by Scott Kacsmar
One of Week 3's marquee matchups is the Battle of Pennsylvania as the Steelers (2-0) head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles (2-0). Both teams rank in the top four in DVOA, and are the highest ranked among the eight 2-0 teams. The Eagles are actually ranked first, which is where they finished in the 2008 season.
Member the Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid offense? Member when Correll Buckhalter looked good? Member Chris Kemoeatu and the terrible offensive line the Steelers had in 2008? Member the second quarter when Bruce Arians could have been arrested for attempted murder of Ben Roethlisberger? Member the Brian Dawkins Superman leap? Member?
In case you do not remember this game, I am going to briefly revisit it today in anticipation for Sunday's showdown. To be clear, I am writing this from the perspective of having experienced this game as a Pittsburgh fan during my final semester of college at the University of Pittsburgh.
Preamble to the Slaughter
The Eagles and Steelers actually met in the first preseason game in 2008 as well, which was my first ever trip to Heinz Field. I think Roethlisberger only threw two passes on a touchdown drive to open the game before the starters bailed. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch was lost for the season after taking a seemingly not so bad hit, which was about the only downer on the night in the eyes of this Pittsburgh fan.
By the time the teams met in Week 3, both were established as contenders. This was a marquee, late-afternoon game on CBS, and listening to some of it on DVD today, 2008 Phil Simms was actually not as loopy as we have grown to expect him to be. He compared this to a game from the 1980s with the tough, physical defense played by both teams with coordinators Dick LeBeau and Jim Johnson stealing the show. Pittsburgh's 2008 defensive personnel are well known, but the Eagles had talent playing near its peak too, including Trent Cole, Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins.
But the game had a very offensive beginning with three long drives. The first three possessions consumed over 20 minutes of game time alone, and way more in real time after a Tony Hunt injury and fumble led to a long review and delay in the game's opening drive. Pittsburgh actually started with a good rhythm in the passing game, but settled for a field goal after a bobbled snap on third down led to a Roethlisberger incompletion. Roethlisberger was pressured three times on the drive, but that was nothing out of the ordinary.
Second Quarter: The Human Piñata
The Eagles led 7-3 with 9:16 left in the second quarter. At this point, the game all but turned into a dark comedy, as Roethlisberger was sacked on five of his next six plays. He was sacked six times in the quarter (collected below) in a span of nine passes. Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator at this time, and this sequence is one of the eyesores on his resume.
Even 1980's Randall Cunningham thinks this was poor pass protection. Incredibly, the Steelers only trailed 10-6 at halftime after getting a 53-yard field goal from Jeff Reed to close the half.
The Second Half
In the second half, some adjustments were made for quicker passes and keeping tight end Heath Miller in to block, but the Eagles still won practically every third-down situation. On the first drive of the half, Roethlisberger escaped the pressure, but actually threw a pass while over the line of scrimmage, a penalty and a loss of down. The blocking was also overwhelmed in the running game, as Roethlisberger handed off 15 times for 27 yards on the day. Pittsburgh went three-and-out after Roethlisberger evaded an unblocked rusher, only to officially gain 1 yard on a scramble instead of another sack. Virtually the same thing happened on the next drive on a third-and-6.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, a third-and-7, right tackle Willie Colon was beaten by Darren Howard, held him, and still gave up the sack while getting penalized. The next drive was the third time in the half that Roethlisberger had to scramble for a minimal gain on third down just to avoid the sack, and bring out the punting team.
With 9:35 left, Pittsburgh was still only down 10-6, but 94 yards away from the end zone. Two bad runs brought up a third-and-11, and this close to their own goal line, you kind of expected the worst for the Steelers. While blitzes were the problem earlier, Pittsburgh had seven blockers against four rushers on this play. Incredibly, it still looked like a jailbreak, and Roethlisberger tried to throw the ball away from the end zone. He was penalized for intentional grounding, which results in a safety, for not getting the ball back to the line of scrimmage and with no intended receiver in the area.
The call was actually incorrect given the ball was deflected, but the safety was still the right outcome. The officials missed another sack as Roethlisberger released the ball with his knee down in the end zone. Oh well.
2008 PIT-PHI: refs miss a pretty obvious sack, but call grounding. So Eagles got the safety they deserved, but still...10th sack. pic.twitter.com/asHZbflqjw
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 23, 2016
Now trailing 12-6, there was still one last shot for the Pittsburgh offense to salvage a horrible performance. But after nearly getting two more sacks, the Eagles fittingly put the game away with a third-and-15 stop. Future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins made a fantastic play, diving at Roethlisberger to strip the ball and recover for the Eagles with 3:29 left.
Roethlisberger actually injured his hand on the play and left the game. The Eagles added a field goal for a 15-6 final, and then sacked new backup Byron Leftwich on third-and-1 in the red zone to put the cherry on top of a dominant 9-sack performance.
For the game, Roethlisberger was pressured on 19-of-37 plays (51.4 percent), sacked eight times, lost two fumbles, and completed 13-of-25 passes for 131 yards and an interception. Had it not been for a few escapes by Roethlisberger (and the missed safety sack), the Eagles would have set an NFL record with 13 or 14 sacks.
Following the loss, the prevailing thought was that Pittsburgh's offensive line was never going to hold up for this team to win a championship. The defense was great, but what happens if Roethlisberger continues getting injured? He sprained his AC joint in Week 1 that year, which is the injury that just kept Jimmy Garoppolo out of New England's game last night. Roethlisberger ended up leaving two more games with injury in 2008, including a concussion in Week 17, but somehow still started every game that year. Pittsburgh finished 12-4 as the No. 2 seed, but reached the Super Bowl after winning the AFC Championship Game at home over Baltimore.
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Meanwhile, the Eagles stumbled a bit in close losses, including a 13-13 tie in Cincinnati in which McNabb did not know it was possible to have a tie game in the NFL. After a 5-5-1 start, the Eagles finished strong, waxing the Cardinals on Thanksgiving, beating the 11-1 Giants in Week 14, and destroying Dallas 44-6 in Week 17. For a 9-6-1 team, the Eagles were strong and balanced. After winning on the road in the playoffs in Minnesota and New York, only the Cardinals stood in Philadelphia's way. We were this close to an all-Pennsylvania matchup in the Super Bowl, but the Eagles were unable to hang on in Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
While the Eagles made the playoffs again in 2009, this was really the last great run for the McNabb-Reid era. In fact, the Eagles have not won a playoff game since the 2008 season. Fans can only speculate how a rematch would have gone in Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers and Eagles. As a Pittsburgh fan, I will just say I am glad it was Arizona and a weaker defense instead of the potential slaughtering defensive coordinator Jim Johnson could have cooked up again. The 2008 Steelers have arguably the worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl, but I tend to believe we would never be able to say that if Philadelphia was in that game.
As for this Sunday's matchup, the Steelers are a Super Bowl contender just like eight years ago, but are now led by the offense. Philadelphia has quickly gotten a makeover after the Chip Kelly era, but the Eagles lead the NFL in point differential (plus-34) with two commanding wins over the Browns and Bears. The pass defense ranks No. 1, and neither Robert Griffin III nor Jay Cutler was able to finish their game without suffering an injury that will keep them out for an extended period of time.
Should Roethlisberger be concerned about a repeat of eight years ago? Probably not, as his offensive line is much better these days, but I do think this is a good test for this offense. On the other side, it should be interesting to see Pittsburgh's bend-but-don't-break defense, which has not done too well with takeaways and pressure so far, against a rookie quarterback in Carson Wentz. Does Keith Butler bring more pressure against the youngster, or does he sit back and test Wentz's patience to see if he will force his first interception?
I am sure I will have plenty to say about this one in Audibles on Monday, but I doubt it will leave the kind of lasting imprint, or fill up my member berries the way that the 2008 matchup did.