During week one preparations, every NFL team sits back and assesses the casualties of camp and the assets that remain.
In Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin and company went down the checklist and had to breath a collective sigh of relief.
Roethlisberger? Check. Ward? Check. Hampton? Check. Harrison? Check. Polamalu? Check!
Life was pretty good on the Southside going into week one. Lawrence Timmons was and still is doubtful with his ankle injury, and Dixon wasn’t much of a concern considering his position on the depth chart. The level of concern injury-wise was code Yellow in the Steelers front office and the faithful sighed their thanks to heaven above.
Then the Titans came to town.
The defense looked stifling, led by the heat-seeking missile that is Troy Polamalu. In his own signature fashion Polamalu was around the ball on every play, disrupting the Titans offensive agenda, and coming up with an incredible one-handed interception.
That all changed with minutes to go in the second quarter however.
During a blocked field goal attempt, Titans Tight End Alge Crumpler fell on Polamalu’s leg sideways. Sending him to the locker room for the extent of the game and for the next three to six weeks with a sprained left MCL.
All of a sudden that checklist is missing one of, if not the most important cog in the defensive engine that drives the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Halfway across the country in Chicago, Lovie Smith was having a similar experience. His defense was looking like it had an opportunity to return to the dominant prominence that got them to the Super Bowl a few years ago. With a refocused Brian Urlacher leading the charge in the best shape of his career Smith was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again.
Week one is a fickle thing though my friends. It has a way of coming and going with great excitement and utter agony, and there is very little you or I can do but watch and hope that it doesn’t take its vengeance out on a superstar, dashing a promising team’s hopes for the season with it.
Without warning week one claimed its rights to Tom Brady and Osi Uminyora last season. Both of them were lost for the year with severe leg injuries. This year the monster of week one went after one of the monsters of the Midway, and the result was the same.
Urlacher suffered a dislocated wrist during the Bears’ week one game against Green Bay, and the end result was season ending surgery for the team’s defensive captain.
So what does this mean for the two teams going into Sunday’s game in Chicago?
While both teams are surely not the same without their respective defensive superstar, it stands to reason that the impact of Urlacher’s injury will be far greater on the Bears defense this season than the loss of Polamalu will be for the Steelers in the weeks to come.
As the Middle Linebacker in Chicago’s 4-3 defense, Urlacher is literally the cornerstone of the Chicago defense. When you add to the equation that Urlacher might just be the most laterally mobile Middle Linebacker in the game, the loss is huge.
Urlacher’s rare combination of speed, size, and strength make him a disruptive force in the center of the Chicago defense. His ability to cover the field sideline to sideline inside of a 10-12 yard area from the line of scrimmage is a thing of violent beauty.
Regardless if you put another Pro-Bowler or Urlacher's backup Hunter Hillenmeyer in his place, there is going to be a drop off.
Hillenmeyer has been somewhat of a career backup, accumulating just 353 tackles in seven seasons with the Bears (never more than 78 in a single season). Numbers Urlacher was able to eclipse in just the past three seasons.
Considering the added injuries the Bears are facing with Defensive Tackle Israel Idonije and Cornerback Charles Tillman among others, and it looks as if the injury bug is making its home in Chicago for yet another season. While the other injuries are not serious enough to be concerned about for the long-term, Chicago’s defense has been extremely susceptible to injuries over the last few years.
Polamalu has been the injured warrior for quite some time in Pittsburgh. His reckless style of play has all but guaranteed that the bumps and bruises are going to crop up and cost the five time Pro-Bowler a game or two during the regular season.
What makes him special is truly his Achilles heel.
Polamalu plays reminiscent of a Polynesian warrior going to battle. With his long, curly mane blowing in the wind he flies around the field launching himself into his opponents without regard for his own physical well-being.
The sheer athletic ability is awe-inspiring at times as his instincts put him in position to make the one handed interceptions he is becoming famous for.
Make no mistake, a player of his kind in the hands of a defensive genius like Dick LeBeau is the stuff nightmares are made of for opposing offensive coordinators, but the loss of Polamalu is not going to hurt the Steelers nearly as bad this season as Urlacher’s absence will the Bears.
The backups at the Safety position for the Steelers are more than capable of spelling Polamalu for a few games. Tyrone Carter has been there and done it before, and the rookie Ryan Mundy who is a starter in the waiting at Free Safety did reasonably well filling in on Thursday night as well.
No matter who replaces Polamalu, they are obviously not going to be the Tasmanian devil spinning around the gridiron causing mayhem on every play. An adequate replacement plugged into the league’s premier 3-4 defense, should allow the Steelers to make due until Polamalu’s return.
The team is built around its Linebacking corp. Everything else done in the zone blitzing defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers is done to set up the success of the four Linebackers on the field. In the same breath the Linebackers have more responsibility and pressure on them than anyone else on the field to perform.
Over the course of the next several weeks the Steelers schedule could not be more conducive to their efforts to do without Polamalu while he is on the mend.
Looking past Chicago in week two, the Steelers stay on the road in Cincinnati next week, before coming home to face the Chargers at Heinz Field in week four. In the best-case scenario Polamalu would return the following week to play the game at Detroit. If the six-week prognosis holds true, they would host Cleveland the following week, followed by the Vikings in week seven.
That would end the six weeks time period and leave Polamalu with a light bye week in week eight before getting ready for the Denver Broncos on Monday night.
While expecting a team to open the season 7-0 is mostly unrealistic, especially without their most productive defensive player. It is not all that overconfident to think that this team could end the stretch without Polamalu with a 6-1 or 5-2 record. The Defense will be tested against the Chargers and the Vikings. Both are capable of taking the passing game vertical, something the Steelers have shown to be a weakness.
Before the injuries occurred the bears and the Steelers matched up well in terms of defenses. Giving the Steelers the edge based on paper comparisons and statistics.
The offenses on the other hand are a horse of a different color. Both teams have very good Quarterbacks, although neither of them started out particularly strong last week. The difference came when Roethlisberger found a way to right the ship in the second half while Cutler finished the game with four interceptions and shaking his head as to what he got himself into.
The differences are what make you want to flip a coin. The Bears have a good Offensive Line that boasts not only experience, but also Pro-Bowlers that know what it takes to make it happen.
The Offensive Line happens to be the weakest point in the entire Steelers lineup, and they may get all they can handle and more when it comes to the front seven of the Bears.
Matt Forte is a very good Running Back with the ability to catch the ball as well as run. His explosiveness is not to be overlooked, but running the ball against the Steelers front seven is not only tough it’s downright brutal as they proved against the Titans last Thursday night. Holding one of the premier rushing tandems in the league to a combine 86 yards on the ground.
The biggest difference between the two offenses is at the Wide Receiver position. The Steelers are clearly a much better and deeper team at the Receiver spot. With Pro-Bowler Hines Ward, Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, Tight End Heath Miller, and a supporting cast that is full of depth and speed, Roethlisberger has no shortage of weapons in the passing game.
The question will continue to be whether or not he will get the time he needs to throw the football down field against the Bears defense.
The bears on the other hand have gone out and gotten their gunslinger Jay Cutler, but they have not produced a legitimate Receiver for him to throw the ball to. Last season Running Back Matt Forte led the team in rushing and receiving, followed by return specialist Devin Hester.
If there is a weakness on the Steelers defense this season it is pass coverage. With the absence of Polamalu in the secondary the Bears have to get vertical in the passing game if they hope to score points against the Pittsburgh Defense.
That said, I am not sure the Bears have the weapons necessary to stretch the field and open up the running game for Forte.
The outcome of Sunday’s game in Chicago is going to come down to filling voids, and when it comes down to it the Bears have a far greater voids to fill in their defense than Pittsburgh does.
The absence of Urlacher in the run defense should provide minimal relief in the running efforts of the Steelers. Hunter Hillenmeyer is far from the disruptive force that Urlacher is in the passing game, and it should allow the Steelers a bit more freedom in the intermediate and short passing game.
While I do not expect Chicago to roll over and die because of the loss of Urlacher I do expect his absence to be a great one. With other key members of the defense banged up Chicago is vulnerable where they were considered to be strongest.
The ball will most likely continue to stay in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger allowing him to improvise and make plays on the fly. If Pittsburgh can have any success running the ball in Urlacher’s absence they should be able to control the game fairly easily.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 17 – Chicago 10