Inside the Matchup – At Chicago

By Thomas Cooper
www.SteelerNation.com

The Steelers improved upon their disjointed play against the Browns. The Vikings loss of Sam Bradford certainly helped the defense contain the Vikings offense, but the biggest improvement came from the offense and players not named Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

It was a big test for the offensive line as the Vikings front seven can terrorize opponents, so the Steelers will likely find some positives to take from their performance on offense. The defense also improved, especially the cornerbacks, but the unit should still be viewed as a work in progress.

This week the Steelers will travel to Chicago to face an 0-2 Bears team that may have fielded one of the worst rosters in the NFL. This brings up some questions like will the Steelers continue their road game struggles and will they continue to play down to the competition or will they continue the work in progress and show improvement on both sides of the football. With this road game coming the week prior to a big division matchup against the Ravens, it will be very interesting to see which Steeler team shows up in Chicago.

Steelers Defense VS Bears Offense

The Bears’ offense looks better on paper than it does on film. The biggest obstacle the Bears face arises because the lack of quality they have on the offensive line. Charles Leno is the starting left tackle and has been the starter for a few seasons. He is an undersized tackle with longer arms, very similar in build to former Steeler Kelvin Beachum. Leno does not have the overall athleticism that Beachum shows on film or the smoothness of play, but he is improving and shows some promise. Kyle Long plays beside Leno. He was tried at right tackle and really struggled when moved outside. He appears to be a better fit at left guard, but I am not confident in his ability to handle stronger bull rushes in his face. Cody Whitehair is the center. In his second year out of Clemson, Whitehair has proven to be solid, but not spectacular. He also can struggle with power on the inside and the Bears will look to use combination blocks on the interior to help protect both Whitehair and Long. The long-time Packer veteran Josh Sitton moved to right guard and appears to have settled in nicely. Sitton is the best offensive lineman on this unit. Bobby Massie, the former Cardinal, is the starting right tackle but he still struggles with speed on the edge. He can be slow off the snap and allows a soft corner to solid speed rushers on his side. This is an offensive line that has struggled to open holes in the run game and has allowed pressure in the face of Mike Glennon as well as soft edges for the pass rushers to bend. If the Bears have any hope of salvaging a decent season, this unit has to improve.

Glennon appears to be a fair option when you look at his overall numbers, but that just does not correlate with the overall film. He is the triggerman of this offense, but he really struggles with pressure and does not appear to be comfortable in many instances. When Glennon gets a clean pocket and ample time, he shows some ability to deliver catchable passes into tight windows, but those instances are too few and far between. Jordan Howard returns after breaking 1,000 yards last season but he has not had open running lanes and has struggled. The Bears have turned to rookie Tarik Cohen because he shows some promise as a runner and is an excellent receiver from the backfield. Cohen’s versatility allows the Bears to open up the offense. Currently, Cohen leads the team in rushing yards and has 10 less carries than Howard. He is second on the team in receiving yards and first in total receptions. At tight end, Zach Miller was off to a good start and may be a bigger receiving threat than starter Dion Sims. Miller and Sims really need to improve their overall game to give Glennon a safety net when the offensive line breaks down. At wide receiver, the Bears look like the Island of Misfit toys and have been riddled by injury to starters. Currently, former Titan Kendall Wright and former Raven and Bill Deonte Thompson are starters. Markus Wheaton is on roster, but he has yet to play. He appears ready to make his debut this week. Offensively, this unit does not have elite talent in a lot of places and it showed against Tampa Bay.

When the Steelers defense takes the field, I would expect to see a lot of pressure from the edges. If TJ Watt is healthy, he has a distinct advantage in length, strength, and speed over Leno. Anthony Chickillo would also offer some stout competition, but this may be the week to get James Harrison out of mothballs. Leno isn’t a bigger tackle with great power, so Harrison could give him real issues. On the other side, Bud Dupree should be licking his chops. Massie has been slow off the snap in several instances this year and he has struggled to even get hands on edge rushers bending the corner. The Bears used some max protection against Tampa Bay to give Glennon more time, but the lack of talent at wide receiver and their inability to get separation compounds the issue. Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Tyson Alualu pose a formidable group inside and if Stephon Tuitt returns, it could be a long day for the Bears line.

In the secondary, there isn’t much need to single out a receiver and match them up. Both Wright and Thompson have speed. Wheaton does as well if he is finally healthy. The problem these guys have is the same, they don’t translate all the raw physical attributes into consistent production in the NFL. The Steelers should be fine to line up in a standard defense and play the man in front of them. The biggest area of concern will be when the Bears bring Cohen into the slot. The Steelers will need to matchup Hilton with Cohen and not allow a linebacker to handle that role. Cohen is too solid a receiver and that is a win for the Bears. If the Steelers can take away Cohen, in both the running and passing game, then the Bears offense should struggle to move the football. The areas of concern will be communication breakdowns and missed assignments. If the Steelers can avoid those, it doesn’t appear that the Bears have the overall talent on offense to compete.

Steelers Offense VS Bears Defense

The Bears moved to a 3-4 defense in 2015 and they are still seeing some growing pains. Akiem Hicks is the starter defensive end on one side. He can best be classified as a journeyman. He started every game last season for the Bears and had his best season as a pro with 54 tackles and 7 sacks. Mitch Unrein is listed as the starter at the other defensive end position, but he feels more like a placeholder than a true starter. The problem is, they don’t have a young talent waiting in the wings or a veteran that can take the spot. Eddie Goldman is the nose tackle and he is pretty stout against the run and does offer some push in the passing game. It is a defensive line that needs help from the linebackers. Willie Young may be the most dangerous player in the front seven. Young is a grizzled veteran that is playing the best football of his career. He can be disruptive in the passing game and the Bears move him around to create favorable matchups. The other outside linebacker is Leonard Floyd. Floyd is a second-year guy that shows great speed and the ability to bend the edge as a pass rusher. He hasn’t been as effective this season as he was his rookie year, but he cannot be taken lightly. When healthy, Danny Travathan is an effective leader of this defense. He is a solid all-around player. Nick Kwiatkoski earned the starting spot as a rookie last season and will be the second inside linebacker when the Bears stay in the base defense. If this defense has a strength, it is the secondary. The Bears went out and signed two free agent cornerbacks in Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper. Both earned the starting roles and both are solid cornerbacks. Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller play in the nickel and dime sets. Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps are the starting safeties. While the secondary has some talent, unless the front seven find a way to give consistent pressure, they can only be asked to cover for so long.

The Steelers showed some life with Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant last week and they need to continue to spread the love early in games. While Brown is the best wide receiver on roster, he should not be asked to carry this team each week. They have weapons, attack defenses in every area and take some of the focus off Brown to alleviate some of the double coverages. The Steelers seem to like the three-wide receiver set with JuJu Smith-Schuster as the slot receiver. With his blocking ability, I can understand why they prefer this alignment. It should be an alignment that pays dividends against the Bears as well. With the Bears weakness up front, I would not be surprised to see the Steelers pull the offensive line to lead blocks, bring Smith-Schuster in motion to dig out linebackers and any safety that creeps into the box, and work to gash the creases with Bell. The Bears appear soft on the edges and if the Steelers can force them to trade a linebacker for a defensive back, it further helps their cause. I would expect a strong running game from the Steelers this week.

While the running game should be prominent, I expect the Roethlisberger to throw to set up the run. The Bears must know Bell is coming and will prepare to stop him first. While I think Cooper and Amukamara are solid corners, I also think the Bears lack of pass rush makes them sitting ducks. In watching film of the Bears defense, they seemed to lean on man coverages with a single-high safety or versions of the Cover-2 defense. If they remain in those sets for most of the game, the Steelers should be able to attack the defense through the air. I do not believe that Amukamara will be as effective against Brown as Xavier Rhodes was. I also do not believe that Cooper has the athletic traits to consistently stop Bryant. With the glut of receiving options the Steelers present, the Bears will likely spend most of their time in zones hoping Rothlisberger gets impatient and makes a mistake. The Steelers receivers should feast on this defense if it happens. They need to remain patient early, use the pass to set up favorable down and distances, run when they are in front of the chains, and control the football and the clock through the first half, potentially building a double-digit lead. It will force the Bears to gamble on defense and that is when the play action passes down the field will provide the dagger in the heart. At first glance, the Bears just don’t have the talent on either side of the football if the Steelers play to the talent they put on the field.

Special Teams

Cohen is a dangerous return man but his decision to field a punt between two defensive players last week is mind-boggling. Eli Rogers is consistent but, at present, isn’t a threat. The Steelers have an edge on punt returns based solely on consistency. The Steelers hold an edge in punting and punt coverage as well. Chris Boswell is a better kicker than Connor Barth. So far, this season, the Steelers kickoff returns and coverage units are performing as well. It should be mentioned that Tyler Matakavich makes one key special teams play a week in areas that usually go unnoticed. In week one, he blocked a punt. In week two, he played sound assignment football and did not fall for the fake. Both plays on special teams by Matakavich lead to scores. The Steelers special team’s units have had the feel of being somewhat special.

Prediction

This feels like the type of game where the Steelers go on the road and lay an egg. It is a week before a division rival. It is a road game. It is against a team that, on paper, should not have the talent to stay with the Steelers. Is this the same old Steeler team? It doesn’t have that feel. Against a pretty good Vikings team, the Steelers took two of the first three possessions and scored touchdowns. Then, they played solid football and when the Vikings made mistakes, they capitalized. They did not make mistakes of their own and even in instances where the Bears closed the gap, the Steelers responded with drives to answer. The Steelers cleaned up some issues from week one, showed improvements in several areas, and have the feel of a team that is ascending while the Bears are travelling in another direction. I would not be surprised to see some of Mitch Trubisky this week because, well, why not.

Steelers 42-Bears 13

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