3TFO: Bears @ Steelers, Week 3
The Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in similar positions at the end of last season. Considered among the best teams in their conferences entering November, a poor finish exposed some serious roster holes that ultimately kept them both out of the playoffs. However, while Chicago hit the offseason with an aggressive approach to upgrade their talent, Pittsburgh stayed the course. So far, it’s clear who had the better strategy.
The Bears’ late-game heroics have given them a 2-0 start, while the Steelers’ overwhelmed offense is still looking for their first win. Will Chicago continue to stake their claim as an NFC contender? Or will Pittsburgh right their ship? Here are the matchups that could decide this Sunday Night Football contest.
Keeping Cutler Clean
For years, the Bears stuck their heads in the sand when it came time to address their deficiencies at wide receiver and offensive line. But new general manager Phil Emery immediately upgraded Chicago’s wideouts last offseason, and it looks like he’ll make it two-for-two in 2013. The Bears’ offensive line, near the bottom of our Pass Blocking Efficiency rankings since 2010, has risen to a respectable 19th in that category this season. They’ve surrendered only five combined sacks and quarterback hits, tied for the eighth-fewest in the league. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was their marquee free agent signing, but he’s actually been the poorest pass blocker of the group. Instead, the underrated Matt Slauson has been a big upgrade at left guard, allowing just two quarterback hurries while providing a good push in the running game.
There’s always the fear that Chicago’s line turns back into a pumpkin on national television, as it has so many times before. However, Pittsburgh’s front does not pose the biggest challenge. Steve McLendon is a much-needed upgrade at nose tackle, but it’s been awhile since Brett Keisel was a difference-maker, and Ziggy Hood has never lived up to his first-round draft pick pedigree. On the outside, Jarvis Jones has recorded just one quarterback hit and two hurries, while Jason Worilds is still looking for his first pressure of the season. If the Bears can contain LaMarr Woodley, Jay Cutler may finally spend a Sunday night not running for his life.
Brandon Marshall vs. Ike Taylor
When Cutler has time the scan the field, he’ll likely lock onto his favorite receiver, Brandon Marshall. Although Marc Trestman’s offense is spreading the ball around more than last year’s Bears, Marshall’s 20 targets are still greater than the rest of Chicago’s wide receiving corps combined. His 2.76 Yards Per Route Run last season was the fifth-best mark of any receiver, and he’s posted an even better rate so far this season. And Marshall is such a big, prototypical No. 1 wideout many forget about his elusiveness — his 17 forced missed tackles on receptions last season were behind only Percy Harvin among wide receivers.
That added dimension could cause a problem against veteran corner Ike Taylor, who looks all of his 33 years of age this season. After missing just four tackles in 2012, Taylor already has that many through his first two games. He allowed all four of his targets in coverage to be completed in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. The Week 2 stats say that he held A.J. Green to just 41 yards on 12 targets, but he would’ve surrendered another 30 yards with a touchdown if not for Green’s two dropped passes. Taylor has been prone to bad stretches in the past, and he can ill-afford to let this one continue against a receiver as good as Marshall.
Ben Under Pressure
Like the Bears, the Steelers have struggled to protect their quarterback in recent years. Unlike the Bears, the Steelers haven’t shown signs of improvement there this season. The Pittsburgh offensive line is still leaking pressure, but not from the area you might think. While everyone laments the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, we predicted that Fernando Velasco wouldn’t be a significant drop-off from the All-Pro. True to form, the former Tennessee Titan allowed just one hurry in his Steelers debut, against the vaunted Cincinnati Bengals defensive line no less. Pittsburgh’s real troubles come on the outside, where tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert have surrendered 20 quarterback pressures. Both rank among the bottom players at their position in pass blocking.
This matchup would be a normally be a bullseye for former Bears defensive lines, but this year’s version is off to a slow start. After 77 combined sacks and quarterback hits last season, Chicago’s front four has managed just three in their first two games. Julius Peppers has generated just two hurries, raising some questions about whether Father Time is finally catching up to him. And for a franchise-tagged player in his contract year, Henry Melton is not giving a good audition for his future team — he has yet to record a single pressure this season. Ben Roethlisberger has an unmatched ability to buy himself time and break down a defense, even when he is under duress. If Chicago’s front four can’t snap out of their funk, the Steelers offense may finally awaken from its September slumber.
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