September 22, 2017
Key matchups, players to watch, predictions and more for Sunday's Bears-Steelers game at Soldier Field (noon, CBS).
Clean-up project: Mike Glennon's three first-half turnovers against the Buccaneers last Sunday amounted to a worst-case scenario for the Bears. They need him to play turnover-free, if not above average, to keep the team competitive while first-round rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky develops in practice. But Glennon's giveaways put the Bears in a 23-0 hole reminiscent of Jay Cutler's worst afternoons. His two interceptions admittedly were poor decisions. Other receivers were open and preferable targets on each throw. Coaches have touted Glennon's decision-making as a main reason he gives the Bears the best chance to win right now. If he can't do that, disaster awaits.
Rush hour: The Bears want to be a run-oriented offense, especially after Jordan Howardset the franchise rookie rushing record last season with 1,313 yards. Through two games, however, the ground game has not been effective enough. Without Tarik Cohen's 46-yard gain in the opener, in which he turned chicken you-know-what into chicken salad, the Bears would be averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. Against the Bucs, they carried 16 times for only 20 yards. Howard says he must break more tackles, but offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains puts the onus on the offensive line to clear enough space for Howard to get to the second level.
Hello and goodbye: It's about time the Bears got some of their injured contributors back. Receiver Markus Wheaton (left pinkie), left guard Kyle Long (right ankle) and cornerback Prince Amukamara (right ankle) are set to make their season debuts Sunday. Theoretically, Wheaton's ability to catch deep passes could stretch defenses and alleviate some of the crowding near the line of scrimmage. But injuries have prevented Wheaton from being a full-time player since 2015, and he hasn't practiced with Glennon as much as other receivers. They must sharpen their timing in a hurry. Meanwhile, inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (right pectoralis) is the latest prospect lost to injury.
Testing steel: What would the Bears have given to have the Steelers' September schedule? Last season's AFC runner-up began by beating the Browns 21-18 in Cleveland against rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer in his NFL debut. Then they beat the Vikings26-9 at home with quarterback Case Keenum replacing injured starter Sam Bradford (left knee). Despite being loaded with offensive playmakers, the Steelers' 2.8 yards-per-carry average ranks last in the NFL. Star running back Le'Veon Bell is not in top form after a contract holdout that ended Sept. 1. But their defense has been reliable, as usual. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier's versatility causes matchup problems.
- Bears on offense
In the air
NFL rank: Bears offense T-15th, Steelers defense 5th
Mike Glennon's three turnovers last Sunday resulted in a worst-case scenario for a Bears organization asking for fans' patience while rookie Mitch Trubisky develops. Glennon must make better decisions to protect the ball. His receivers also must help him; they dropped seven passes against the Bucs. The tight ends can find success in the middle of the Steelers defense. The Steelers pass rush (nine sacks in two games) has been effective rushing only four. Edge rusher Bud Dupree wreaks havoc with speed and explosiveness.
On the ground
NFL rank: Bears offense 26th, Steelers defense 8th
The Bears want to be run-oriented but haven't quite gotten that engine revved up. Left guard Kyle Long (right ankle) must prove he's the same athletic mauler Chicago once knew him to be. He also is making his debut at a new position. Right guard Josh Sitton's ribs injury creates questions about his availability and effectiveness. Hroniss Grasu might have to play center with Cody Whitehair shifting to guard. All those issues are exacerbated because the Steelers front seven is allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
Bears 21st in total offense, T-25th in points scored
Steelers 3rd in total defense, 6th in points allowed
- Steelers on offense
In the air
NFL rank: Steelers offense 11th, Bears defense 24th
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger extends plays with exceptional pocket awareness. He's difficult to bring down. His receivers have playmaking abilities the Bears simply don't.Antonio Brown is a detailed route runner with magic feet on sideline catches. He is fast enough to turn a 10-yard catch into a 70-yard touchdown. Martavis Bryant is a bona fide deep threat. Slot receiver Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster is physical. Cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller dropped potential interceptions last Sunday. Prince Amukamara (right ankle) should rotate in, if not start, in his debut.
On the ground
NFL rank: Steelers offense 29th, Bears defense 15th
The Steelers' 2.8 yards-per-carry rushing average is dead last in the NFL. That's shocking because Le'Veon Bell is one of the league's best running backs. But he held out until Sept. 1 because of a contract dispute and still is rounding into form. At his best, he's patient, elusive and powerful. The Steelers offensive line continuity shows up in the form of crisp combination blocks. Bears veteran Christian Jones is the next man up at inside linebacker. Coaches believe he has matured as a player to match his athleticism.
Steelers 16th in total offense, 11th in points scored
Bears 25th in total defense, 28th in points allowed
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (No. 26)
Measureables: 6-foot-1, 225 pounds
Assigned: Bears defensive linemen Akiem Hicks (No. 96), Eddie Goldman (No. 91) and Mitch Unrein (No. 98)
Notable numbers: Bell led the NFL in averaging 157.0 yards from scrimmage per game in 2016. That was the third highest single-season total in league history behind Priest Holmes in 2002 (163.4) and O.J. Simpson in 1975 (160.2). … The Bears' defense has held opponents to 3.2 yards per carry through two games, ninth best in the NFL.
Scouting report: Add starting inside linebackers — Danny Trevathan and Christian Jones — to the top of the "assigned" list. Stifling the Steelers offense must start with a concerted effort to slow Bell, who is dangerous as both a runner and a receiver. But here's the biggest question for Sunday: Will the Bears be facing the Pro Bowl star who has topped 100 yards from scrimmage 32 times with a career best 298 against the Bills last season? Or will it be the back still trying to find a rhythm after a lengthy summer contract holdout? Through two games, Bell ranks 13th in rushing (119 yards) but is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. Still, he could go off at any point and his patient running style consistently strains defenses.
Word from within: "His patience shows when he gets you to peek inside. From a defensive lineman's perspective, what he wants you to do is stop your feet and go to a gap that's not your responsibility. The best way to limit their offense is to slow him down and play your respective responsibility with discipline." — Akiem Hicks on Bell
Martavis Bryant, Steelers WR
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Martavis Bryant is in his third season and returned after missing all of 2016 on suspension for violation of the NFL's drug policy. While teammate Antonio Brown leads the league with 244 receiving yards, Bryant is a very dangerous target opposite him and benefits from coverages that are focused on Brown.
The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Bryant averaged 17.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons and caught 14 touchdowns in 21 games before his suspensions piled up. He has five catches for 105 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown last week against the Vikings.
"He's like an alien," the pro scout said. "He's super rare because most guys who have that type of linear build are straight-line guys with exceptional top-end speed like he has. I've been impressed with his underneath route-running ability and his production after the catch. He has more lateral change of direction ability than you would expect from a guy who has that body frame. The key is he really has developed his route running. Last week, it was a slant route for a 27-yard touchdown against Minnesota because he separated so much in the break and once he caught the ball, he has this immediate burst of speed, again different than you expect from a long strider, and he eliminated the angle for the safety right away.
"Downfield, he's a deep ball threat every time. Ben Roethlisberger likes to throw the ball downfield. He led the league in throws of 30-plus yards. That's what he wants to do. Bryant doesn't have the thickness or the strength of Mike Evans or Dez Bryant in the red zone, but he's a great matchup because of his body control. He's super flexible and that's why I said he's an alien. He can high point the ball, he can play the ball on the back shoulder and he can leap out of the damn stadium. Unique player and he's just starting to scratch the surface because he has had so much off-the-field crap. You're starting to see signs that this kid can be a monster. The Bears are going to have to do something because they don't match up with either receiver. I think playing two-man is their best bet. They can be a little aggressive and go after them underneath with that coverage."
Brad Biggs (2-0)
Steelers defense has looked fantastic against the Browns and the Vikings, who were without Sam Bradford, so it's difficult to tell how good it is. But figure it to stymie Bears, and Steelers can score plenty. Steelers 31, Bears 13
Rich Campbell (2-0)
Steelers have best defense Bears have faced yet, and their strength is stopping the run. It's a bad matchup for an offense still searching for its running game and any type of spark. But the Steelers are known occasionally to lay an egg on the road, and perhaps the Bears' front seven can make things disjointed for a Steelers' offense that hasn't hit its stride. Running back Le'Veon Bell hasn't busted out yet, and the Bears' defense must be disciplined tracking him. The Steelers, though, are always one snap away from a big passing play, and the Bears have no margin for error. The disparity between the teams' playmakers, as usual, will be the difference in a competitive game. Steelers 20, Bears 13
David Haugh (2-0)
Until the Bears give themselves the best chance to win every Sunday, they won't. The Steelers will make the offense one-dimensional and Mike Glennon lacks the weapons and resourcefulness to make plays. The return of running game might keep it competitive, but don't hold your breath. Steelers 31, Bears 21
Colleen Kane (2-0)
The Steelers defense ranks third in the NFL with 237 yards allowed per game and is tied for second with nine sacks. That came against the Browns and the Vikings without Sam Bradford, but it still doesn't bode well for a banged-up Bears offensive line and struggling Mike Glennon. John Fox's September victory drought will continue. Steelers 28, Bears 17
Mike Mulligan (2-0)
Steelers long have been a team renown for playing down to an opponent's level, especially on the road. The Bears must protect the ball and complement a physical defensive effort. Steelers 23, Bears 17
Phil Thompson (1-1)
Bucs' defense gave the Bears fits, so what can Mike Glennon do against the Steelers' third-ranked unit? Meanwhile, Jordan Howard has 59 yards in two games. The offensive line hasn't blocked well for either player. Kyle Long's hoped-for return would help but it won't be enough. On a side bet, let's set the over-under on Mike Tomlin two-point conversions at two. Steelers 28, Bears 13
Dan Wiederer (2-0)
I'm ignoring my hunch the Bears defense will spearhead an improbable upset. Instead, it seems more practical focusing on Steelers' advantage in game-changers. (See: Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree.) Ultimately, that's what this comes down to. And when you entertain the question "Who wins this game for the Bears?'' and scratch your scalp raw thinking about it, that's telling. Until the Bears show they can score 24 points in a game, until they show they can create multiple takeaways, until they win a game in September under John Fox, you have to pick against them. Steelers 26, Bears 20