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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Philadelphia Eagles Preview and Prediction

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Two NFL teams. Two 2-0 starts to the season. Two completely different sets of expectations.

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In one corner, you have the Pittsburgh Steelers, roaring out of the gate with an explosive offense. Only three other NFL teams scored more points (62) in the first two weeks; none of them did it against a pair of 2015 playoff teams (Redskins, Bengals). The newest version of the Steel Curtain appears the team best positioned to compete against the titans of the AFC, New England and Denver for a spot in the Super Bowl.

On the other side, you have the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that seemingly “gave up” on their season a few weeks ago when they traded starting quarterback Sam Bradford away to the injury-plagued Vikings. Who would have guessed both of those organizations would join the Giants as the only 2-0 teams in the NFC? Riding the high of rookie phenom quarterback Carson Wentz, new life has been breathed into a team that last year seemed to sag under the weight of failing expectations under former head coach Chip Kelly.

The Eagles’ two victories though are not quite as impressive – neither the Bears nor Browns should come anywhere close to playoff contention this season. The Steelers, then provide a barometer as to whether this feisty young team from Philadelphia is “for real” as these intra-state rivals clash in one of the weekend’s best matchups.

Pittsburgh at Philadelphia

Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 25, at 4:25 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Wentz, Wentz, and More Wentz
It’s not often Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets overshadowed by his opponent. But the Eagles rookie, whose jersey has been one of the hottest-selling merchandise in the NFL this year, has wowed observers with his rock solid play. Wentz’s QB Rating of 94.1 is tied for 14th in the NFL with Andrew Luck, not bad for a guy who played in just half a preseason game before injuring his ribs.

Wentz’s other stats, including three passing touchdowns through two games and a completion percentage of 60.6 are middling on paper. But it’s in controlling the ball and his team where this young gun stands out. He’s the first rookie in NFL history to win his first two starts without an interception or a turnover. Wentz has been sacked just four times; by comparison, Luck has been downed seven times and Aaron Rodgers six. It’s all added up to a ball-control offense capable that currently leads the league in time of possession at 37:43.

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Those are the NFL intangibles you can’t teach, ones that came packaged with this first-round pick from North Dakota State. Add in Bradford’s bravado performance to start his Vikings tenure and this is shaping up to a win-win trade for both teams.

2. Pittsburgh’s Power Offense
Wentz, though pales in comparison to a Steelers offense loaded with weapons. Despite the absence of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell (suspended the first three games), DeAngelo Williams has rolled over opposing defenses. His 237 rushing yards on 58 attempts were tops in the league through two games.  Williams also has 10 receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown, which is one of the reasons why Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t missed a beat without Bell.

Then there’s All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose enters with 12 catches and 165 yards and two touchdowns despite drawing the most attention of any pass catcher in the league. Alongside him little-known Eli Rogers has impressed, the undrafted free agent out of Louisville recording six catches versus the Redskins in the season opener. Rogers had spent the entire 2015 season on injured reserve (foot injury) but head coach Mike Tomlin had confidence in him that’s quickly paying off on the field. Jesse James, the replacement for retired tight end Heath Miller, also has been a pleasant surprise, with 60 yards and a touchdown.

The offense runs through Ben Roethlisberger, who leads the NFL with six touchdown passes. With Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady set to miss one more game because of suspension and Rodgers struggling, one could argue Big Ben, at 34 and in his 13th year, is the top veteran QB in the league right now.

3. Eagles Doing It With D?
Besides Wentz’ impressive debut, another reason for Philadelphia’s 2-0 start is the play of the defense. Somewhat quietly, this unit under the direction of new coordinator Jim Schwartz has produced four takeaways.

This continues a patter that was established during the preseason when the Eagles had 11 turnovers. While preseason numbers can be easily discounted, the early returns of some key players in Schwartz’ 4-3 scheme are promising. Linebacker Brandon Graham could be setting himself up for his first Pro Bowl appearance as he has already recorded two sacks and a forced fumble in the new system.

Philadelphia’s defense also has benefitted from the addition of a couple of new faces – linebacker Nigel Bradham and safety Rodney McLeod. The free-agent acquisitions have injected new energy into their respective position groups and each has already made an impact on the field as well with interceptions.

All of these new elements add up to a defense that is playing together, flocking to the football and making life miserable for opposing offenses. The Eagles are third in the league in total defense and second in scoring, but after shutting down the Browns and the Bears, the unit’s first real test comes Sunday against the Steelers.

Final Analysis

On paper, the Steelers should be in control from the start. But don’t discount the way the Eagles have opened this season. The positive attitude is palpable throughout the entire organization, as it’s clear new head coach Doug Pederson has been a welcome breath of fresh air along with Carson Wentz. The Eagles are playing like they have nothing to lose, their quarterback isn’t playing like a rookie and that tough defense will make this game far closer than people would have thought a month ago.

NFL Power Rankings: Steelers

Prediction: Steelers 24, Eagles 17

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Carson Wentz photo courtesy of www.phiadelphiaeagles.com)