The Pittsburgh Steelers have made their living by confusing quarterbacks with complicated zone blitz schemes that forced hurries, sacks or worse -- poor decisions that led to turnovers. Through the first two months of the season, a couple things have changed.
First, Pittsburgh has been without two former defensive players of the year: safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison. They play different positions but serve the same purpose: to wreak havoc near the line of scrimmage, and most often in the backfield. Both are set to return Sunday against the Eagles but who knows what kind of game shape they'll be in (Harrison didn't play in the preseason, either; Polamalu suited up in Week 1 but has been sidelined ever since).
Second, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick -- the man responsible for nine picks and two fumbles through the first three games, did neither in Philly's Sunday night win over the Giants. More than that, for all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about his inability to read defenses and get the ball out of his hands quickly, something apparently clicked on the field against New York. He was sacked just twice (on one, he gave himself up in the backfield to set up a field goal), which is a marked change from previous games, including the Eagles' lone loss to the Cardinals.
Vick's struggles against the blitz was something the Giants defense picked up on from said loss and they wasted little time in trying to rattle the Eagles' QB. According to CSNPhilly.com's Geoff Mosher, on Philly's first 31 pass plays, New York brought five or more rushers 13 times. Six of those 13 blitzes included a defensive back coming off the edge, which gave Vick all sorts of trouble in Arizona.
Coach Andy Reid admitted after the win over the Giants that "it was a fairly high percentage (of blitzes from the secondary)," something the Eagles could see from the Steelers as well. But Pittsburgh, which has been among the league's worst teams at getting off the field on third down, could face a new and improved Vick, now capable of a decisiveness he hasn't previously shown. Details via Mosher:
In a side conversation after his press conference, Reid said the biggest adjustments came from the offensive line having a better handle on detecting where the pressure would come from along with the running backs and tight ends playing a larger role in chipping and blocking. Reid also mentioned that Vick got the ball out of his hands much quicker this time.
It sounded like a typical everyone-has-a-piece-of-the-pie answer from Reid, but the film shows that all three phases were vastly improved from the week before.
So can this vast improvement continue? This is rhetorical, obviously, but whatever the answer will determine the Eagles' fate in 2012. No one would argue that this team isn't extremely lucky to be 3-1 and leading the NFC East. But as Bill Parcells used to say "You are what your record says you are." And from the perspective of Week 4, Philly's one of the NFL's best.
What happens the rest of the way will depend largely on Vick. But we already knew that.