- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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After watching a lot of film on both the Steelers and Eagles, talking to coaches and scouts, and following preseason practices, here are some key things to watch in their game on Friday (ESPN 8 p.m. ET).
• The loss in free agency of free safety Chris Hope is more significant than a lot of people realize. Hope has excellent range and covers a lot of ground in the deep middle of the field, allowing SS Troy Polamalu to play close to the line of scrimmage, blitz and attack. Polamalu might not be able to freelance as much this year with Hope gone, although the Steelers like Hope's replacement, Ryan Clark.
• Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is maybe the best in the NFL at incorporating gadget plays into the offense. Even though Antwaan Randle El is gone, look for a lot of reverses and halfback passes to keep defenses off balance.
• Pittsburgh does a great job of managing the salary cap and keeping its own players. Although the Steelers lost DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Randle El and Hope in free agency, they kept their other 11 unrestricted free agents and also signed an important restricted free agent in Ike Taylor.
• Continuity is a big key to Pittsburgh's success. Bill Cowher's coaching staff has stayed intact three years in a row, even though some of his assistants had other offers. This is reflected in how the team plays -- especially on the road. The Steelers were 9-2 last year away from Heinz Field and 16-3 the last two seasons. It is obvious the players and coaches are on the same page.
• With RB Jerome Bettis now retired, the Steelers really need someone to emerge as the short yardage back. There is a good battle going between Duce Staley and Verron Haynes for the job, but neither will match the production of Bettis, who scored an amazing 27 touchdowns the last seasons as a part-time player. Starter Willie Parker wants to stay in the game in short-yardage situations, but he is not a big back and the coaches don't want him to wear down. The likely guy to emerge is Staley.
• There is a good battle going on at free safety to replace Hope. Although he was acquired in free agency to be the starter, Clark is getting stiff competition from Tyrone Carter. Carter is a good run defender and loves to attack the line of scrimmage, but the Steelers already have an attack safety in Polamalu. Clark might win the job because he plays a little more under control and will stay back in coverage, protecting the gambling Polamalu. However, the guy to watch might be rookie second-round draft pick Anthony Smith, who was a playmaker in college and had two interceptions in Pittsburgh's first preseason game. Because of the complexity of this defense, he probably won't start as a rookie, but he will play in some of the sub-packages and is a player to watch.
• Coming off a Super Bowl Championship, Pittsburgh returns 19 of 22 starters, along with its punter and placekicker.
• The Steelers are playing some quarter coverages to take advantage of Polamalu. This scheme features cornerbacks and three safeties in the secondary -- but Polamalu actually plays more like a linebacker, closer to the line of scrimmage. This allows him to be in better position to play run defense and blitz.
• The Steelers might use Hines Ward as their slot receiver in their nickel package. The hope is that rookie Santonio Holmes can be their deep threat on the perimeter and Ward can utilize his great blocking skills and toughness in the middle of the field.
• The Steelers might have the best special teams unit in the NFL, especially on cover teams. Cowher is a former special teams coach and spends a lot of time on the kicking game. Also, the front office does a good job in the draft of selecting players in the mid-to-late rounds who can contribute on cover teams.
• Pittsburgh's defensive line might be one of the most underrated units in the NFL. NT Casey Hampton and DEs Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith are physical against the run and do a great job of occupying blockers, allowing OLBs Joey Porter and Clark Haggans to provide the pass rush pressure. Porter and Haggans responded with 19.5 sacks a year ago. ILBs James Farrior and Larry Foote are as physical as it gets inside, but it all starts upfront.
• Fullback Dan Kreider is a huge part of the Steelers' powerful run game. He is an excellent lead blocker and does a great job of adjusting on the move and finding his target on the second level. He is so efficient and dependable the Steelers don't carry another FB on their roster.
• You have to admire Pittsburgh for staying true to its offensive philosophy. The Steelers led the NFL in rushing attempts last year (549), and threw the least amount of passes in the league (379). Because of this philosophy, they have the luxury of asking QB Ben Roethlisberger to manage the game and not take a lot of chances. He has responded with a solid QB rating of 96.9 and is 27-4 as a starter. The coaches do a great job of preparing him, giving him a lot of simple and safe throws.
• Roethlisberger has been pleading to offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to incorporate a no-huddle offense into the Steelers' run heavy offense. On Saturday against Minnesota, he got his wish. It might work well for Pittsburgh because it prevents defenses from changing their personnel, giving Roethlisberger good matchups in the passing game and really giving the offense an uptempo feel. Now he has to convince Cowher to use the no-huddle in the regular season.
• A rookie to keep an eye on in fifth-round draft pick is Orien Harris, a promising DE. He was a one-gap player in college and is adjusting to the more physical style of plays required in the Steelers' two-gap 34 style. He is very active and could push for quality play time.
• Philadelphia's usually aggressive defense had to play more conservatively last season because of key injuries and a lack of depth. This is a unit that loves to play aggressive man-to-man coverages and will blitz from anywhere on the field, but a year ago it was forced to play a lot of three-deep zones and blitz far less. Look for defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to unleash his defense this season, although with a very good and deep defensive line, the Eagles might not have to blitz as much to get to the QB.
• How about the Eagles' December schedule? They have three consecutive road games in their division -- at Washington (December 10), at the New York Giants (December 17) and at Dallas (December 25) -- before closing out at home versus Atlanta. They will obviously control their own destiny at the end of the season.
• A key training camp battle to watch is at offensive center between Hank Fraley and Jamaal Jackson. Fraley has been a long-time starter, but when he went down last year with an injury, Jackson did a nice job as his replacement. Fraley has excellent experience (71 NFL starts), but Jackson is more physically gifted and almost three years younger. If Jackson wins this job (which is likely), the Eagles could release Fraley out of respect to let him find a starting job for another NFL team, but they might also play him a little bit at OG.
• Undrafted rookie WR Hank Baskett is having a great camp and looks like the real deal. He has been very consistent, catching everything in sight. He will make the final roster and could compete for serious playing time and Donovan McNabb seems to be trusting him and looking his way more often.
• The Eagles will play RB Brian Westbrook in almost every position imaginable. He will line up as a conventional back, move up into an off-set position, flex wide, go in motion and will line up as a WR. The coaches love him in one-back sets and spread formations, because defenses have to adjust their personnel as if he was a pure WR, giving Westbrook a chance to produce on the ground and in the passing game.
• The Eagles are tinkering with more two-TE sets than they have shown in the past. L.J. Shelton had 61 receptions a year ago and free-agent acquisition Matt Schobel is a solid short-to-intermediate receiver. Having two tight ends who can catch the ball on the field at the same time not only takes pressure off a suspect receiving corps, but also gives McNabb two targets for high-percentage throws.
• Speaking of McNabb, he usually spends his offseason in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has an excellent workout facility, but this past offseason he stayed in Philadelphia and the coaches feel like it really re-established team chemistry in the post- Terrell Owens era, and this will be a happier locker room in 2006.
• It is clear the Eagles underachieved on defense in 2005. The secondary is not great in man-to-man coverage and the Eagles were 24th in the NFL a year ago in average yards given up per pass. However, a big part of the problem is the lack of a pass rush upfront, as the Eagles only generated 29 sacks, putting them 27th in the NFL. That is why they upgraded their DL with veteran free agent DE Darren Howard and rookie first-round pick DT Brodrick Bunkley.
• Although they added quality depth and an excellent pass rusher in Howard, the Eagles did not have a blockbuster offseason in terms of free agency. They lost coveted C LeCharles Bentley to Cleveland and were unable to make a trade for WR Javon Walker, who wound up in Denver. McNabb campaigned for Walker, but the front office obviously thought the asking price was too high. Both of these players would have upgraded this offense.
• A big concern for the Eagles' offense is protecting McNabb. Because they have no WRs who require double coverage, opposing defenses can load up at the line of scrimmage and blitz freely, rather than worrying about coverage schemes. We are not likely to see a lot of max protection schemes from Andy Reid.
• In their Super Bowl year of 2004, the Eagles were 6-0 in their division. A year ago they were 0-6. The other three teams in the NFC East will improve, but the Eagles cannot afford to lose a lot of divisional games.
• The coaches are working on making the nickel offensive package less predictable. The Eagles were 29th in the NFL last year in third-down conversions (72 of 220 chances), and defenses knew they were not going to run the ball. They must also improve their red zone defense, as they were 26th in the league. (They gave up 29 TDs in 52 opportunities). The Eagles must also get better pressure on the QB and maybe gamble less in the secondary. They were near the bottom of the NFL in passing plays given up of 20 yards or more, and only one team in the NFL had more pass interference penalties.
• The heart and soul of the Philadelphia defense is MLB Jeremiah Trotter. He is fun to watch on film because he is such a great run stopper, and maybe the best step-up and fill MLB in the league. However, he is so aggressive he will overpursue at times and take some chances. Johnson might substitute for him in their nickel package, which should keep him fresher as a two-down player.
• The two biggest question marks by the start of the regular season will be the depth at RB behind Westbrook (who has missed some time in the preseason) and the lack of quality WRs behind Reggie Brown. Westbrook needs to stay healthy for 16 games, which is asking a lot, and the best that Reid probably can hope for at WR is production by committee, which is what they had before Owens.
• A good sign for the Eagles' offense in their preseason win over Baltimore last Thursday was the pass protection for McNabb. The Ravens are very aggressive with their blitz package and the Eagles handled it well. They used a no-huddle offense, forcing Baltimore to keep its base personnel package on the field without the ability to substitute. It worked well and the first-team offense looked good.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called "The War Room."
After watching a lot of film on both the Steelers and Eagles, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Friday night's game.