Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers – Week 3 Preview

Bears vs Steelers

Week 3 – Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers

Part 3 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season

 

After two straight home wins to start the season, the Chicago Bears make their first road trip, with the first stop in Pittsburgh. The Bears’ offense is starting to get into a groove after pulling off two come-from-behind victories, but Marc Trestman and Co. would like to see a more conventional victory that requires less late-game heroics.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a very disappointing 2012 season, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs. This offseason was one of great change for the Steelers, losing starters at running back, wide receiver, cornerback, offensive line, and linebacker, among others. They battled injuries through much of the season, and 2013 has not been much kinder, a big reason for the team’s 0-2 start. The Steelers hope they can bounce back against the Bears and get their season on track.

 

Key Matchups

Bears TE Martellus Bennett versus Steelers Linebackers and Secondary

The Bears have had horrid tight end play since Greg Olsen was traded, and general manager Phil Emery was not going to let that continue, so he went and signed Martellus Bennett on the first day of free agency. Bennett had a breakout season in 2012, with 55 catches for 626 yards and five touchdowns. Prior to that, he had never shown much sustained production, with only four touchdowns in his first four seasons, all coming during his rookie year.

Now, in Chicago on a four-year deal, Bennett has been huge for the offense, with three touchdowns through the first two games. He is currently on pace for 1,000 yards and has been one of Jay Cutler’s favorite targets so far. His combination of size and receiving ability make him a matchup nightmare for any defense. Bennett also prides himself on his blocking ability, able to make an impact on every play.

Because the tight end usually works in the middle of the field, it is up to the opposing linebackers and safeties to cover him. The Steelers’ linebacking corps has been a great one for nearly a decade, but it has undergone some change as of late. Long-time Steeler James Harrison is in Cincinnati, and the team looked to replace him by using a first-round pick on Jarvis Jones from Georgia. He joins veterans LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and young Kion Wilson, who is replacing an injured Larry Foote, to form the starting unit for 2013.

The Steelers’ safeties too have a long history together. Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have been the safety duo in Pittsburgh since 2006, and they are two of the best in the league. Still, they face a tough task in defending Bennett. He is huge (six-foot seven, 248 pounds), but he is also quick. It is a deadly combination. He is big enough that he out-bodies Safeties when going after the ball, and he is quick enough to out-run the linebackers that are big enough to matchup with him.

Still, this Steelers defense is a very good one and should never be taken lightly. They have typically been strong against opposing tight ends, allowing only four tight ends to gain more than 50 receiving yards in 2012. However, in the Steelers’ week two loss to the Bengals, the defense allowed both Bengals’ tight ends to reach 66 receiving yards. In Bennett’s game against the Steelers last season as a member of the New York Giants, he went for a decent three catches and 40 yards. The Bears are hoping he can continue his 2013 success in this game.

In this matchup, the Steelers’ defense gets the advantage. Even with their early season struggles, the Steelers’ defense is too good to bet against. Bennett has been very successful, however, and this matchup could easily go either way.

 

Bears RBs Matt Forte and Michael Bush versus Steelers Front Seven

Matt Forte and Michael Bush form one of the most talented backfields in the NFL. Forte has rushed for over 1000 yards in three of his five seasons, and Bush nearly eclipsed that mark in 2011, in only nine starts. Bush could be a starting running back on other teams in this league, and the Bears love having him to spell Forte. In addition, Forte is one of the best receiving running backs in the league, averaging 53 receptions and 465 yards per season.

2013 has been a big season for Forte so far. While he has yet to rush over 100 yards in a game, he is still on pace for 1,120 rushing yards, 120 receptions and 896 receiving yards. While it is likely he will not reach those receiving numbers, it shows just how important he has been to the offense so far

Bush on the other hand, has had a very disappointing start to the season. He has only been on the field for 20 of the team’s 131 offensive snaps. He has had eight carries for a measly 15 yards, with the majority coming when trying to run out the clock. The opportunities just have not been there for him.

The Steelers have typically had a good but not great defensive line, as is expected in 3-4 defensive schemes, which focus more on linebackers. As previously mentioned, the Steelers’ linebackers are an impressive group that received an injection of youth this offseason with Jones. The group’s talent is reflected in their stats, ranking as the best pass defense and second best rush defense in 2012.

In fact, the Steelers’ defense has only allowed six 100-yard rushers since 2008. That does not bode well for opposing running backs. They have also never been a group to give up significant receiving yards either. In this matchup, the Steelers’ front seven gets the advantage. Once again, it is tough to bet against the Steelers’ defense, even with two great running backs in Forte and Bush.

 

Bears CBs Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, and Isaiah Frey versus Steelers WRs Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery

Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings have followed up their dominant 2012 seasons with two turnover-filled games to start the year with three interceptions between them. Both have struggled occasionally in coverage, but now three games into the season, the Bears hope that the rust has worn off and they can continue to be great.

Isaiah Frey has been included in the discussion because the Steelers have used their third wide receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, on 78-percent of their offensive plays, so his defensive counterpart will play a vital role. Frey has been solid in his first season of significant playing time.

Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have had decent 2013 seasons so far, each averaging around 65 yards per game. Brown had had a strong 2012 season despite missing games due to injury. Sanders too was strong off the bench last year and has played well in increased playing time.

These three receivers have accounted for the vast majority of Ben Roethlisberger’s yards this year, especially while tight end Heath Miller has been out with an injury, so keeping them under wraps will be important for the Bears. Because of their running game struggles, the Steelers have been throwing quite a bit, and the Bears’ defense cannot allow them to get into a groove. If they do, it could be a long night for the secondary.

 

Biggest Questions

Will the Steelers’ running game be able to take the pressure off of Roethlisberger?

The Steelers had the 26th ranked rushing attack in 2012. This was especially detrimental while Roethlisberger was injured, but regardless it needs to be better for the Steelers to be successful. Steelers’ running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman combined for over 1000 yards last season, but they need consistent running back play in 2013.

Former starting running back Rashard Mendenhall was coming off of a third great season entering 2012, but injuries and struggles resulted in an awful season, and the Steelers let him walk this offseason. In order to replace him, the Steelers used a second-round pick on running back Le’Veon Bell from Michigan State. The Steelers were hoping that he, along with Dwyer and Redman, would be able to give them a respectable rushing attack, but an injury has kept him out of the first two games, and the Steelers have not been able to run the ball consistently.

If the Steelers can get their running game going, defenses will not be able to drop as many people into coverage, and their passing game would improve. If not, defenses can sit back and be ready for the throws. The running game is huge for their offensive success.

 

Can Steelers’ tight end Heath Miller repeat his production of last season?

Heath Miller had a phenomenal 2013 season, with 71 catches for 816 yards and eight touchdowns, setting career highs in two of the three statistics. He was a big reason the Steelers were not worse than they were. He really helped keep the offense afloat. Miller has never been awful, but his successful season was a welcome sight for Steelers fans.

However, Miller suffered a terrible knee injury and has yet to play this season. He is expected to make his season debut against the Bears.

The question remains – can he keep it up? Miller will turn 31 mid-season, so he is getting to be past his prime. He also no longer has Mike Wallace on the outside to take the focus of the defense. Teams will be able to pay closer attention to Miller and he will likely face tighter coverage. Even so, the Steelers could really use another great season from him to help return the Steelers to greatness.

 

Can the Steelers stay healthy?

Ben Roethlisberger, similarly to Jay Cutler, has not been able to stay healthy for a full season since 2008. Polamalu too has struggled to stay healthy, missing 22 games in the last four seasons. Others who have struggled to stay healthy include Woodley, who has missed nine games over the last two seasons, defensive end Brett Keisel, who managed to stay healthy all of last season after missing games in the previous four, and guard David DeCastro, who missed most of his rookie season due to a gruesome leg injury.

Obviously, injuries are impossible to predict, but injury histories are never a good sign. Most injuries are just a matter of bad luck, and some players just happen to have a lot of it. Staying healthy is crucial to the Steelers 2013 season. Fortunately, both Miller and Bell are expected to play against the Bears, and the team hopes they can remain on the field for the season.

 

Team Comparison

Offense

The Steelers offense has been stagnant in 2013, with just 19 points as a team through the first two games. The quarterback position has not been the problem. Lots of parallels have been drawn between Roethlisberger and Cutler, but the main difference comes in success, where Big Ben has the lead. On the ground, the Bears have the better runningback group, as that has been one of the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses.

At receiver, the Steelers do not have a big-time superstar receiver like Brandon Marshall, and the Bears group is better as a whole. Tight end is a fickle comparison due to Miller’s situation, but Martellus Bennett of the Bears has had a good 2013 season so far. Along the offensive line, the Steelers have allowed seven sacks this season, while the Bears have only allowed one. Run blocking has also been better along the Bears’ line.

The Bears offense has been the more explosive group, and that looks to continue in this game, despite each team having very strong defenses.

 

Defense

Defensively, both teams have had their struggles in 2013 after dominant 2012 seasons. Along the defensive line, the Bears have not had consistent play from their two stars in Julius Peppers and Henry Melton, while the Bears have gotten improved play from their other pass-rushers. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ defensive line is relied on less for pass rushing, but they have also struggled in stopping the run as well.

Conversely, the Steelers’ linebackers are the ones relied on for pass-rush, while the Bears linebackers are used more in coverage. Both team’s linebackers have been around the ball at all times this year despite their different roles and their teams overall defensive struggles.

In the secondary, the Bears’ dynamic cornerback duo overshadows the Steelers’ Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, while Steelers’ safety tandem overshadow the Bears’ Major Wright and Chris Conte. Neither secondary has been outstanding, each allowing 280 yards to Andy Dalton who, to his credit, has stepped up this season.

 

Special Teams

Devin Hester got very close to scoring a touchdown on multiple kick returns last week, setting the franchise record for most return yards in a game. The Steelers will likely kick away from him to avoid a big return. The guy kicking to him, Shaun Suisham, had an excellent 2012 season, hitting on 90-percent of his field goals. New punter Zoltan Mesko has had a strong boot too, averaging 45.4 yards per punt so far.

Hester is the key that can give the Bears the advantage. If he gets a big return, it will energize the whole team. The Steelers though, have the better legs kicking the ball.

 

Conclusions

This is going to be an important game for both teams. The Bears are 2-0 and heating up, but they re on their first road trip, going to Pittsburgh for a primetime matchup against a great defense. Despite the Steelers’ offensive struggles, this will still be a test for the Bears. For the Steelers, they are 0-2 and getting desperate for a win. They need to get their team going and need to find a way to pull out a win.

The Steelers are still a good team and are always a tough matchup for any team. These are two of the NFL’s marquee franchises, and their matchups are always great ones. It is going to be fun to watch.

 

 

Game Prediction: Chicago Bears 24 – Pittsburgh Steelers 10