7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 3 Matchup

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 21, 2017

7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 3 Matchup

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the road again in Week 3, traveling to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears. Though the Steelers are a perfect 2-0 on the season and the Bears have yet to win a game, Pittsburgh cannot take Sunday's opponent lightly.

    What do the Steelers need to do to ensure a victory in Chicago? Here are the seven biggest keys for a Pittsburgh Week 3 win.

Get to Mike Glennon

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    The Steelers defense has done a much better job this year sacking opposing quarterbacks, with nine this season through two games plus numerous additional pressures.

    That has occurred even with the team having to go without linebacker Bud Dupree in Week 1 and losing linebacker T.J. Watt in Week 2 to a groin injury. And putting pressure on Bears quarterback Mike Glennon will be necessary for the Steelers to gain a victory on Sunday.

    Glennon has already been sacked five times this season. And if the Steelers can bring the pressure early in a drive, the better luck they will have bringing it to Glennon on third downs. According to Dave Bryan at Steelers Depot, Glennon has the league's worst completion percentage and quarterback rating among quarterbacks from 2013 to now when facing third downs with six to 10 yards to go. 

    Further, Glennon has a sack percentage on those plays of 15.1 percent, the highest among qualifying quarterbacks and notably higher than his average sack rate this year of 5.6 percent or his 7.9 rate over the course of his career.

    The Steelers must take advantage of Glennon's weaknesses in long to-gain situations; there's no quarterback more susceptible to pressure on third-and-long, and Pittsburgh's pass rush has proved over the first two weeks of 2017 that it's able to make a difference. And with Glennon attempting the third-most passes in the league this year, these moments should present themselves often on Sunday.

Stop Chicago's Run Game

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    Though the Bears offense has not been particularly prolific running the ball this year, with just one rushing touchdown and ranking 26th in total rushing yards, where they have stood out is their per-yard rushing average. At 4.1 per attempt, the Bears rank ninth in the league. And though the Bears run the ball less than practically every team in the league, that's more a result of the offense's need to play from behind than anything else. Expect Chicago to try to establish the run on Sunday, only turning away when forced to.

    That would be a wise strategy for the Bears to employ on early downs to prevent Glennon from getting into the aforementioned third-and-long situations he struggles with. It means the Steelers defense would need to work quickly to shut that strategy down to further make matters difficult for Glennon.

    The good news is Pittsburgh's defense has done a good job against the run this year, allowing only 35 yards to the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 and 102 to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2. Their defense has totaled six tackles for a loss, and they are allowing an average of 3.3 yards per rush to their opponents. 

    Cutting off the run would both prevent Chicago's offense lingering on the field as well as amplify the areas in which Glennon struggles as a passer. And luckily for the Steelers, their run defense is just as good, if not better, than their pass rush has been this season.

Don't Play Down

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    There has been one common criticism of the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era, which began in the 2007 season: They play down to their lesser opponents.

    Instead of taking advantage of what should be relatively easy-to-win situations, they manage to make things hard, keeping their opponents in games and sometimes finding themselves on the wrong end of an upset victory. Since 2007, Pittsburgh has played 96 regular-season games against opponents with records of .500 or worse and have lost 27 times.

    Though that's only a 28 percent failure rate, it's a trend the Steelers cannot ignore on Sunday. Keep in mind that Pittsburgh allowed the Browns to hang on in Week 1 until the end and have struggled this year with both slow offensive starts and settling for field goals when in touchdown range.

    Further, the road hasn't been kind to the Steelers in general in recent seasons. Three of the Steelers' four losses with Ben Roethlisberger as starting quarterback last year came on the road, and of Roethlisberger's 29 touchdown passes in 2016, only nine came when Pittsburgh was the visiting team.

    The Steelers are the better team than the Bears, both on paper and in the win-loss standings. But that doesn't mean they are guaranteed a win on Sunday. Instead, it feels like another perfect storm is brewing—a winless opponent plus a road game equals Steelers' kryptonite. Pittsburgh must avoid feeding that narrative on Sunday and prove they are the better team, not just looking like it on the stat sheet going in.

Attack Via the Pass

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    The Bears defense has given up 502 passing yards over the team's first two games, and their opponents are averaging 7.7 net yards per completion.

    Injuries have been mostly to blame, with cornerback Prince Amukamara missing Weeks 1 and 2 with an ankle injury and coverage linebacker Jerrell Freeman landing on injured reserve. Freeman's backup, Nick Kwiatkoski, is also on IR. Chicago also hasn't had much luck getting to opposing quarterbacks this season, totaling four sacks. Pittsburgh's passing offense should thus be hoping for a big day on Sunday.

    Amukamara looks on track to make his 2017 debut, with ESPN's Jeff Dickerson reporting the veteran was a full participant in practice on Thursday. But even his return—potentially carrying with it some rust—won't be enough for the Bears to stop the Steelers. Roethlisberger simply has too many passing options. 

    While Antonio Brown leads the team (and the league) with 244 receiving yards, Martavis Bryant is also over the 100-yard mark through two games. He's scored a touchdown as well. So has rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, while tight end Jesse James has two, both coming in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns. As such, 488 of Pittsburgh's 625 total yards of offense this season has come via the pass, and it will again be the source of most of the team's chain-moving on Sunday.

    According to Football Outsiders, the Bears defense ranks 31st when in coverage against teams' No. 1 wideouts and against tight ends. And with the Steelers boasting numerous receiving threats and employing more four-receiver sets to a good deal of success—Roethlisberger has taken only three sacks this season, which means his blocking in these situations has held up—there's no reason why Pittsburgh shouldn't use its biggest offensive strengths to attack Chicago's defensive weaknesses.

Limit Tarik Cohen's Impact

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    Though the Steelers' primary focus when it comes to stopping the Bears' run game will be Jordan Howard, they also must keep an eye on Tarik Cohen, not just as a rusher but also as a receiver. Though Howard leads the Bears in carries, with 22 for 59 yards and a score, Cohen has 79 yards rushing on his 12 carries (albeit 46 of those yards came on just one play), and he's also caught 16 passes for 102 yards and a score.

    Chicago can thus try to employ Cohen as a short-yardage passing target, throwing screens and other outside tosses his way in order to mitigate any struggles they have with trying to run the ball, whether with Howard or Cohen. Linebacker Ryan Shazier, who will be among those trying to limit Cohen's impact, has taken notice of the myriad ways the Bears have used him over the past two weeks, as relayed by Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com.

    The entire Steelers defense needs to keep Cohen in mind on Sunday. He's the Bears' leader in yards from scrimmage and only one yard shy of their receiving leader, Kendall Wright. Cohen's presence has allowed the Bears to remain relatively competitive as a passing offense, even with Cameron Meredith and Kevin White both out for the season. Plus, the kind of quick throws that are typically headed Cohen's way can result in missed tackles as well as exploit gaps in coverage that result from the Steelers' pressuring of Glennon.

    Pittsburgh has been doing a mixed job of making tackles this season, with Josh Carney of Steelers Depot counting five against the Vikings but 20 overall, meaning the Steelers had 15 missed tackles against the Browns in Week 1. The Bears will be hoping that a Cohen-based attack will cause the Steelers to make mistakes, so keeping track of the rookie will be a top priority.

    Also keep in mind that Cohen is also a dynamic punt returner, with 55 yards on his five returns this season. So Pittsburgh's special teams will have to be wary of the 2017 fourth-rounder as well.

Feed Le'Veon Bell

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    Though the temptation will be high for Pittsburgh to focus mostly on attacking Chicago's defense via the pass, there are definite advantages to also featuring a high dose of running back Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers can control the clock and maintain a lead, should they establish one, by putting the football into Bell's hands nearly as frequently as they throw the ball on Sunday.

    Bell, who held out from training camp and the preseason, was eased into the Steelers' offensive plans to open the season. He had only 10 carries against the Browns in Week 1, netting him 32 yards—he also added 15 yards on three receptions. But his volume returned to its typical level in Week 2 against the Vikings, with 27 carries for 87 yards, plus four receptions yielding four yards.

    His 3.2 per-rush average is far lower than his 4.4 career average and his 4.9 2016 average. But that number should only rise with greater usage. While the Bears have only given up 181 yards rushing, Bell has often looked defense-proof during his most productive spans. That he hasn't yet doesn't mean he's set for a season-long regression in 2017.

    Tomlin had no problem with Bell getting a heavy workload in Week 2, and doing so again on Sunday would help the Steelers set the pace. The bottom line is the Steelers need to and should use everything at their disposal to get the upper hand over the Bears. With Bell still one of the league's best backs, he should be a major factor in Sunday's game plan.

Finally Solve the Penalty Problem

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    In Week 1, the Steelers amassed 13 penalties against them, giving the Browns 144 free yards. The slip up in discipline seemed to be an easy one to explain away—it was the first game of the season, after all, so perhaps rust played a role. And going on the road, especially in-division, can result in lapses of judgement. 

    But in Week 2, at home against the Vikings, the problem resurfaced, with the Steelers being flagged 10 times for another 72 yards. They are the most penalized team in the league, to the tune of 23 flags and 216 yards. Should that continue, it will eventually cost them a game.

    That could happen in Week 3 against Chicago. Mixing the Steelers' recent road woes with their tendency to play down to winless teams like the Bears is already a questionable proposition, but if that gets combined with another double-digit penalty outing, that could be the breaking point for Pittsburgh's chances to win.

    In contrast, the Bears have only been penalized 12 times through their two games for a total of 99 yards. The Steelers cannot afford to be disorganized, particularly on the road, yet again. They must clean up this penalty problem. Until they do, it will be one of their biggest areas requiring improvement on a weekly basis.