagles are searching for their second win in as many weeks, they must overcome a savvy, veteran-laden Steelers team entering the contest fresh on the heels of last week's postponement.
The embattled Eagles' offense will need to find their footing in the early goings, as points tend to come at a premium against this vaunted Steelers' defense. If the Philadelphia pass rush, which proved to be a key to victory last week, can continue its momentum, Sunday's cross-state clash could feasibly turn into a low-scoring affair.
Without further ado, let's examine my three matchups to watch.
LT Jordan Mailata vs. ROLB Bud Dupree
Although Mailata passed the eye test in his first NFL start, the ex-rugby standout will face a much more daunting assignment on Sunday in the Steelers' Bud Dupree.
While Pittsburgh boasts two prominent edge rushers in Dupree and T.J. Watt, it has typically been Dupree that has warranted the double teams. The 27-year-old explodes off the line of scrimmage as if he were shot out of a cannon, demonstrating violent hands, a deep array of pass rush moves, and a profound understanding of how to utilize leverage to his advantage. When tackles strike Dupree, the Kentucky product often does a tremendous job keeping his balance and turning the corner.
The Mailata-Dupree battle could prove to be the perfect storm. The vast assortment of elaborate looks expected from defensive coordinator Keith Butler coupled with the inexperienced left side of the Eagles' offensive line could result in a long afternoon for quarterback Carson Wentz.
However, the 6-foot-8, 346-pound Mailata possesses rare athletic traits that suggest he could overcome some inevitable miscues. Mailata, who played his first snaps of American football during the 2018 preseason, could take another critical step towards seizing the left tackle role for the foreseeable future.
WR Travis Fulgham vs. CB Steven Nelson
While production from Eagles' wide receivers has been virtually non-existent through four games, primarily due to a flawed foundation, the Eagles have discovered a silver lining in the form of Travis Fulgham.
The 24-year-old pass-catcher, who was waived twice in nine days in August, is the latest example of fascinating storylines to emerge from the 2020 NFL season.
When the Eagles were awarded the Old Dominion product off waivers from the Green Bay Packers, the expectations were assuredly tempered. However, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver impressed enough in his brief stay to land on the team's practice squad following roster cut-downs. As injuries decimated the wide receiver room, Fulgham earned a practice squad elevation ahead of the Eagles' prime-time matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
Playing 37 snaps in his Eagles' debut, Fulgham reeled in two receptions for 57 yards -- including an acrobatic game-winning 42-yard touchdown that catalyzed the improbable road win.
The highly scrutinized tandem of DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery has again been ruled out. At the same time, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside remains an enigma, so it's reasonable to anticipate a higher snap share for Fulgham this week.
Given the team's lack of length at wide receiver, Fulgham figures to yield targets in contested-catch situations and red zone opportunities. He will likely spend much of his afternoon locked up with the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Steven Nelson -- a relatively sound defender -- but one who has struggled against big-bodied receivers.
To combat a suffocating Steelers' run defense, I expect Carson Wentz to try to establish a passing attack by maintaining his budding rapport with Fulgham.
LB Nathan Gerry vs. TE Eric Ebron
Among the league's most egregious defenders in coverage through the first four weeks, Gerry faces another stiff challenge this week. While the Steelers frequently deploy two tight ends -- Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron -- the latter has a chance to be an X-factor for Pittsburgh.
Ebron, a former first-round pick in 2014, was hindered by injuries and inconsistent play with the Colts and signed with the Steelers in free agency. The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end offers the speed to stretch the seam and explosiveness after the catch.
Although Ebron has failed to live up to his first-round billing, the multi-faceted pass-catcher is off to a decent start in the Steel City. In three games, Ebron has caught nine passes for 113 yards -- six for first-downs -- and a touchdown on 14 targets. The former North Carolina standout has played 150 offensive snaps, accounting for roughly 72 percent of the total.
When Ebron isn't busy putting opposing linebackers in a blender, Vance McDonald can pick up the slack. McDonald's game is similar to Tyler Higbee's -- who caught three touchdowns against the Eagles. His effectiveness in the screen game and tenacity after the catch adds another layer to a diverse offense.
In McDonald's three games, he's played 115 offensive snaps, accounting for 55 percent of the total. He logged five receptions for 41 yards.
Expect Steelers' offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to find ways to isolate his playmaking tight ends of Gerry -- who lacks eye discipline, often closes late on the football, and takes shoddy tackling angles at ball-carriers.