Sunday night, prime time, national television audience. And on top of it, it’s the first road game of the season for the Chicago Bears. This is not exactly the ideal scenario for them. Then again, they’re not playing one of the best teams in the league, either.
These are not your ordinary Pittsburgh Steelers, the historic franchise perennially competing to be at the top of the AFC North division standings at season’s end. This is a group struggling to put up points offensively and lacking the cohesiveness on defense for which they’ve long been known.
The Steelers have scored just 19 points this season, third-fewest in the NFL. The only two teams with worse offensive ineptitude through two weeks are the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars — two teams that could be vying for 0-16 seasons and the first pick in the 2014 draft.
Let’s be clear, though, that the Steelers are a better team than those two NFL laughing stocks. They have not played as well as they could so far and the fact that they’re 0-2 and playing at home means the Bears will be up against a cornered animal that comes out swinging with all its got.
The Steelers offense starts and ends with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The two-time Super Bowl champion has a big arm and is a load to bring down. He is annually one of the league’s most sacked quarterbacks — right up there with Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers — because of how long he holds on to the ball. What’s scary is that his sack totals would be even higher if he wasn’t so difficult to bring down. He has a huge frame at 240 pounds and he often has defenders draped all over him and still manages to escape and make the throw. It’s important for the Bears not only to put pressure on Roethlisberger but wrap up and finish the sack.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace left the Steelers for the Dolphins this offseason and it has created a void on the outside for Roethlisberger. Emmanuel Sanders leads the team with 12 catches for 135 yards. By comparison, running back Matt Forte had 10 catches last week alone for the Bears. Antonio Brown, a speedster, is supposed to be the Steelers’ leading receiver, but he’s been unhappy with his role in the offense so far and has 11 catches for 128 yards. Neither of these guys are imposing players and the Bears have faced — and defended — much tougher receivers. Charles Tillman, however, is listed as questionable on the injury report and if he can’t go, that would make things a little bit more interesting in the Steelers’ passing game.
Felix Jones — a one-time Cowboys running back — and Isaac Redman share the ball carrying duties and neither one has impressed thus far. Jones has just 37 yards on 10 carries for a 3.7 average and Redman is far worse with just 12 yards on 10 carries, a 1.2 average. The team drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round of this year’s draft but he hasn’t played yet this season. He’s questionable on the injury report with a foot injury. If he does play, the Bears don’t have much game film on him besides his early preseason action and his college tape. But he doesn’t strike me as the type of running back who can take the league by storm and surprise everybody. The Bears, who have been a stout run defense the past few years and who held the league’s best running back, Adrian Peterson, to an unimpressive 100 yards last week, should have no trouble shutting down the Steelers’ run game.
The Steelers defense is not the same unit we’re used to seeing for much of last decade. They have yet to record a takeaway this season (the Raiders are the only other team without one) and they’re last in the NFL with one sack. The Steelers had the third-oldest defense to start the season with five players on the wrong side of 30 and four more in the upper 20s. Fast offenses have the potential to wreak havoc against this aged group and the Bears have the potential to play fast with Forte coming out of the backfield and Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett spreading the defense across the field. Three of the four members of the Steelers’ secondary — safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark and cornerback Ike Taylor — are members of the 30-and-older club. What this means is that the Bears can take their shots down the field and exploit the lack of speed.
Of course, what really matters is how well the offensive line can protect Cutler. This is their first road test of the season, and while they have done a great job keeping Cutler clean through the first two weeks, things can change in a hostile environment. Suddenly calls from the line of scrimmage become more difficult to hear and that’s when protection mistakes occur. In order to combat the crowd noise, the Bears have to strike first and keep the pressure on early, and then I see bigger plays opening up throughout the game.
You’ve got to love the moxie of rookie right tackle Jordan Mills, though, who said this week that when they score — implying that they will, not speaking hypothetically — that the crowd will die down a little bit. I’m anxious to see how Mills and fellow rookie starter Kyle Long perform in this tough situation.
I’m also anxious to see what happens in the kicking game. Last week Devin Hester proved he still had some gas in the tank by racking up 249 kickoff return yards. Will the Steelers kick it to him? Will they attempt to kick it out of the back of the end zone and risk a Hester return? Will they kick it short and let one of the upbacks field and return it? The “Hester Effect” is suddenly back in play.
I’ve got my concerns about this game. The Bears are the better team; there’s no questioning that. From top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside, and every which way in between, they are the better team. But the best team doesn’t always win. The Steelers have a great coaching staff across the field with head coach Mike Tomlin and long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the best at his position. We’re still learning a thing or two about the newly assembled Bears staff led by Marc Trestman and I’m curious to see how they react in a close game on the road. They did a fine job helping the Bears to comeback victories the first two weeks, though.
Ultimately, this game is played between the lines. And while I think it’s possible the Bears lose this game in their road test, I just have to go with who I think the better team is at this point, the one with the playmakers who are executing right now, and the one with the most potential to succeed.
I know the Bears need a better pass rush. I know the offensive line can’t afford to break down in a hostile environment. And I know Cutler has had some bad Sunday night performances with the Bears and he has to take better care of the ball. But the Steelers can’t run the ball, they can’t score enough, and they’ve had too much trouble defending young, athletic playmakers on offense. I like the Bears’ chances in this one.
Prediction: Chicago 24, Pittsburgh 17