Les Bowen: Birds prepare for Steelers' best defense

Posted: October 05, 2012

THE EAGLES played against a really disruptive, 3-4 defensive scheme in a loud road venue a couple weeks back. Maybe you remember that game, out in Arizona. Didn't go so well.

The Cardinals defense that shredded Michael Vick's pocket and his poise was run by defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who came to Arizona from Pittsburgh. Two weeks after getting smacked around by the student, the Eagles will take on the master, 73-year-old Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Can we expect the same level of flustered ineffectiveness we saw from the Birds' offense at Arizona, or did that experience teach some valuable lessons? And are the Steelers, 1-2 coming off their bye week, really the great defensive team they're known for being? Or with key players aging and fighting injuries, are they the football equivalent of the 2012 Phillies? Linebacker James Harrison is joining the lineup for the first time this season, after August knee surgery. Safety Troy Polamalu is back from a two-game calf injury absence. Pittsburgh ranks third against the pass, 14th against the run.

"They were 7-1 last year at home, they're 1-0 this year at home," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said Thursday. Mornhinweg noted that the Steelers' losses have come on the road. "Disruptive-type defenses typically are a little bit better at home, with the crowd noise and those sorts of things.

"They're getting two excellent defensive players back, two of the best in the game, ex-defensive MVPs. They're a tough, physical football team that is quite disruptive, so we've got a great opportunity along with a great challenge."

The opportunity is to prove the Eagles are not a team with a good defense and an offense that starts to leak turnovers if you put enough pressure on the offensive line and the quarterback.

"We're nowhere near where we need to be, to be a well-oiled machine, we're not there," Mornhinweg said. "We've got a lot of hard work to do."

Eagles tight end Brent Celek said he assumes the Birds will see the same blitzing emphasis they saw in Arizona, because they did such a poor job of dealing with it.

"We've been there before, in many different situations," Celek said. "We've just got to execute a little bit better . . . obviously we've had one [such test] this year and we weren't very successful at it. We've got another go at it here, and we've got to pick it up."

Celek said the Eagles will need another big game from LeSean McCoy, to keep the heat off Vick. McCoy, currently the NFL's third-leading rusher with 384 yards on 81 carries, got lost in the shuffle at Arizona as the Eagles fell behind by double-digits in the first half.

Asked if last week's experience against the Giants - 2 yards for McCoy in the first half, 121 in the second half - taught the coaching staff the value of sticking with the run, Celek said: "They know that. We have smart coaches. They're going to do things that are going to work.

"We've got to be able to run the ball against these guys, we've got to be able to pass. They open up each other."

Because Harrison hasn't played at all this season and Polamalu only played the opener, the Eagles said they have been watching film of the Steelers' defense from last season, more than the one that gave up 34 points in losing to the Raiders 2 weeks back.

"It's more film study, it's just more time-consuming to have to look at different things," tight end Clay Harbor said. "If you take the two best players off of any defense in the league, they probably wouldn't do some things well.

"We know what they're going to give us. It's pretty straightforward on film. They have a tough defense . . . Polamalu inserts himself everywhere. You don't know where he's going to go, so you have to keep an eye on him. Harrison is a load."

Celek also was wary of Polamalu's unpredictability.

"[Polamalu]'s a smart player. He's been in the league a long time. Sometimes he'll take off on plays and go somewhere you don't think he's going to go, and he'll make big-time plays," Celek said. "You've got to be ready for that."

The epicenter of the Eagles' problems in Arizona was center Dallas Reynolds, who was making his first start, in place of knee injury victim Jason Kelce.

"It's going to be different," Reynolds vowed Thursday. "The first one's out of the way. I've learned from the mistakes, I'm going to move on. I'm excited . . . we've been together now for 2 weeks practicing, we've had a lot of reps, we've had some crowd noise. It's just important that we all focus and we're on the same page."

Mornhinweg talked about all the nuanced communication issues that come up when you change centers. He said he was proud of Reynolds.

"He's a very bright guy," Mornhinweg said. "He's a natural football player. He's added strength and size, and he's handled this thing really well . . . He's just done really a high level of work to date. Now, we've got a lot of work to do as an offense."

Mornhinweg said that against the type of defense the Steelers play, "you've got to be right on . . . After [the Arizona] game, I think I said we were just a little bit off. We still are. We're still a little bit off. But if you're off just a touch against a defense like this at their place, you allow them to be disruptive. You've got to be right on."

Last Sunday's turnoverless game against the Giants was a big step for the Eagles' offense. Winning in Pittsburgh would be a much bigger step.

Left guard Evan Mathis revealed the Birds' secret plan to get to 4-1, for the first time since 2006:

"We're going to try and score more points than them."

Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LesBowen. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.By Les Bowen

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