ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright joins me for Double Coverage as we preview the Chicago Bears-Pittsburgh Steelers game, which will be played Sunday night at Heinz Field.
Michael, I never thought I’d say Pittsburgh sports fans are fortunate to have the Pirates, but more than halfway through September we have bizzaro world going on here. The Buccos are headed for the postseason and the Steelers haven’t come close to resembling a playoff team.
Two touchdowns in two games has Steelers fans firing offensive coordinator Todd Haley already, and yet the biggest issue the offense might face is it simply doesn’t have the personnel on that side of the ball.
On the subject of the Steelers' offense, how difficult will Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings make it for wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to get open?
Wright: The thing about those guys is they’re not speed burners by any stretch, but they’re a pair of crafty veterans. If the Bears decide to match their corners according to who they think is the most dangerous, they’ll likely put Tillman on Brown.
In Week 1 against Cincinnati, the Bears matched Tillman with A.J. Green, and in the past they’ve matched him up against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. I don’t think you’ll see a ton of press coverage because the Bears like to play zone, keep everything in front of them and make the offense play dink-and-dunk football until they make a mistake the defense can capitalize on.
I’d say you’ll see equal amounts of Cover 2 and a single-high safety look. When the Bears play with a single-high safety, that’s when you see the cornerbacks manned up in press coverage.
I know the past four times the Steelers started 0-2, they recovered to finish with a winning record, but how much of a sense of urgency is there in that locker room?
Brown: The Steelers have done more than just pay lip service to the reality that there better be a sense of urgency in a locker room that is one floor below the library where six Lombardi Trophies are displayed.
The veterans met among themselves before the Steelers’ first practice of the week, and I know one message they especially wanted to convey to the younger players is that the 0-2 start is unacceptable.
Free safety Ryan Clark also said he wants to make it clear that the Steelers can’t depend on turning around their season simply because they are the Steelers. Or that the fact the Steelers have made the playoffs three of the past four times they have opened 0-2 will enable them to start playing better. And he is absolutely spot-on.
The defense has played well overall, but it has yet to force a turnover, and that has to change Sunday night. That leads me to my next question: How well is quarterback Jay Cutler playing, and how have he and new coach Marc Trestman meshed?
Wright: Cutler has improved in each of the past two games, generating passer ratings of 93.2 and 97.2. Cutler is No. 5 in the NFL in completion percentage, and he’s brought the team back from late deficits in back-to-back outings.
What’s important to note about Cutler is the fact he’s finally confident in the protection (remember, he’s taken a beating over the past four seasons) and believes in Trestman’s system. Cutler has been sacked only once through the first two games. Through the first two games of 2012, he’d been sacked six times. So now Cutler is confident enough to step up into the pocket and find weapons without trepidation about being hit in the mouth by a defender.
As far as Cutler’s relationship with Trestman, so far so good. Trestman came into the Bears with the mandate to protect Cutler, which obviously went a long way with the quarterback. Trestman has said the true measure of their relationship will come when they face adversity together.
Speaking of adversity, how significant was the Maurkice Pouncey injury to the Steelers' offense?
Brown: It cost the Steelers the offensive player they could least afford to lose aside from Ben Roethlisberger, and Pouncey’s season-ending knee injury had a ripple effect.
It devastated the Steelers psychologically, as Pouncey is so respected in that locker room that his teammates voted him a captain at the age of 24. I truly believe the Steelers' season opener might have turned out differently had Pouncey not gotten hurt on Pittsburgh's first possession.
The Steelers were fortunate that an experienced center like Fernando Velasco was not on an NFL roster when Pouncey went down. Velasco picked up the offense quickly and played admirably last Monday night in Cincinnati. But he is no Pouncey, who was the unquestioned leader of a young line that is still trying to find its way.
So the Steelers go into their second straight game against an opponent that looks considerably better than them on paper. That said, what should concern the Bears most when it comes to the Steelers?
Wright: They’ve definitely got to be concerned about two things: their own pass rush (just two sacks so far, compared to eight last year at this point in the season), and surrendering explosive plays in the passing game (which often come as the result of their lack of a pass rush). Roethlesberger’s ability to move and buy time should make things even tougher for the Bears.
The Bears allowed two completions of 40-plus yards in the opener, and six connections last week for gains of 20 yards or more. That’s too much. As you know, players such as Brown and Sanders can easily turn those long completions into touchdowns. And given Roethlisberger’s mobility, Chicago’s secondary can cover the receivers for only so long before they break open.
My final question for you is how much Roethlisberger’s mobility is wasted because, as it looked last Monday night, his receivers aren’t on the same page with him?
Brown: Roethlisberger addressed that very question this week, and he said a major reason he and the receivers have been out of sync at times is because opposing teams are disrupting the wideouts’ timing.
Neither Brown nor Sanders is particularly big, and opposing cornerbacks are jamming them at the line of scrimmage. The two are simply going to have to fight through it when teams get physical with them.
Roethlisberger’s mobility is still an asset, and he could jump-start the offense by using it to extend plays and find one of his receivers down the field. That is one of Roethlisberger’s trademarks, and, like most things with the Steelers’ offense, there hasn’t been enough of that through the first two games.