The Pittsburgh Steelers will face the top team in the NFL on Sunday, as they will cross Pennsylvania to take on the 6-0 Philadelphia Eagles, the last remaining unbeaten NFL team this season.
The Steelers don’t typically play the Eagles all that often, but this will actually be the third time in three seasons that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have faced each other on the gridiron.
In 2020, Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool lit up a Carson Wentz-led Eagles squad that was a disaster. The Eagles fired Doug Pederson and hired Nick Sirianni. Wentz, the hero of the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl season, if not the game, was traded for a pair of draft picks.
The Eagles started to rebuild their offense around Jalen Hurts at quarterback. The Steelers saw that team, but not much of Hurts, in the 2021 preseason. Dwayne Haskins led the Steelers to a second-half comeback win.
As a full-time starter for the first time, Hurts and the Eagles got out to a slow start that season. Through seven games, he had an 89.5 passer rating and the Eagles were 2-5.
“Nick Sirianni-Jalen Hurts is a like a bad science experiment,” read the headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 30, as columnist Mike Sielski called for the benching of Hurts for backup Gardner Minshew. “The Eagles are 2-5 and going nowhere,” wrote Sielski.
The Eagles won seven of their next nine games and made the playoffs. Other than a meaningless Week 18 game, the Eagles have won 13 of 15 since they were written off after a 2-5 start to the 2021 season. Seems like the science experiment was at least decent.
Furthermore, while the Eagles have added to their roster over that time, it hasn’t been overly drastic. They traded for wide receiver A.J. Brown, signed cornerback James Bradberry and outside linebacker Haason Reddick and drafted defensive tackle Jordan Davis in the first round — to use him as a rotational player.
On the whole, this is not a dramatically revamped Philadelphia team. Of the Eagles that have started 6-0 this season, 10 of the 11 offensive starters and eight of the 11 defensive starters were on the team that started 2-5 a year ago. They just stuck with it and got better.
That makes an interesting juxtaposition to the Eagles opponents this week, which have also started the season with a 2-5 record with a first-time NFL starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett.
The spark for the 2021 Eagles was not merely mid-season improvement from Sirianni and Hurts. The team’s schedule also lightened significantly in the second half of the year. The Eagles finished 9-8 and in the playoffs despite going 0-6 against other teams that made the postseason.
After facing the Eagles this week, the Steelers face one team (the Baltimore Ravens) that is currently in a playoff position. They will face just two (the 4-3 Ravens and 4-3 Cincinnati Bengals) that have a winning record. In aggregate, the Steelers’ opponents after the bye week are 26-35-1.
The Steelers are probably not going to finish 7-3 and make the playoffs. They’re probably going to fall to 2-6, with the Eagles two-score favorites this Sunday.
But it’s a telling illustration of how quickly fortunes can turn in the NFL, especially with regards to a young quarterback. Hurts started four games in 2020 with a 77.6 passer rating. He played in 15 games in 2021 with an 87.2 passer rating. This season, he’s at 98.4. He’s the same guy, with largely the same crew around him, yet the Eagles have gotten much better over time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers do not have the salary cap space or the draft capital to make dramatic changes to the team’s personnel over the next year. But they do have the capability to do what the Eagles have done: sign a few key free agents, make a trade or two, and get significant improvements out of their existing roster while adding to it only incrementally.
And of course, the Steelers should be very well versed in the plan, because one of the architects of it, former Eagles vice president Andy Weidl, is now the assistant general manger in Pittsburgh.