Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Steelers (09.22.13)

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For a short stretch in the third quarter of the Bears’ 40-23 victory over the Steelers Sunday night, it appeared as if we were going to see a close fourth-quarter finish for the third time in as many weeks this season.

After building up a large, 24-3 lead early in the game, in which the Bears offense once again did mostly what it wanted to do and Major Wright continued in Bears defensive tradition with a pick-six, a desperate Steelers team in danger of dropping to 0-3 on the season came out fighting with pretty much everything it had left in the tank.

However, after letting the Steelers within 4 points early in the fourth quarter, a reinvigorated Bears offense had three huge third-down conversions during an early fourth-quarter drive to extend the lead, and a Julius Peppers fumble return for a touchdown sealed the deal.

The concern for the Bears heading into their first road game of the season was adjusting to a hostile environment after playing comfortably in the home confines of Soldier Field the first two weeks. As head coach Marc Trestman put it, they wanted to keep their “poise in the noise.” With two rookies starting along the offensive line and new parts all over the offense, there were possibilities for mental mistakes. But the Bears kept their composure with no pre-snap penalties.

On the road, it’s important for the visiting team to set the tone early and take the crowd out of the game, and that’s exactly what the Bears did with a 13-play drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of game clock and concluded with a Robbie Gould 47-yard field goal. Jay Cutler looked comfortable in the pocket behind his rebuilt offensive line and picked his way down the field, completing passes to Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett and Matt Forte, racking up four first downs along the way.

On the Steelers’ first offensive possession, D.J. Williams applied pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who fumbled the ball and it was recovered by James Anderson. Four plays later, Matt Forte plunged into the end zone from five yards out to give the Bears an early 10-0 lead.

After a Pittsburgh three and out, Forte took a first-down handoff off right guard — where rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills paved a huge hole — and sprinted 55 yards to the Steelers’ 5-yard-line. Forte caught a breather and the Bears brought in their goal line package with running back Michael Bush.

On first down, Bush appeared to break the plane of the goal line, but the officials signaled him down short of the end zone. Trestman could have challenged, but the Bears had three downs ahead of them and only one timeout. It wasn’t worth risking losing that timeout if they had lost the challenge at that point.

After an incomplete pass to Martellus Bennett on second down, the Bears gave it to Bush again on third down, once again appearing to break the plane of the goal line. This time, facing a fourth down decision, Trestman decided to challenge the ruling on the field, but there was not clear evidence to overturn the call. I don’t blame Trestman for challenging the third-down Bush run rather than the first-down one. Here’s why.

The Bears fed the bull one more time, and on fourth down, Bush’s second effort after getting stood up at the goal line was enough to get him into the end zone and give the Bears a 17-0 lead late in the first quarter.

Talk about seizing early momentum and taking the crowd out of the game.

From there, the Steelers shored things up a bit and tried to mount a comeback. Roethlisberger led them on a 9-play field goal drive to bring the score to 17-3, but on the Steelers’ next offensive possession, Wright picked off Roethlisberger, got some great blocks from his defensive teammates, and scored a 38-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 21-point lead.

The Steelers still had some fight left in them before the half and speedy wide receiver Antonio Brown got to work on the Bears’ secondary. Brown slipped past the defense and caught a 33-yard touchdown, his first of two scores on the game.

In the third quarter, the Bears defense struck again as Steelers running back Felix Jones coughed up the football on the second play of the half and Henry Melton recovered it. Six plays later, Gould tacked on another field goal to extend the Bears’ lead to 27-10. From that point forward in the third quarter, the Bears offense stalled and the Steelers closed the gap.

Without much pressure from the Bears’ defensive line, Roethlisberger marched the Steelers down the field on a 10-play drive ending with a field goal. He then hit Brown again for their second touchdown connection on the night. And on the Steelers’ third consecutive drive of the half, they scored points with a Shaun Suisham field goal to put the score at 27-23.

Rather than folding under the pressure and losing their “poise in the noise” of the resurgent Steelers crowd, the Bears stepped up and delivered the biggest — most important — drive of the game.

After two straight Forte runs which resulted in no gain, Cutler evaded the Steelers’ pass rush, scrambled out of the pocket and ran 13 yards to pick up a first down. At the end of the run, rather than sliding, Cutler lowered his shoulder and knocked Steelers defensive back Robert Golden on his back. My inner meathead got excited about the hit that Cutler delivered and it elicited a little shout from me. But my analytical, rational, and sensible side — the side of me that’s more prevalent than the other — asked myself, “What is he doing?” Not only does he risk concussion with every hit he takes, but he also delivered the blow with his throwing shoulder, which could have easily led to injury or affected his throwing motion.

Nevertheless, that was a huge third-down pickup and the Bears’ drive kept rolling.

The Bears were insistent on running the football as they gave it to Forte on the next play. But he was dropped for a two-yard loss and the Bears had to take to the air. After an incomplete pass to tight end Steve Maneri — more of a flip to him at the last second by Cutler to avoid a sack — the Bears faced a third and 12.

That’s when the second of the three big plays on the drive occurred.

Cutler heaved the ball 41 yards downfield to Marshall, who made a great catch while covered by Steelers veteran cornerback Ike Taylor.

Drive continues.

Cutler found Martellus Bennett for three yards and Forte added a two-yard run to put the Bears at third and five from the Steelers’ 17-yard-line. And on the third big play of the drive, Cutler threw a magnificent ball into the corner of the end zone where Earl Bennett made an equally magnificent catch. The play was originally ruled incomplete, but Trestman challenged the call and replays showed Bennett made the catch, got one foot down and just barely dragged the other to complete the touchdown.

Had the Bears not scored that touchdown, they probably would have led 30-23 following a hypothetical Gould field goal. But with the touchdown, the Bears took an 11-point lead, 34-23, with just under six minutes to go in the game.

On the ensuing drive, Lance Briggs sacked Roethlisberger and the ball popped loose. Peppers snagged it from the air and raced 42 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

Exit Steelers fans. Cue the “Let’s go, Bears!” chants from the Windy City faithful who made the trip. Fade to black.

There were moments in the game that left you wiping beads of sweat, gulping beer, biting your nails, pacing the room — or whatever your method of dealing with nerves is — because at one point, the Bears offense went stale and the defense couldn’t bring down Roethlisberger or defend Brown and the passing game. There are still concerns about the long-term success of the secondary, largely due to the health of Charles Tillman and the lack of a pass rush. To make matters worse, Melton went down in the second half with a knee injury — which sources fear could be an ACL injury. That would further decimate the Bears’ already struggling pass rush.

But, when you’re an NFL team playing on the road in a notoriously tough place to play, even a win by a simple field goal should make you feel good. This was more than that. This was a team that played disciplined in a hostile environment. They kept their “poise in the noise.” They didn’t get rattled and, quite the contrary, they took the crowd out of the game at multiple points by sustaining long drives and making big plays when it mattered.

What more could you ask for at this point? The critics and naysayers will point to the fact that two of the Bears’ wins were against winless teams — which, as a side note, the 0-3 Vikings and 0-3 Steelers will be representing the NFL in London next week. What a thrill that must be for the English.

But you can only play who is on your schedule and the 3-0 Bears proved in all three victories that they have the firepower on both sides of the ball to win games with key plays. Because of their determination and grit, I see no situation in which I wouldn’t feel good about the Bears’ chances of winning the game. The Bears hypothetically could be down 10 points in the fourth quarter to the Packers this season, and I would have confidence in Cutler and gang to make a comeback and win that game.

Next up, the Bears will face their stiffest challenge to date. They play at division rival Detroit — who is 2-1 after beating the Redskins this weekend — and that will be yet another hostile environment and a tough challenge.

But, “trust in Trestman” is the motto from here on out. I have faith in the Bears to get the job done.

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