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Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Oct 3, 2012, 12:54 PM EDT

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Each week during the 2012 season we’re hitting up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles’ opponent that particular Sunday. Today we have Alan Robinson, Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kulp: Pittsburgh is 1-2 heading into the intrastate matchup, and you wrote their campaign could very well hinge on this game. The team seems to be getting healthy right on cue, with Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all potentially available this week. Assuming they all play, are the Steelers’ problems suddenly solved?

Alan Robinson: Not necessarily. The Steelers’ problems are across the board, ranging from an inability to run the ball, get to the quarterback or stop teams in the fourth quarter, where they’ve been outscored 30-13. Harrison and Polamalu are potential game-changers, of course, but Harrison is 34, Polamalu is closing in on 32 and injuries are becoming an issue. Harrison hasn’t even practiced on consecutive days since last season. What the Steelers need Harrison to do is bring some pressure some how. They have only five sacks in three games and their 3-4 defensive line is not playing well. But the question is how effective Harrison can be on a knee that has blown up constantly whenever he’s tried to push it, and without a full week of practice in nine months. What the Steelers have to hope is this isn;t the mobile Michael Vick they saw in either 2002, when he rallied the Falcons from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter (the only time that happened against a Bill Cowher team) or in 2006, when he threw four touchdown passes against them.

The Steelers have evolved with the NFL and have featured a pass-first offense for awhile, but their ground attack has been non-existent so far this season. They’re 31st in yards per game (65.0), dead last in yards per attempt (2.6) — as you wrote last week, their worst start in 62 years. Mendenhall appears set to return from a torn ACL, but is that really going to be a cure-all?

He’s twice rushed for 1,000 yards, and he might have had another 1,000-yard season if he hadn’t gotten hurt against the Browns in the final regular season game last season. Unlike Harrison, Mendenhall has been practicing regularly since the season started, and the main thing is he’s better than what they’ve got. Mike Tomlin was so desperate to find a hot running back that four different backs got carries against the Raiders. Yet the Steelers still haven’t had a back gain more than 43 yards in a game this season. If Mendenhall can’t do it, their only option might be to bring Jerome Bettis or Franco Harris out of retirement. One factor: This is a contract year for Mendenhall, and he’s playing for a deal next year. That’s often the recipe for a big season.

James Harrison has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season over the last five years, but has yet to play this season after August knee surgery. Through four weeks, only six teams have notched fewer sacks per game than the Steelers (1.67). As of today, Harrison wasn’t listed on the injury report, but you wrote he’ll need to get through a full week of practice without swelling. Do you think he will be ready to go, or perhaps only available on a so-called pitch count?

They need him as many snaps as they can get him, and now. They can’t afford to lose this game, drop to 1-3 and potentially fall well behind two teams with 4-1 records (the 3-1 Ravens and Bengals both play 1-3 teams this week). It’s a very big game for the Steelers so early in the season, and that could be one reason why they can’t wait any longer to see what Harrison can do. The key will be if he gets through practice both Wednesday and Thursday; he hasn’t gone back-to-back yet this year. He didn’t even dress for practice when the knee acted up last Wednesday, before they broke for the bye week, but Tomlin said Harrison had some “intense workouts” over the weekend. If that’s intense by James Harrison’s definition of intense, that could be a good sign for the Steelers.

Despite their inability to generate a consistent pass rush without Harrison, and even with Polamalu missing two of three games, Pittsburgh is still ranked third in passing yards allowed (190.3 per game). What is their secret?

Mark Sanchez did nothing against them (10-of-27, 138). That skews the numbers; Peyton Manning was 19 of 26 for 253, 2 TDs and couldn’t be stopped in the second half in his first game in 20 months; Carson Palmer was  24 of 34 for 209 and 3 TDs and couldn’t be stopped in the second half. (Even if Denver stopped him the whole game, limiting the Raiders to 6 points). If LeSean McCoy opens things up for Vick by getting yards early on, Vick is very capable of doing to the Steelers defense what Manning and Palmer did. The difference is those games were on the road, no QB has lit up the Steelers at Heinz Field since Tom Brady in 2010.

The biggest difference between this year and last for the Steelers seems to be new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In what ways has the offense changed under his direction?

Roethlisberger is motioning a lot more at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense than he did under Bruce Arians, and he’s also getting rid of the ball faster than before, when he was constantly looking to get the ball down field to Mike Wallace or to improvise. The receivers are running more underneath routes and are getting targeted more by a quarterback who generally prefers to throw the home-run ball but is strongly being encouraged to be more reluctant to take sacks. Haley wanted to run the ball more effectively at times when the Steelers needed to wind the clock, but the running game’s awful start has prevented that. So far, the offense looks much like it did when the Steelers successfully took the ball out of Brady’s hands last season at Heinz Field by having Roethlisberger control the clock, throw a lot of safe passes and win the time of possession battle. The Steelers have done that in every game, but it hasn’t mattered because — unlike that Patriots game last season that the Steelers won 25-17 — they can’t keep their opponents out of the end zone when it matters. The Broncos (3 times) and Raiders (5 times) combined to score on each of their eight meaningful second-half possessions.

For the latest news on the Steelers, check out the Tribune-Review sports page.