Five things to watch: Bears at Steelers

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
7:00
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Here’s a look at five things to watch during Sunday’s game between the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field:

[+] EnlargeFelix Jones
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesThe Pittsburgh rushing attack has been unable to gain traction this season.
One-dimensional game from Pittsburgh: Adrian Peterson rushed for 100 yards in Week 2, but the Bears totally minimized his impact on the game, which is likely what they’ll do on Sunday against Pittsburgh’s running backs. According to Elias Sports Bureau, dating back to last season, the Steelers have rushed for fewer than 100 yards in eight games, which represents the team’s longest skid of futility since 1935. That means there’s a good chance the Bears will easily shut down the Steelers early, and make them a one-dimensional passing team. That, in turn, should enhance Chicago’s pass rush, which has struggled thus far this season. With no threat of the rushing attack hurting them, Pittsburgh’s play-action will be ineffective, meaning the Bears can basically pin back their ears and go after the passer.

Chicago’s offensive line against Pittsburgh’s 3-4 front: The Bears faced back-to-back one-gapping 4-3 teams to start the season. So Pittsburgh’s 3-4, two-gapping front will be different than what the Bears are used to dealing with. That could lead to a slight adjustment period in the first half, but it shouldn’t excessively inhibit what the Bears can do on offense.

“It just changes the protection base, and actually your run reads too (as well as) how to get to a certain linebacker if we’re blocking zone schemes and they start blitzing, and everything changes,” said running back Matt Forte. “So it just makes it more difficult that way. I would say most of the NFL runs 4-3. So when you get a 3-4 team, you’ve got to study that 3-4 more than you do 4-3s.”

Complicating matters is the fact the Bears start two rookies on the right side in guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills.

“Technique is different when you’re playing a 3-4 defense, two-gap, way different,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “They play very stout two-gap defense on first and second down with a combination of some pressures. But then on third down, (Steelers defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau has been known for years to have a lot of tough nickel blitzes, show you one way, blitz the other way, roll a guy down from the line of scrimmage down to a deep half to cover. So that’s what makes it difficult. It’s just hard to see where they’re coming from.”

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Greg TrottJulius Peppers has yet to get his first sack of the season.
Julius Peppers: No sack contributions in the first game from Peppers seemed strange, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then, in Week 2, Peppers finished without a sack again, as he played through flu-like symptoms. So Peppers has received passes for his lack of production in the first two contests, but he’ll need to make more of an impact against the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has a penchant for buying time in the pocket with his feet. Peppers has gone three games without a sack just twice during his tenure with the Chicago Bears, and both instances came in 2010, which interestingly, marked the only season with the club in which he didn’t finish with double-digit sack totals.

“This week (the pass rush) is going to be improved,” Peppers said. “I’m not interested in talking about anything from last week. My focus is on Pittsburgh and getting better.”

With a quarterback possessing Roethlisberger’s size, the key is simply “getting him down,” Peppers said.

“He shakes guys off,” said Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “It usually takes more than one. The first gy usually doesn’t get it done, so we’ve got to get multiple guys on him. He’s one of the tougher guys to get down on the ground, and even when you’re hanging on the guy, he still makes a throw down the field. When he scrambles, he’s looking to throw. He can throw it 60 yards on the run. He’s a rare guy in that way. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”

The return of Heath Miller: Miller’s return is significant because of Chicago’s minor struggles against opposing tight ends through the first two games. Miller participated fully in practice earlier in the week, so there’s a good chance he’ll play against the Bears.

Over the first two games, tight ends Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham have combined for 13 catches and a touchdown to go with 124 yards. So the Bears are allowing tight ends to average nearly 10 yards per reception, which clearly is too much.

The deep ball: Roethlisberger’s mobility causes defenses to break down on the back end, and if you pair that with Chicago’s recent inability to consistently rush the passer, it could conjure a recipe for disaster. The Bears have given up eight completions of 20-plus yards, including two for gains of 42 yards or more. It’s also worth noting that cornerback Charles Tillman has missed practice time with a sore knee, not to mention he struggled in Week 1 against A.J. Green, who finished that matchup with nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

Given Pittsburgh’s rushing woes, play-action shouldn’t pose much of a threat. But in third-and-long situations, when Roethlisberger is forced to take deep drops, the Bears need to get to him quickly to force errant passes and gobble up sacks.

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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