NFC North: Ben Roethlisberger

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Green Bay Packers report for the offseason program on Tuesday, don't expect linebacker Clay Matthews to put his twice-broken right thumb through any vigorous work right away.

But when training camp begins in July -- and more importantly when the regular season kicks off in September -- Matthews does not expect there to be any issues.

In an interview with USA Today's Tom Pelissero, Matthews said he expects his thumb to be a non-issue going forward.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
AP Photo/Mike RoemerClay Matthews hopes thumb casts, like this one worn Nov. 10 against the Eagles, are in his past.
"It's been getting better, so I have no doubt," Matthews said. "Obviously, OTAs will probably be one thing. I can't imagine I'll be too heavily involved with some of the stuff. I'm sure I can do stuff here and there."

But when training camp opens?

"I'll be ready," Matthews said.

For the first time, he revealed exactly what happened following his second injury, which occurred on Dec. 22 when he sacked Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Matthews had returned from the first break, called a Bennett's fracture, six weeks earlier against the Philadelphia Eagles -- a game he called "by far my worst professional game, but there was a legitimate excuse" -- and after wearing a club cast that left him ineffective for that game, he opted for a much smaller cast.

All was well until his thumb hit the helmet of teammate Mike Neal on the way to sacking Roethlisberger.

Rather than opting for the same surgery that he had when he first broke his thumb on Oct. 6 against the Detroit Lions, he went with something different.

"It's called a tendon transfer," Matthews said. "I broke it [the first time], and they did a closed-pin reduction. [The thumb] was dislocated, so they put it back in there. The bones line up, but it was a real small piece of the bone. So, everything was fine. I was coming out, I was working hard, and I was in a cast.

"And unfortunately, on a sack of Roethlisberger, the tip of my thumb [hit] my teammate's helmet. All that pressure went down the cast, broke it again. So then, to make it tighter, we took part of the tendon, turned it around, drilled some holes and they almost tied a knot through. It's stronger than [the left one]. Now it's super tight."

The Packers kept Matthews on the active roster for the playoffs, hoping he could return if they made a Super Bowl run.

Matthews estimated that his thumb is "about 75, 80% of where it needs to be."

"It's getting there," he said. "By the time the season rolls around, it'll be fine. I'm optimistic about it. I mean, I've never heard of a career-ending thumb injury, but no one had heard of a Bennett's fracture when I had done that."

Starter Pack: Matthews on the mend

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
8:00
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A roundup of what’s happening on the Green Bay Packers’ beat.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s a moot point now, but Packers linebacker Clay Matthews probably would have been able to play in the Super Bowl.

Matthews twice broke his right thumb during this past season. Both times he underwent surgery to have stabilizing pins placed in his hand. The first time he had those pins taken out (on Nov. 4), he played a week later, albeit with a large club-like cast that made it difficult for him to perform his usual duties.

According to FoxSports.com, Matthews had the second set of pins taken out last Friday.

Matthews missed four games after first breaking his thumb on Oct. 6 while sacking Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. He sustained the same injury on Dec. 22 against the Pittsburgh Steelers while sacking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Matthews missed the regular-season finale and the NFC wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Packers kept Matthews on the roster rather than place him on season-ending injured reserve with the hope that he could return if they made it to the Super Bowl.

Despite missing five games, Matthews led the Packers with 7.5 sacks. But he failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five-year career. After signing a five-year, $66 million contract extension last offseason, Matthews played in a career-low 11 games.

“I need to get healthy,” Matthews told FoxSports.com. “Rehab my thumb and get it back to 100 percent so that way there is no setback starting next season.”

In case you missed it on ESPN.com: Best of the rest:
  • At ESPNWisconsin.com, Jason Wilde wrote about Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon’s long and winding road to the Super Bowl, which included a pair of stints with the Packers.
  • In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz wrote that Mike Neal’s transition from defensive end to outside linebacker was a success, but was it enough to warrant a new contract for the free agent to be?
  • In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tyler Dunne wrote that talks between the Packers and cornerback Sam Shields, who is scheduled to be a free agent, remain on-going but the two sides don’t appear to have moved much closer to a deal.
Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
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PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 37-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: What a complete collapse for the Lions, a team that had went through every sort of emotion during Sunday’s game. They started off discombobulated in the first quarter, set records in the second quarter, then fell apart in the second half.

It’s tough to explain how the Lions went from an offensive juggernaut in the first half to Calvin Johnson not having a reception in the second half and Matthew Stafford unable to even throw for half a field after halftime. It is, though, a loss that could hurt the Lions down the road. Detroit had complete control over this game before a combination of defensive lapses, dropped passes and a bizarre fake field goal call in the fourth quarter turned a win into a loss and a potential three-game winning streak into a 6-4 record that gives the Bears and Packers a chance to keep pace in the NFC North.

Stock Watch: Rising -- Safety Don Carey. Carey had yet another week of significant playing time with cornerback Bill Bentley injured, and he had a decent game, making nine tackles and two tackles for loss. ... DeAndre Levy had a game-high 12 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Falling -- Detroit’s fourth quarter defense. The Lions gave up a 97-yard drive to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers midway through the fourth quarter, resulting in a touchdown with 4:46 left to give Pittsburgh the lead. ... Reggie Bush's production. The running back fumbled, ran for 31 yards on 12 carries and caught two passes for 23 yards. Not his best day.

Setting records: Detroit’s typical combination of Stafford-to-Johnson gave the Lions some big records in the first half. Stafford threw for 327 yards in the first half, a franchise record. He also broke Bobby Layne’s franchise passing record of 15,710 yards. With 362 yards Sunday, Stafford now has 16,005 yards. Stafford, though, faded in the second half, passing for only 35 yards.

What’s next: The Lions return home for two games in less than two weeks when they face Tampa Bay next Sunday and then Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Pittsburgh may not appear to be the typical Steelers team this season, under .500 and barely hanging on in the AFC North divisional race, but don’t tell Detroit that.

The Lions are convinced the Steelers are a good team that has played a lot of close games -- and they aren’t underestimating the Pittsburgh defense, which is still one of the top units against the pass in the league.

“I don’t know that you’ll ever have a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that’s underrated,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “They have played some really good games this year.

“We’re going to have our hands full. They have players.”

So how does Detroit beat Pittsburgh? Here are four keys.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsLions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will have his sights set on rattling Steelers quarterback Ben Rothelisberger's cage on Sunday.
Pressure Ben Roethlisberger: The Lions reasserted themselves as a front four last week against Chicago with defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh each reaching the Bears' quarterbacks four times. Now they face a quarterback known for staying with a play and in the pocket until the last possible second in Roethlisberger -- as well as the quarterback who has been sacked more than any other in the past five seasons.

So the more pressure Detroit is able to get on Roethlisberger, the better its chances are of forcing him into a mistake or bringing him down a few times, crushing Steelers drives.

Embrace the favorite role: It is a new place for the Lions, perennially looked at as a potential spoiler for playoff teams by this time of the season instead of a team trying to reach a divisional title. But this is where the Lions are now and this will be the first time they will be on the road in that type of role. While Detroit’s players have said they don’t look at themselves in that favorite type of role, that is what they are now. A game like this against Pittsburgh is one they potentially should win and, if they are going to elevate from playoff contender to a team that could make a run in the playoffs in January, one they should be able to win. It’d be a big confidence boost in that regard.

Don’t be rattled by a Matthew Stafford interception: Here’s a fun stat. In Detroit’s six wins this season, Stafford has thrown an interception in each game. In its three losses, he has been interception-free. So while I’m not advocating for Stafford, who is having the best season of his career, to throw an interception, I’m saying it isn’t the end of the game if he does. Stafford has been accurate this season and has compiled a really strong year. There’s a pretty good chance he becomes Detroit’s all-time passing leader Sunday as well. So stick with him and don’t get fazed if he turns the ball over.

Keep Bell in check: Detroit has turned into one of the top rushing defenses in the league (ranked eighth at the moment allowing 100.67 yards a game) and have held their last three opponents under 100 yards rushing as a team. Le’Veon Bell is a local guy -- he played at Michigan State -- who has emerged as Pittsburgh’s top running option as a rookie.

Most of that responsibility falls on the defensive linemen and linebackers to make plays, particularly linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.

“We’re still a work in progress there,” Schwartz said. “But if we can get the run stopped it goes a long way to getting us to where we want to go.”
Calvin Johnson and Troy PolamaluGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson's Lions look to continue their success against Troy Polamalu's struggling Steelers.


The respective histories of the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers suggest that the latter would be 6-3 and the former 3-6 heading into their game Sunday at Heinz Field.

But it is the Steelers who have scuffled this season, and they are still trying to dig out from an 0-4 start. The Lions, meanwhile, sit atop the NFC North and have the pieces to make a lengthy postseason run assuming they can keep up their winning ways.

The Steelers have little margin for error as they try to stay on the fringes of the AFC playoff picture, and the Lions will try to maintain their grip in first place in the NFC North when the teams meet at 1 p.m.

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the first matchup between the two teams since 2009.

Brown: Michael, I'm not surprised that the Lions are playing so well this season, and my question for you is, what has the signing of running back Reggie Bush done for the offense?

Rothstein: It's been huge, Scott. Bush's signing in the offseason spreads defenses out and forces teams to make a choice. Either double Calvin Johnson or continuously roll safety coverage Johnson's way or bring a defender down into the box to stop Bush -- but that leaves things open for Matthew Stafford to find Johnson. He has the ability to take a dump-off play and turn it into a massive touchdown -- something he has done twice on screens this season. While he doesn't change the offense the way it would if Stafford or Johnson were missing, he's a massive cog there.

Speaking of that -- and I feel as if I've asked this question weekly -- how do you think Pittsburgh handles that matchup against the Detroit offense?

Brown: Michael, it's hard to like the matchup if you are the Steelers. Speed in their secondary has been an issue this season, particularly at safety, and I'm not sure anyone can run with Bush if the Lions isolate him on linebacker or safety as a receiver.

The Steelers are going to have to pay Johnson the extra attention he demands, and last I checked they will only be allowed to have 11 defensive players on the field. Assuming the Steelers use a combination of double and bracket coverage on Johnson, there are going to be some one-on-one matchups that the Lions may be able to exploit.

The Steelers haven't generated a consistent pass rush this season, but it will be absolutely essential that they do so against Stafford. If he is allowed to get comfortable in the pocket Sunday it will be a long day for the Steelers.

The best thing the Steelers can do for their defense is to control the clock, but it won't be easy to run on Detroit's front seven. Does it start on the Lions' defense with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and how have other teams tried to neutralize those two?

Rothstein: Yes, most of what Detroit does defensively starts with Suh, and to a lesser extent, Fairley. Suh is having one of the most consistent seasons of his career, this despite the constant presence on double teams each week. The attention Suh is given opens rush lanes for Fairley, but he hasn't been completely consistent taking advantage of them.

For every game he has like Sunday's against Chicago, he has a game where he disappears. But the pressure Suh, Fairley and the defensive line put on quarterbacks has led to incomplete passes and interceptions often.

If there is a concern with the Detroit defense, it is with its cornerbacks, who have been inconsistent. Can Ben Roethlisberger take advantage of this with his current crop of receivers?

Brown: Antonio Brown has really emerged as a No. 1 receiver and made the Steelers look smart for not overpaying for Mike Wallace. That said, Emmanuel Sanders has not been consistent enough to give the Steelers a receiving option to pair with Brown.

Sanders has a ton of talent, and he is a big-play threat. I keep waiting for him to break out. This could be the week for him to do it as the Steelers are going to have to score their share of points to keep up with the Lions. Lost in the Steelers' 55-31 loss at New England a couple of weeks ago is how much success the Steelers had attacking the Patriots' cornerbacks.

If the Lions' cornerbacks are vulnerable, the Steelers will go after them, and Detroit has to be mindful of the middle of the field where tight end Heath Miller and Jerricho Cotchery work and are trusted by Roethlisberger.

Michael, I don't see the Steelers winning this game unless they score a lot of points. What needs to happen for the Lions to lose?

Rothstein: That's an interesting question, Scott, and with the Lions you just never know. I'd probably start with if any of the Lions' starters in the secondary went down with injury. That would necessitate playing either an inexperienced safety or rookie Darius Slay if one of the corners goes down. Roethlisberger is good enough that he'd pick on that side of the field consistently.

Another would be to force turnovers. Stafford has been quite good this season, essentially throwing less than two interceptions per 100 attempts (he has a 1.9 percent rate), which is in the top 10 of the league and tied with Drew Brees. If Detroit's offense can hold on to the ball and everyone is healthy, it'll score points.

I'll close out with this: You mentioned Pittsburgh trying to establish the run first. What's been going on there? It seems as if there has been a rotating cast of players because of injuries and other issues. Do the Steelers even have a reliable running attack?

Brown: Depends on the week, it seems, when it comes to the Steelers' running game. It has gotten a lot better since Le'Veon Bell became the feature back, and the Steelers have rushed for over 100 yards in their last two games.

To put into perspective how important it is for the Steelers to establish the ground game, they have run the ball just over 51 percent of the time in their three wins and around 30 percent of their time in six losses.

The Steelers have to run the ball against the Lions, and a big component of that is not falling behind early, something that has been a problem this season.

Vikings' pass rush shows up in big way

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
9:10
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LONDON -- In their first three games, the Minnesota Vikings' defense has been vexed by quarterbacks who were often able to get rid of the ball quickly, either by dumping it off to a running back (Detroit's Matthew Stafford), finding holes in the Vikings' porous pass coverage (Cleveland's Brian Hoyer) or both (Chicago's Jay Cutler).

Allen
The Vikings had only nine sacks in three games, despite pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 43 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That was the 10th-best total in the league, but it only left the Vikings tied for 14th in sacks. A team that is at its best with pressure from its front four wasn't taking quartebacks down enough to protect the rest of its defense from looking vulnerable, and in their past two games, the Vikings were left stunned by quarterbacks who engineered last-minute comebacks.

That Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- who has led 25 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, including one in Super Bowl XLIII -- wasn't able to pull the Pittsburgh Steelers even on Sunday night reflects mostly on the Vikings' defensive line. The group had four of the team's five sacks, including the final one from Everson Griffen that forced a game-sealing fumble, and harassed Roethlisberger throughout a game where the Steelers were forced to throw the ball 51 times.

Roethlisberger threw for 382 yards on Sunday night, burning cornerback Josh Robinson for large chunks of it, but he also threw 18 times in the fourth quarter as the Steelers tried to erase a 17-point deficit. The Vikings' pass rush helped create that deficit by getting to Roethlisberger enough early in the game to thwart the Steelers' drives.

"We kind of say when the rush and coverage matches up, that's when you make plays," safety Harrison Smith said. "The rush was there all night long. Still got to shore some things up on the back end, but ultimately it was enough to win."

The Vikings have major reasons to be concerned with their secondary, especially with Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford out on Sunday night. Both could be back after the bye, but Roethlisberger picked on Robinson all night, and A.J. Jefferson has also struggled in coverage this season.

But Jared Allen devoured Steelers left tackle Mike Adams, and fought through some of the double-teams Pittsburgh started throwing at him later in the game. Sharrif Floyd shared a sack with Allen. Greenway got another one on a linebacker blitz, and Griffen, who hadn't had one in three games after entering the season with high expectations, made the biggest play of the game.

After the Vikings' offense had played it safe on third down and cost themselves the chance to put an opponent away for the third week in a row, Frazier turned to his defense. Fittingly enough, when Minnesota was reeling again, its pass rush was what had the last word.

"Our defense went out and did a great job," Frazier said. "I just did not believe that we were going to lose that game, even though we looked precarious at times."
Adrian Peterson and Ben RoethlisbergerUSA TODAY SportsEither Adrian Peterson's Vikings or Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers will leave London with a win.
As exports go, sending the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers to London this weekend probably wasn't what the NFL had in mind.

Both teams are 0-3. The Vikings have the second-most turnovers in the NFL (10), and the Steelers are third with nine turnovers. Pittsburgh has yet to force a turnover on defense, and the Vikings gave up last-minute touchdowns the last two weeks in losses to the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.

And yet, one of these teams will likely head back across the Atlantic Ocean with a win on Sunday. The other will probably have to say goodbye to their already-slim playoff hopes, so there's plenty on the line in London on Sunday. To set up the game, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Steelers reporter Scott Brown got together to break things down:

Ben Goessling: Well, Scott, I don't think this is what either of us expected this game to be -- both of these teams, badly in need of a win, looking lost as they head over to London. For me, the most surprising thing with the Vikings has been how much trouble they've had getting Adrian Peterson going.

He's clearly missed fullback Jerome Felton (who's back this week) and he's admitted to trying to do too much on a number of runs. I think Peterson gets going this week as he follows Felton's lead, but I can't say I expected him to have only three runs longer than 10 yards through three games. What has surprised you most about how the Steelers have struggled?

Scott Brown: Ben, to put the Steelers' running game into perspective, consider this: Their leading rusher, Felix Jones, has 71 yards, or seven yards fewer, than Peterson had on his first carry of the season. As bad as the running game, and the offense in general, has been, I am most surprised that the defense hasn't made more of what coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays, especially since Troy Polamalu is healthy and has looked terrific. In addition to their lack of takeaways, the Steelers have yet to force a turnover.

Takeaways have been an issue since 2011, and the Steelers have to find a way to force turnovers if they want to have any chance of turning their season around. Speaking of defensive issues, the Vikings have been atrocious against the pass. Is this a get-well game for Ben Roethlisberger?

Goessling: Yes, I think it could be, especially considering how many issues the Vikings appear to have in their secondary. Chris Cook, Jamarca Sanford and A.J. Jefferson are all in some danger of missing the game Sunday, which would likely leave Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels as the starters, and Xavier Rhodes as the only other healthy corner on the roster.

I've always thought Roethlisberger is one of the league's best at exposing a suspect secondary, since he can extend plays and force defensive backs to stick on their receivers longer than they should need. As effortlessly as everyone has been able to throw on the Vikings so far, I don't see why Sunday's game should be much different.

Let's switch sides of the ball. If Christian Ponder plays -- and that appears to be in at least some doubt now that he has a rib injury -- he'll have to properly diagnose the Steelers in their 3-4 defense. As hesitant as Ponder can be sometimes, is this a chance for the Steelers to put some heat on a quarterback?

Brown: Dick LeBeau will try to confuse Ponder, and the longtime defensive coordinator has traditionally tormented young quarterbacks who struggle to figure out where the Steelers are blitzing from and when they are sending an extra pass-rusher. The best thing the Vikings can do for Ponder, or whoever plays quarterback, is to win on first and second down.

They have just the player who can help them do that and keep them out of third and long in Peterson. He is the best running back on the planet and he is catching the Steelers at a time when their run defense looks vulnerable.

The Steelers are giving up 115.3 rushing yards per game, which is exceedingly high for a team that has finished among the NFL’s top three rushing defenses 13 of the past 19 seasons. They yielded 5.4 yards per carry last Sunday night to Chicago’s Matt Forte. Forte is a good back, but he is no Peterson. Ben, here is my final question for you: What has to happen for the Vikings to win?

Goessling: Peterson has to have a big day. They haven't had a game yet this year where he's been able to take control of things, and if he can do that Sunday, that'd be a huge help to whomever the Vikings quarterback will be. My hunch is Ponder's injury will be just bad enough -- or it will at least be portrayed as such -- to make Matt Cassel the starter, but regardless of the quarterback, the Vikings need Peterson to do what he did last year.

They've also got to cut out the turnovers. Their own 10 turnovers have washed out their defensive productivity in that area, and on a couple occasions, the Vikings have given the ball back right after their defense took it away. That can't happen against a defense that hasn't forced one yet. What's the key for the Steelers to come away from London with their first victory?

Brown: Contain Peterson. I don’t think it is realistic to shut him down, but the Steelers need to put the Vikings in enough third-and-long situations where they can really go after Ponder or Cassel. They also need to generate a couple of takeaways.

The offense also has to build on the positives it produced last Sunday night against the Bears when it gained 459 total yards. Yes, the five turnovers were a killer but I also think the generosity displayed by Roethlisberger (two lost fumbles and two interceptions) was also an anomaly. If the Steelers protect the ball and take it away here and there from the Vikings, I think they win.

.

W2W4: Bears at Steelers

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
5:00
PM ET

CHICAGO BEARS (2-0) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (0-2)

7:30 p.m. CT Sunday at Heinz Field on NBC
Jay Cutler, Ben RoethlisbergerKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks Jay Cutler, left, and Ben Roethlisberger lead offenses headed in opposite directions.
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.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears veteran defensive end Julius Peppers had no desire to revisit his two performances in the opening weeks of the regular season when he stopped to meet the media at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice inside the Walter Payton Center.

Peppers’ productivity is a hotly debated topic in Chicago. The eight-time Pro Bowl selection failed to register a sack in either of the Bears’ wins against Cincinnati or Minnesota, and according to the team’s official defensive stats based on coaches review, Peppers has just two total tackles and one quarterback pressure in 97 combined snaps.

“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.”

Peppers battled an illness last week that forced him to miss the Thursday practice leading up to the Minnesota game and eventually landed him on the final injury report as “probable." The 12-year NFL veteran continued to feel ill on Sunday during the Bears’ 31-30 victory over the Vikings, and then actually felt worse the next day on Monday, according to Bears coach Marc Trestman.

However, Peppers was listed as having full participation on Wednesday.

“I’m feeling fine. I’m not interested in talking about the first two weeks right now," he said. "My focus is on Pittsburgh and winning the game this week.”

The prospects of Peppers having a rebound effort Sunday night in Pittsburgh look to be promising. The Steelers are one of the worst offenses in the league through two weeks (No. 31), and 6-foot-5 quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had a difficult time staying upright -- Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times in two games.

“It’s getting him down,” Peppers said of the challenges in facing Roethlisberger. "It’s one thing to get there, but when you get there you have to get him down, and we’re going to need a group effort to do that.

"We’re not looking past anybody. We’re really concerned about ourselves, and getting better, that’s where the focus is at.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears veteran defensive end Julius Peppers had no desire to revisit his two performances in the opening weeks of the regular season when he stopped to meet the media at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice inside the Walter Payton Center.

Peppers
Peppers’ productivity is a hotly debated topic in Chicago. The eight-time Pro Bowl selection failed to register a sack in either of the Bears’ wins against Cincinnati or Minnesota, and according to the team’s official defensive stats based on coaches review, Peppers has just two total tackles and one quarterback pressure in 97 combined snaps.

“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.”

Peppers battled an illness last week that forced him to miss the Thursday practice leading up to the Minnesota game and eventually landed him on the final injury report as “probable." The 12-year NFL veteran continued to feel ill on Sunday during the Bears’ 31-30 victory over the Vikings, and then actually felt worse the next day on Monday, according to Bears coach Marc Trestman.

However, Peppers was listed as having full participation on Wednesday.

“I’m feeling fine. I’m not interested in talking about the first two weeks right now," he said. "My focus is on Pittsburgh and winning the game this week.”

The prospects of Peppers having a rebound effort Sunday night in Pittsburgh look to be promising. The Steelers are one of the worst offenses in the league through two weeks (No. 31), and 6-foot-5 quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had a difficult time staying upright -- Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times in two games.

“It’s getting him down,” Peppers said of the challenges in facing Roethlisberger. "It’s one thing to get there, but when you get there you have to get him down, and we’re going to need a group effort to do that.

"We’re not looking past anybody. We’re really concerned about ourselves, and getting better, that’s where the focus is at.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Through two weeks of the regular season the Chicago Bears’ offense (No. 14) actually outranks the defense (No. 17), a feat the offense was unable to accomplish during the majority of the Lovie Smith era.

The Bears are still on the plus side of their turnover ratio (+1, good for 11th in the NFL) thanks to the defense, but the unit ranks a pedestrian No. 14 in rushing defense and No. 17 in passing defense, despite the club’s 2-0 record to begin the season.

Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh could present the Bears with an opportunity to get back on track defensively. The Steelers have averaged a woeful 9.5 points per game -- fewer than all but two teams in the league -- and rank second-to-last in the league in total offense and rushing offense. Pittsburgh is also converting only 28 percent of its third-down chances, primarily because the Steelers found themselves in so many third-and-long situations in losses to Tennessee and Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stated the obvious on Wednesday during a conference call with Chicago media members.

"We need to score more points," Roethlisberger said. "You’ve got to score more points. We do, we need to run the ball more effectively. We need to be better throwing the ball, and like I said, turning the ball over just kills you. That eliminates points."

So does poor pass protection – Pittsburgh has surrendered seven sacks in two weeks.

In fairness to the Steelers, (1) they had a major injury on the offensive line in Week 1 when starting center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a season-ending knee injury, (2) Roethlisberger has never been the quickest quarterback moving around in the pocket and (3) the team has won Super Bowls before with a bad offensive line.

But the Steelers can’t seem to do much of anything on offense, which has led to an inordinate amount of frustration in the Steel City in the infant stages of the 2013 season.

"I think winning pulls a lot of, helps cure a lot of issues," Roethlisberger said. "That’s what we need to try and do is get a win. I’ve never started a season like this since I’ve been in Pittsburgh. It’s a challenge for us, and one we’re not going to back down from.

"We know we have a tough opponent coming in, especially offensively for us. They’re a really good defense. It’s going be … it’s not like it’s getting any easier. So we need to get on our Ps and Qs and focus in."

Given all of the Steelers’ issues on offense, the Bears should be able to jump-start a dormant pass rush Sunday night at Heinz Field. The Bears have managed to record just two sacks and 10 quarterback pressures the last two weeks, a far cry from the eight sacks the defense had after two regular-season games in 2012.

"Pass rush is something we need to improve on," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "We need to finish in our rushes. We were getting closer, but no cigar. This week is about finishing. Four guys [need to be] working together. When we pressure, we have to get there."
Mike Sando and I were recording this week's Inside Slant podcast at the same time news broke of the NFL's decision to move forward with replacement officials. So we were able to provide some analysis and context amid our league-wide discussion.

I reiterated my primary concern: Replacements have made glaring mistakes of rule knowledge and application during preseason games. I could live with mistake of judgment, such as questionable pass interference calls or non-calls, because even the league's veteran officials make those. But having games officiating by people who haven't absorbed the NFL's sizable and complicated rule book is scary and bound to impact the result of a game.

The podcast also included discussion of this week's column on the efforts of NFL cornerbacks to minimize their height disadvantage. We touched on the rules that Dez Bryant has apparently accepted from the Dallas Cowboys, revisited the top of the 2009 draft and expanded on what Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said about playing on artificial surfaces.
Aaron Rodgers Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireGreen Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is completing 71.7 percent of his passes and averaging more than 344 yards per game this season.
There is little doubt this year about the NFL's top-performing quarterback. Tim Tebow's 79-yard season has taken the league by storm and set a new standard for what a second-year quarterback ...

Whoops. Sorry.

No matter what metric you use, I think we can all agree that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had the NFL's best start to the season. He has produced the league's top passer rating, is atop the year's Total Quarterback Rating and is a fixture in the No. 1 slot of Mike Sando's MVP Watch over on the NFC West blog.

Around here, we've pretty much run out of ways to tell you all that. But after fiddling around with the excellent Pro Football Reference database, I stumbled onto a slightly different angle. (If you prefer to watch me tell you about it, rather than read any further, check out this week's NFC 411 video below.)

Rodgers has the NFL's top completion percentage (71.7) and is tied for the best average yards per attempt (9.6). Generally speaking, those two categories shouldn't fit together.

Yards per attempt is one way to measure downfield passing proficiency. Of course, several components go into yardage totals, including receivers' open-field running ability and the tackling skills of opponents. But the primary ingredient is the quarterback's success at pushing the ball down the field on passes that are relatively difficult to complete.

As a result, it's extraordinarily difficult to achieve a high completion percentage when you're consistently throwing lower-percentage passes. Consider Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who last season had the NFL's No. 3 average per attempt (8.2) but its 15th-best completion percentage (61.7).

On the other hand, a high completion percentage can be associated with passes that are easier to complete. Checkdowns and other short passes result in a lower average per attempt. Case in point: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had the NFL's highest completion percentage (68.1) last season, but his 7.0-yard average per attempt tied for No. 16 overall.

That disparity should give you some context for what Rodgers has done this season. He's completing a higher percentage of his passes than any other quarterback even while piling up big yardage numbers with what should be lower-percentage throws downfield. He has been more efficient and proficient than any other NFL quarterback, an exceedingly tough combination to achieve.

How tough? Since 1960, only three quarterbacks have posted a completion percentage of 70 or higher and an average yards per attempt of 9.0 or higher in the first five games of the season. The details are in the first chart accompanying this post.

In the entire history of the NFL, only two quarterbacks have ever finished a season (defined as 400 or more throws) with similar numbers. Both of them, Sammy Baugh and Joe Montana, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The second chart shows the top five combined performances in these two categories.

I hope you're with me on how rare and special that type of season is. NFL passing statistics tend to fall off as the weather turns, so we don't know whether Rodgers can or will maintain this pace. But he has a chance at putting together the kind of special season that surpasses what passer rating, QBR and even an MVP award could explain.

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