(Sports Network) - The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a time to relax, reflect and heal.
The Steelers hope to have a triumvirate of contributors back healthy when they return to the field Sunday versus the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field. Steelers linebacker James Harrison, safety Troy Polamalu and running back Rashard Mendenhall are expected to return for the intrastate rivalry.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark is glad to have two of his teammates back.
"It gives you two players you have to scheme for offensively," Clark said. "They are two players Coach (Dick) LeBeau can use extensively in his package and isolate and give them opportunities to make plays. Also, they are going to produce. You know what they are capable of. They seem extremely healthy right now, which is good for us and allows us to be the defense we have been for years."
Harrison hasn't played this season as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his knee, while Polamalu has missed two straight games with a strained right calf.
Clark continued in saying that now that everybody is back, there are no more excuses. Having the two Pro Bowl defenders also gives the defense a lift and even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said it's a "great boost for the defense." Roethlisberger jokingly said he anticipates seeing Polamalu's well-publicized locks flowing in the wind.
Pittsburgh's defense has been the gold standard for the last decade, but that wasn't the case in a Week 3 loss at Oakland. The Steelers blew a double-digit lead in the 34-31 setback and wasted a strong game from their quarterback, who threw for four touchdown passes and 384 yards on 36-of-49 passing. The reason for so many attempts? A poor run game. Well, that run game should receive a boost with Mendenhall back in the fold. Mendenhall tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Pittsburgh's final game of the 2011 regular season and said he has been able to make cuts during his recovery period.
"I have been taking steps accordingly so I feel confident in everything I have been able to do," Mendenhall said. "It feels good. It continues to feel good. The next step is getting out there. I am confident in that. The game will tell."
Head coach Mike Tomlin is optimistic all three players will return and noted that they were able to get through practice. Tomlin was able to "work on some elements" that needed to be addressed during the bye week, but getting healthier was most important.
The last time the Steelers started 1-2 was 2009, and they rebounded with five straight victories. They haven't been 1-3 since 2006, when they went 8-8.
Philadelphia barely got by the New York Giants in a Sunday night thriller, but quarterback Michael Vick had his most efficient outing of the season. Vick entered the NFC East battle with six interceptions and three fumbles, and did not turn the ball over once in a 19-17 win.
"Every game is not going to be perfect and it's not going to always be a situation where things come easy," Vick said. "We struggled in the beginning. Our offensive line jelled together and we really challenged one another to get better throughout the course of the game. I'm extremely proud of those guys that did that ... You have to persevere in this game. It's a tough game."
Vick knows first-hand how tough it is, having been sacked at least twice in every game this season and 11 times overall. Vick may not have starting guard Danny Watkins this weekend as he is battling a chest ailment. Tackle King Dunlap (hamstring) was back at practice after missing the previous two games, but Demetress Bell will remain as the starting left tackle. Bell is aware he'll have his hands full this weekend with the Steelers.
"Tough, hard-nosed football every down," Bell said when asked what to expect Sunday. "It's going to be knock-down drag-out just like Baltimore, just like the Giants, so we have to be ready for it."
The Eagles will face Pittsburgh a tough Pittsburgh secondary, which is third against the pass (190.3 ypg), so running back LeSean McCoy could get another load of carries. Thanks to a strong second half versus the Giants, McCoy ran for a season-high 123 yards on 23 carries. The former Pittsburgh Panther has only one touchdown this season after recording 20 total in 2011. He will have plenty of fans in the crowd cheering him on in his return to Heinz Field.
"For sure, I have tons of tickets. I have to get ready for this Sunday," McCoy said during a conference call. "A lot of my old teachers, friends and coaches will be at the game. I'm excited to be back."
McCoy gave credit to his offensive line and said the Eagles have been sticking with the ground attack even though coach Andy Reid seems to prefer the aerial game. McCoy said turnovers and bad penalties have been the issue as to why the Eagles are just 29th in points scored (16.5). It could be a problem scoring on Sunday against a Pittsburgh team eighth in points allowed (25.0).
The Eagles have won six of the previous eight meetings with the Steelers, including a 15-6 victory back in 2008. Pittsburgh rolled from there and later won the Super Bowl. Vick last started against the Steelers in 2006 with Atlanta and threw for four TD passes. Since 1990, the Steelers own a 14-9 record after the bye week. They are 9-1 at home versus the NFC under Tomlin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As always, the key to Philadelphia's success is how Vick performs. He protected the football versus the Giants, and now must do the same in a hostile environment that is Heinz Field. The Steelers are getting some weapons back on defense and their key to winning is plugging Vick's running lanes and forcing him into mistakes. Clark gave his assessment on stopping Vick.
"You have to hit him more than once," he said. "He has been taking a pounding this year. You look at the first few weeks of the season, guys are getting to him, able to make him fumble and give the ball up. That is what you look to do. In trying to get to him you have to be sound in your technique and sound in your gaps. Where you see opponents try to exploit what he does, he can also exploit you if you are trying to make plays that are out of the sense of the defense.
"With Michael Vick it's not always about making the play, but stopping him from making the play."
Of course, a strong game from McCoy and involving Jeremy Maclin more in the offense will help Vick, who is 14-3 in his last 17 starts against the AFC. Maclin is battling a hip issue and has just two receptions in his last two games. He returned against New York after missing a lopsided defeat at the hands of Arizona.
Mendenhall would be one to watch for if you're on defense, but Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown stirred the pot a bit when he called Eagles rookie defensive back Brandon Boykin a "candy bar."
"That's the candy bar," Brown was quoted as saying in the Washington Observer- Reporter. "He's given up a lot of plays. "Whoever gets that guy definitely has to take advantage."
The bulletin board material could play a role psychologically with Boykin, who has displayed some first-year flaws in the first four weeks. But then again so has All Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Mike Wallace is another deep threat for Pittsburgh and aims for a fourth straight game with a touchdown catch. His speed will stretch the field and give Roethlisberger options underneath. Big Ben was sacked only once in Oakland and is 507 yards shy of passing Terry Bradshaw (27,989) for the most in franchise history.
Philadelphia's defense could find it difficult forcing Roethlisberger into turnovers, as he has completed 60 of 80 passes for 659 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions over his previous two games. The big signal caller is 13-1 versus the NFC at home. After finishing tied for the league lead in sacks in 2011 with 50, the Eagles have only seven in 2012.
Roethlisberger has been near perfect the past two games and the offensive line has been giving him enough time to shred opposing defenses. The Steelers are second-to-last in rushing and those numbers will not change against the Eagles, who are allowing just under 100 yards rushing per game (91.5). But Philadelphia will experience trouble getting to the quarterback and slowing down a few speedy receivers. Even though the Eagles sacked Big Ben nine times in the last meeting, it's always tough coming off an emotional win against a division foe. The fact that Pittsburgh just had its bye poses a big problem for the Eagles, too. This game could get ugly fast.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Eagles 13