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Miles Sanders' Steelers ties run deep; whose defensive line is better?


Martin Frank   | Delaware News Journal
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Miles Sanders knows the Pittsburgh Steelers' philosophy of running the football as well as anyone.

He grew up a diehard Steelers fan just outside of Pittsburgh, reveling in the storied running back history from Franco Harris in the 1970s to Jerome Bettis in the 1990s to Le'Veon Bell in the 2010s.

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Sanders also played a game at Heinz Field while at Penn State, saying his favorite memory was his junior year in 2018, when the Nittany Lions beat the University of Pittsburgh.

"51-6, that's all I got to say," Sanders said with a laugh. Sanders had 118 yards rushing that day.

But he also played at Heinz Field as a freshman in high school in 2012, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was in the stands.

Sanders ran for 97 yards on 17 carries in the WPIAL championship game, but his team, Woodland Hills, lost to North Allegheny.

"Just to watch a ninth-grader excel to the degree that he did in that football game, I remembered his name that day because I knew that that wouldn’t be the last that I heard of that guy," Tomlin said. 

What does Sanders remember about that night?

"We lost that game. That’s all I can really remember," Sanders said. "It was real fun. Being from Pittsburgh and a Steelers fan, you grow up wishing to be a Steeler or just play on Heinz Field ... . It’s definitely a memory I’ll never forget."

So it's kind of ironic that the Eagles and Steelers have sort of switched philosophies with regards to running backs. Sanders is easily the Eagles' main ball carrier, with 236 yards rushing. No other running back has more than 60 yards rushing.

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Through Doug Pederson's first four seasons as head coach, the Eagles went with a committee at running back.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are going with a small committee in James Conner and Benny Snell. So far, one of them has surpassed 100 yards in each of the Steelers' three games.

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Conner has 224 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. Snell has 129, averaging 4.4 yards per attempt.

Combined, the two are on pace for 1,888 yards, which would be the most for a Steelers duo since 1997 when Bettis (1,665 yards) and Kordell Stewart (476) combined for 2,141 yards. 

"Balance helps, particularly at the running back position, having that different skill set to balance your group out," Tomlin said. "For us, it’s about having a diverse attack."

No spot for Wendell Smallwood

The success of Conner and Snell has left little opportunity for Wilmington native Wendell Smallwood, who starred at Red Lion Christian Academy.

Smallwood was signed by the Steelers in late July, released, then signed to the practice squad before the season started. Smallwood, the Eagles' fifth-round pick in 2016, is still second on the Eagles in rushing yards since then, with 850. Only Sanders, with 1,054, has more.

Smallwood played for Washington last season.

The Steelers made Smallwood one of four practice squad players this week who could not be poached by other teams. That prevented the Eagles from signing him to their 53-man roster to possibly divulge inside information.

"He’s a good guy, hard worker," Tomlin said. "We acquired him late ... and without preseason games, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to evaluate him, or for him to show what he’s capable of ... Hopefully, he’ll get an opportunity at some point."

Whose D-line is better?

The Eagles and Steelers rank first and second in the NFL in sacks, respectively. The Steelers, with 15, rank first in sacks per game (5.0) because they have played one fewer than the Eagles (17 sacks, 4.3 per game).

The Steelers bring their pressure not only with star pass rushers in T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward and Stephon Truitt, but also through their blitzes.

According to The Athletic, the Steelers have blitzed 51.2% of the time this season, by far the most in the NFL, rekindling the days when the defense was known as "Blitzburgh."

The Eagles will have three first-year starters on the offensive line in left tackle Jordan Mailata, left guard Nate Herbig and right guard Matt Pryor. 

It's no wonder right tackle Lane Johnson said this when asked about preparing for the Steelers' blitzes: "I’d be more concerned about the people in front of you than the guys coming off the edge ... It’s like telling people to worry about the hyenas when you got the lions in front of you."

Of course, former Steeler Javon Hargrave, the Eagles' defensive tackle, has been giving his teammates insight about his former teammates. And he's looking forward to finally being able to hit Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"We never got a chance to touch Ben," Hargrave said with a laugh. "You get close to 7 (Roethlisberger), you’re in trouble. I look forward to finally be able to touch him and bring him down."

Prediction

The Steelers might be 3-0, but that might be more a product of their schedule. The combined records of the Steelers' opponents are 1-11, and their margin of victory is only 7.3 points per game.

Then again, the Steelers are well rested, getting last week off because of the COVID-19 outbreak among their opponent, the Titans. But Roethlisberger said the Steelers got "the short end of the stick" because the week off was so early in the season.

The Steelers will also be allowed to have 5,500 fans in the stands, marking the first time the Eagles will play in front of fans this season. 

I still like the Eagles in this one. The defensive line is playing well, and Wentz seems to be at his best when he's throwing to unknown receivers like Travis Fulgham and John Hightower.

Score: Eagles 22, Steelers 17.

Martin Frank, sports reporter

Martin Frank, sports reporter

I cover the Philadelphia Eagles for the News Journal. I've learned that there's never an offseason for a team that has such a hold over people in Delaware. I enjoy bringing that passion for the Birds to readers, whether it's in-season or out, a Super Bowl run or the drama leading up to the draft. But I mostly enjoy bringing you the stories of the players, from the 53rd man on the roster to star quarterback Carson Wentz. Your support as a News Journal subscriber enables me to bring those stories to you.

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.