With the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers scheduled to face off on Thursday night, I reached out to our friends over at Behind the Steel Curtain. The great Neal Coolong kindly took the time to answer my questions.
Let's take a look at the answers.
1) Both the Eagles and the Steelers struggled in the first half of 2013 but finished the season strong. The Eagles (7-1) had the best second-half record and the Steelers (6-2) had the second-best record. To what extent can this second-half season success for NFL teams carry over into the next season?
Hey, that's right! How 'bout that? On one hand it's hard to get super excited about a 6-2 finish for a team that didn't make the playoffs because it means they went 2-6 to start the year. Injuries and inexperience caused a lot of that, and by the time they righted the ship, they were a game too late (or a Ryan Succop field goal went a yard wide, whichever you prefer).
The 2014 Steelers are vastly different than that team. It's much more athletic on the defensive side of the ball (see, Shazier, Ryan vs. Williams, Vince and Mitchell, Mike vs. Clark, Ryan), and the key to that second-half turnaround, their offense, is only better now. They lost role players, not key contributors. Emmanuel Sanders' 67 catches can be absorbed by the combination of Markus Wheaton's impressive development as well as a healthy Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell. Jerricho Cotchery's 10 touchdowns were so far ahead of his career averages, it's hard not to think it was system driven.
Of course, this all falls apart with one injury on the offensive line - the unit that will prove to be the team's most improved this season, and also the shallowest (outside quarterback) in terms of depth. That offensive line only had bit injuries down the stretch, and got solid performances from Cody Wallace (replaced Fernando Velasco) and Mike Adams (replaced Kelvin Beachum at left tackle for a game). With the continuity the team had, they were able to run their no huddle more often, which plays to Ben Roethlisberger's strengths, and they were able to score at a higher level than they had in the previous two years under offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The Steelers are definitely on the rise, but like most other teams in the NFL, the wrong injury to the wrong player could change all that. This is the reason you'll likely see the Steelers' starters get off the bus in Philadelphia covered in bubble wrap.
2) Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds was reportedly a "primary target" for the Eagles in free agency this offseason but he was obviously designated with the transition tag before he had the chance to hit the market. It appears the Steelers and Worilds have been unable to work out a long-term deal so it seems possible Worilds could be a free agent in 2015. How do you feel about Worilds and how do you see this situation playing out?
You may not know this, but there are two Jason Worilds. I'm not sure if it's a twin, or what the deal is, but the Jason Worilds I'm assuming the Eagles wanted to sign flat-out whipped multiple teams down the stretch of last season. He ended up with seven sacks over the team's final nine games, and was a force against the run. That Worilds replaced the one we'd seen since he was a second-round pick in 2010. Other Worilds was often injured and fairly mediocre when he had the opportunity to play (incidentally, for the scores of Steelers outside linebackers who couldn't stay healthy).
To be fair, Good Worilds was highly productive, and one of the best edge defenders in the game over the Steelers' successful second half of 2013. Good Worilds also faced some pretty light competition, having beat an undrafted rookie in Detroit, the very definition of mediocre in Michael Oher and something called Mitchell Schwartz in Cleveland.
It makes sense to pick up a player when he's reaching his ceiling, and perhaps that's what Philadelphia was doing (plus, he's solid in coverage, an underrated component of his game). The reason he got the transition tag is because no one is sure which Worilds will be signing the contract. Do you pay him for his seven sacks in nine games last year, or do you pay him for his 11 sacks in the previous 49 games? Both sides were kind of stuck because neither could truly provide an accurate valuation on what kind of player he is. The risk of him not signing now is he blows up, goes off for 15 sacks and is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. On the other hand, paying top five level money for a guy who burns a trinagular path between the field, the stationary bike and the ice tub is a pretty big risk too.
I think they made the smart decision, and they'll just have to hope they'll be in a position to pay him top dollar this offseason because he just became an elite level defender in 2014.
3) Are the Steelers the team to beat in the AFC North?
I think they are. I'm sure there are plenty who will make the argument against Pittsburgh and for Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Well, maybe not Cleveland, but the other two for sure. I think it'll be a competitive division, but the key in my mind is the fact the Steelers have continuity among their coaching staff. Or maybe more to the point, neither Cincinnati nor Baltimore have the same level of continuity. Cincinnati lost two coordinators (I'm beyond excited to have Mike Zimmer out of the AFC North), and Baltimore lost one. In yearly fashion, Cleveland changed out their entire coaching staff like a 5-for-5 replacement on the basketball court. The Steelers have taken a bit to adjust to Haley and what he's trying to accomplish, but you saw the Steelers' offense at the best level it's been at in a while at the end of last year. Losing Sanders and Cotchery won't affect that much.
Their defense is really going to be the key here. Dick LeBeau is usually a bigger-picture, even-keel kind of guy, but there's a certain twinkle in his eye when he talks about rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier - and rightly so. He's probably the best athlete this team has selected since Troy Polamalu. Adding that level of explosion to a defense that's sorely lacked in the last two years will only help.
Plus, a stable presence at inside linebacker will put Polamalu back to roaming the middle of the field. He had to play linebacker last season due to the lack of depth on the team when Larry Foote went down in Week 1 (when Larry Foote's injury causes a defensive crisis, you aren't a deep team). Playing in a more pure coverage role, he's going to be much more dangerous in the passing game.
I think the Ravens are still going through something of a transition, just like the Steelers are, and the Bengals will have to face better teams in 2014 than they did last year. The Steelers have a favorable schedule and probably the best offense in the division. A young defense will let them down a time or two, but I think this is a team that could be playing for 10 wins entering Week 17, and a division title, a tiebreaker ahead of Baltimore.
4) Who's the Steelers player we don't know right now but we'll be talking about Friday morning?
If you don't know Landry Jones, I think you'll talk about him a little bit. Probably more in the same way you talk about the friend of a friend who has a really bad situation on their hands. "Yeah...did you see that Landry Jones guy for the Steelers? Wow...I'm glad he's not on our team."
He's...interesting. Makes...unique decisions. Stay tuned.
I've answered Dan McCullers to this question in the past and while the Tennessee Shade Tree will certainly be the guy you notice (6-foot-7, 352-pound guys on the defensive line tend to stand out), watch for outside linebacker Vic So'oto, because I think he's the kind of player the Eagles would be interested in picking up, should the Steelers release him. He's an explosive athlete who really made his mark on special teams in his one season with Green Bay. Injuries have cost him opportunities in the past, but he's forced two turnovers in the Steelers' two preseason games, and he's a beast on 'teams.
He's much better and more advanced than Adrian Robinson, I promise.
[Ed. note: Remember Adrian Robinson?]
5) Let's say you had to draw a line on a map over the state of Pennsylvania that divides the state into two sections: Steelers fans on the west, Eagles fans on the east. Where exactly is that dividing line drawn?
You're gonna make me answer that...you just hate me, don't you?
As someone who's lived in both places, and recognizing the fact there's no way you're going to take my opinion as anything other than biased, I'll just say this. There are huge throngs of Steelers fans in the Philadelphia area. I really don't see any more Eagles fans in Pittsburgh than I see fans of any other team. I don't think there are borders on Steeler Nation.
For what it's worth, I also hate the Dallas Cowboys, laugh at the Washington Redskins and don't think the Giants will be competitive this year at all.
Bonus: Score prediction? It's only preseason but hey, why not.
23-20...probably in favor of the Eagles. Great team out there this year, I've got them upsetting Seattle and taking on Denver in the Super Bowl.
[Ed. Note: Good man, that Neal.]