Commentary

Don't count out Steelers vs. Bears

Struggling pass rush, third-down defense must improve against Roethlisberger

Updated: September 19, 2013, 4:57 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- After listening to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Wednesday, you get the impression his offense needs to do something better. Can't quite put my finger on what, though.

"We need to score more points," he said during a conference call with Bears reporters. "To score more points, you've got to score more points."

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins
AP Photo/Greg TrottThe Bears defensive line has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush through two games.

Ben Roethlisberger conference call Zen koans are the best conference call Zen koans.

It's safe to say the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is not satisfied with 19 total points in the team's first two games. The offense, like Todd Haley, is quite unpopular in a city that lives and dies with the Steelers.

Roethlisberger did his best to sound like he gets along with Haley, the offensive coordinator who replaced his friend Bruce Arians last year. But what Roethlisberger didn't say is that, with Haley in charge, the 0-2 Steelers are in big trouble with the 2-0 Chicago Bears coming to town for a Sunday night game.

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

Asked how his relationship with Haley has "matured," Roethlisberger basically limited his praise to variations of "We talk to each other at work."

"It's grown," he said. "We know each other for another year. We talk and communicate. There's give and take. He listens to my input, I'm listening to his input, and we just work together a lot better."

If I didn't know better, I thought we were talking to the Ghost of Cutler Past. How many draft picks would Roethlisberger trade for Marc Trestman right now?

Through two games, this has the makings of a bad Steelers team, worse than anticipated. Six wins might be a moral victory, but I think they get one this weekend.

You read that correctly. Don't count out the Steelers just yet. At least not this week.

Like cornered rats, Pittsburgh will rebel against its mortality Sunday night and, yes, beat the Bears in a rare home upset (rare because they're typically not home underdogs).

No, I'm not wearing my Hines Ward jersey as I write this. I can see it, hanging there under the spotlights on my wall next to my Terrible Towel collection. But no, I'm not wearing it.

In all seriousness, no one is less optimistic about this game than Steelers fans, who are only slightly more positive than Browns fans right now.

For the first time in two decades, Steelers football is encroaching on a Pirates playoff run, not to mention the Penguins season.

But the Steelers offense won't be the only desperate group at Heinz Field on Sunday. And I'm not talking about a Steelers defense that doesn't have a takeaway yet.

The Bears defense has excelled at splashy plays (six takeaways) but struggled in the trenches and getting off the field on third down. This is a unit with high expectations and a low threshold for BS.

"Every week is a desperate week," Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. "We see it the same way. Of course, we're 2-0, but we're desperate to win another one. Everybody thinks their backs are against the wall, but it isn't about them. It's about what we do. We're just as desperate as them. If you lose one, you could lose two."

While Jennings said he believes in the idea of a desperate team, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called that kind of talk "low-hanging fruit."

"I think there's enough natural urgency just involved in football," he said. "It's Sunday night. We've got a 2-0 football team coming in here. I think there's enough motivation in itself from that standpoint, besides the obvious. Sure, there's going to be a natural response to want to rise up in the face of some of the circumstances that we face. But those are natural things."

Forget momentum or emotion, the real key for Pittsburgh is that the Bears defense's few weaknesses thus far bode well for its chances.

Most notably, Chicago's front four hasn't mustered up any sort of pass rush and it is tied for the worst third-down percentage in the NFL at 51.9 percent (14 for 27).

Last week, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder made plays with his feet and threw for 227 yards. The Bears sacked him once.

The one thing you don't give Big Ben is more time.

There is a sense that a frustrated Roethlisberger is going to have to freelance a lot this week. The Steelers' run game is nonexistent -- no offense, Felix Jones -- with rookie Le'Veon Bell still injured and all-world center Maurkice Pouncey getting his knee blown up in the opener. They have just two rushing first downs. The return of tight end Heath Miller, who practiced Wednesday, would help.

Last week, before facing Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the popular phrase around Halas Hall was "population tackle." The Bears did a good job swarming Peterson, who had one 36-yard run and 25 more carries for 64 yards.

This week, nothing has changed. It's still all about stopping the biggest, best player. But this time it's the quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsIf the Bears can't wrap up Ben Roethlisberger, it could spell trouble for the secondary.

"They've got a Hall of Fame quarterback that has the ability to extend plays like maybe no other quarterback, to my recollection," Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

Like a moose in spikes, Roethlisberger isn't fast, but he's tough to corral. If the Bears can't finish their rush, the lingering problem, that's trouble for the secondary. That's trouble for the Bears.

"He's one of the tougher guys to get on the ground," defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "Even when you're hanging on the guy, he can still make a throw down the field. When he scrambles, he's looking to throw. He can throw 60 yards on the run."

Few groups are better at taking advantage of an offense's mistakes than the Bears secondary. But if the defensive backs are tired, it makes ball hawking a little harder.

"It's extremely tough," Jennings said of covering receivers when Roethlisberger scrambles. "No one in the back end wants to cover for seven seconds. Anytime he scrambles all that time, of course he's going to find open space, receivers are going to find open spots in the zone. Ben is going to find them when you don't get that kind of pressure."

There's a pretty hard and fast rule in the NFL: No team ever admits to looking forward to smacking around a bad team. Most players credit the great teams and build up the sorry ones in the media.

But in this case, the Bears defense can't get that excited about the Steelers' woes until they fix their own glitches.

Just ask Julius Peppers, the most scrutinized defensive player in town. As Peppers met with the media inside the Walter Payton Center, Lance Briggs yelled his support, "Don't let them get you down!"

Peppers refused to talk about last week. He should be able to get loose against a weak Steelers line -- not that he'd brag about it.

"We're not looking past anybody, we're not underestimating anybody, we're not looking at the record," Peppers said. "We're preparing to win a game. We're really worried about making ourselves get better."

Good plan.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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