The Steelers entered this season with Super Bowl aspirations but have had a hard time scoring points. Their running game has been nonexistent as their offensive line has struggled. However, they've maintained a strong defense. Through two weeks, they've ranked 10th in yardage and have given up 18 points per game, also the 10th-best rate in the league.
As long as the Steelers play well defensively and have Ben Roethlisberger as their starting quarterback, they have a chance. Roethlisberger is among the best quarterbacks in the league at creating his own offense as he has quick receivers to get the ball to. The Bears defense must keep pressure on him and remain disciplined in the secondary.
The bigger question is how they're going to be able to score points against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers present a unique challenge as—unlike the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings—they run a 3-4 defense. The same kind of defense that has tormented the Bears before. Unlike past years, the Bears have some different weapons to attack the defense and a different person designing the scheme.
Below, you'll find a few matchups that could decide if the Bears will start 3-0 or if the Steelers will get their first win of the season.
DE Julius Peppers vs. LT Mike Adams
In his 12th season, the Bears' defensive end is off to arguably the worst start of his career and certainly the worst since he has signed with the team in 2010.
In two games, Julius Peppers has been credited with just one tackle and no sacks. According to the box scores on ESPN, Peppers hasn't even hit the quarterback this season. The Bears simply need more from their highest-paid player.
Peppers missed nearly the entire preseason with a hamstring injury, but it didn't seem to concern the Bears very much. The way the Bears treated it at the time, it appeared he was just getting some rest as a veteran.
It was widely expected that he would have a big game in the team's season opener, going against Bengals' backup left tackle Anthony Collins.
The Bengals made it tough on the Bears defensive line that game. They got rid of the ball quickly, not allowing Peppers or any of the other pass-rushers to get pressure. The Bengals also picked their spots to go deep as Peppers wasn't on the field for either of their 40-yard passing plays to A.J. Green.
Against the Vikings, we later learned that Peppers was ill. He had missed practice earlier in the week and coach Marc Trestman said after the game that his illness got worse throughout the week.
Like the Bengals, the Vikings offense was based around short passes. They only threw beyond 20 yards twice, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In that game, Peppers was going against one of the best tackles in the league in Matt Kalil, and the Vikings gave him help, as you see in the screen shot below.
While the whispers about his demise may be out of context, Peppers has a chance to put them to death this week.
The second-year left tackle out of Ohio State has had better days than he had against Cincinnati's Michael Johnson, but he's still a huge step down from Kalil.
According to STATS, Mike Adams gave up five sacks and committed two penalties in six starts last season. It hasn't been much better this season as he's given up half a sack and was abused by Johnson last week.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has counted seven hurries and two quarterback hits that were Adam's fault this season. What's more, the Steelers don't appear to be recognizing this hole as—by my count—they only gave him help on four passing plays against the Bengals.
Below you see a play in which Johnson got his hands on Roethlisberger; however, he was unable to bring the Steelers' slippery quarterback to the ground.
The Steelers also have a quarterback in Roethlisberger who is notorious for holding onto the ball too long. Although a change from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley has resulted in shorter drops to get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands more, there are still times when he holds onto it and gets sacked because of it.
When you combine a struggling tackle with a quarterback who likes to have the ball in his hands, it could be a breakout game for Peppers.
TE Martellus Bennett vs. Pittsburgh LBs and DBs
After a big game in Week 2, Martellus Bennett has a chance to do even more in Week 3.
Last week, the Steelers gave up a combined nine catches for 122 yards to Cincinnati tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. In Week 1, Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker caught three passes for 40 yards. The latter's stat line doesn't look particularly impressive, but the Titans only completed 11 passes for 125 yards in the game.
As you see below, the Steelers have been using linebackers on tight ends on shorter routes with safety help over the top. In this play, they have linebacker Vince Williams on Gresham, with safety help over the top in case either Gresham or Eifert went deep. Eifert ran a fly route, keeping the safety deep while Gresham beat Williams for an easy five yards.
The Steelers played Bennett the same way last year, and he made them pay when the safety was late helping over the top. In the screen shot below, you see Bennett breaking free from linebacker Larry Foote while Ryan Clark was late to help. The result was a 33-yard gain.
If the Bears can keep the Steelers in their base defense—as the Bengals and Titans were able to do—it will almost guarantee Bennett will have a mismatch against a linebacker. The Bears took advantage of that numerous times against the Vikings, throwing short passes to Bennett and allowing him to work after the catch.
That kind of defense should be able to help Bennett rack up catches, although not necessarily a lot of yardage right away. In both their last matchup against Bennett last year and their game against the Bengals, the Steelers suffered major coverage breakdowns. Eifert ran wide open down the field for a 61-yard gain in the first quarter, and Gresham was left wide open for a 26-yard gain in the third quarter.
If the Steelers insist on keeping safety help over the top of Bennett, that should also open up the rest of the Bears offense, especially Matt Forte on underneath routes.
Pittsburgh has struggled with tight ends so far this season, and the Bears finally have a player who can make them pay.
Marc Trestman vs. Dick LeBeau
The common thought is that it will be up to quarterback Jay Cutler to figure out the kind of defense that has perplexed him over the years, but now he has a coach to put him in position to succeed.
What makes this particularly interesting is that the Steelers play essentially the same defense the Green Bay Packers have over the years. LeBeau worked with Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers with the Steelers from 1992-94. LeBeau was the defensive backs coach and Capers the defensive coordinator. When Capers left to become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, LeBeau took over for him.
The two run the same base defense and were largely popular for bringing zone blitzes to the NFL in the late 1980s and early '90s. The same kind of zone blitzes the Bears have struggled to solve over the years.
While he has struggled against the Packers, Cutler is actually undefeated against LeBeau's Steelers. In 2007, Cutler completed 22 of 27 passes for 248 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions as the Denver Broncos beat the Steelers 31-28. In 2009—Cutler's first year with the Bears—Cutler completed 27 of 38 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In his last game against the Steelers, Cutler led the Bears to 10 points in the final 6:21 to overcome a 14-7 deficit for a 17-14 win. That came one week after throwing four interceptions against Capers' Packers.
What both LeBeau and Capers do well is design creative blitz looks that confuse both quarterbacks and—more importantly—offensive linemen. Since coming to the Bears, Cutler has been sacked 30 times—an average of 3.75 per game—by the Packers defense.
For most of that time, the Bears have run a deep passing attack with a bad offensive line. When they struggled to pick up the Packers' blitzes, the play was done. They were never able to make the proper adjustments.
We've already seen the benefit of Trestman's short-drop, quick passing offense as Cutler has been sacked just once in two games against a pair of very good defensive lines.
Trestman has had four chances to match wits with LeBeau, going 1-3 in those games. Two of the losses came in 1989 when Trestman was the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and LeBeau ran the Bengals defense. Trestman's only win came in 1996 when he was with the San Francisco 49ers and LeBeau was with the Steelers.
The Bears also have veteran assistant coaches in offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. It will be up to the three coaches and Cutler to always make sure they know where the blitzes are coming from, because they will be coming.
If the Bears can solve the Pittsburgh blitz package, they should be able to move the ball through the air or, at the very least, avoid the big mistakes they haven't been able to against the Packers.
This will be a good test for the Bears and could give them a blueprint on how to attack the Packers when they meet in November.
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