December 11, 2005 was the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers battled against the Chicago Bears. This game was the staging point for a Steelers team desperate for momentum, and struggling for a win. The Bus plowed directly through Soldier Field, smashing what was arguably the NFC's best defense into shambles. Although there are several new faces for both teams, on both sides of the ball, this game remains a staging point for both teams alike. The Steelers are looking for their second consecutive win, while the Bears are looking to pick up the pieces after a disastrous start to the '09 season.
Unlike the last face off, the Bears will be led by a pro-bowl quarterback coming off his debut, and the worst performance of his short career. They will also be without their defensive captain, pro-bowl linebacker, Brian Urlacher. The Bears are still considered a defense to be reckoned with, and although they have had numerous injuries to their starting core, they remain a defense very capable of putting up points by themselves, and dominating the battle in trenches. While the Bears look for their first win of the season, they will also be looking to jump start an offense that was virtually nonexistent in last week's 21-15 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Bears put up 15 points, 2 from a safety, 7 from two field goals and an extra point, and 6 from a touchdown pass. Their defense allowed 21 points, and although they played well, they had no support whatsoever from the offense. The Bears currently rank 11th in offensive yardage, 10th in passing, and 18th in rushing. The defense is arguably their strongest asset, ranking 5th in yards allowed, 6th in passing yards allowed, and 11th in rushing yards allowed. They contained one of the best QB's around in Aaron Rodgers, and for the most part, held running back Ryan Grant in check. Although the Bears defensive played well, they uncharacteristically finished the game with 0 takeaways. This is an aspect that has grounded the Bears defense as explosive, and it often dictates the outcome of the game. Offensively the Bears looked amateur at best, allowing QB Jay Cutler to not only take various shots from the defense, but allowed 2 sacks, and turned the ball over 4 times in the air. While their offense may appear to be in complete disarray, they still have one of the league's most talented weapons in RB Matt Forte. Last week's loss can be attributed to various aspects, but in my opinion, the Bears did not play Bears football. Much like the Steelers, they are a running team, and Matt Forte had roughly 5 touches in the first half. He finished the game with 0 receptions, and 55 total yards. This is a running back who led their team in receptions last year, appearing in roughly 85% of the offensive plays in '08. Not only was Forte versatile, he broke Gale Sayers' rookie record for total yardage. Although Jay Cutler may appear to be the Bears offensive vocal point, it is the 2nd year running back Matt Forte that will often determine how good of a season they will have.
The Steelers took a victory last week to open the '09 season, but they certainly struggled to establish a cohesive offensive attack. Like the Bears, the Steelers were unable to establish the run, and were forced to play out of their conventional scheme. The Steelers rank 10th in total offensive yardage, 4th in passing, and a dismal 29th in rushing. They totaled 13 points last week, and for the majority of the game, their run attack was completely nonexistent. Defensively the Steelers were quite sound, but there is obvious room for improvement. They conceded only 10 points, but they did allow over 300+ yards. The Steelers rank 6th in points allowed, 20th in total yardage allowed, 19th in passing yards allowed, and 17th in rushing yards allowed. The Titans are a team capable of making big plays, and putting up good numbers, but the Steelers looked somewhat rusty in penetrating, and providing pressure on the quarterback. The Steelers will look to capitalize on a team that struggled offensively in virtually every aspect last week. The Packers defense is very similar to the Steeler's scheme, but unlike the Packers, this isn't their first year in a 3-4. Not only should we expect to see more blitzes from LeBeau, but we should expect to see more pressure on the quarterback. The Bears offensive line struggled last week in protecting Cutler, and establishing the run. The Steelers secondary is without pro-bowl safety Troy Polamalu, and the Bears will be targeting his backup more than any other DB on the field. One thing is for sure, this week's matchup will prove to be either a defensive struggle, or a complete blowup in favor of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike the Bears, the Steelers can afford to lean heavily on their defense. The Bears tried that last week, and although they withstood the majority of the game, they proved that they can't win games without somewhat of an offensive presence.
The Key Matchups:
James Harrison vs. Orlando Pace
Pace looked slow, and showed his age last week, but he still has the brute strength, and recognition to make up for it. Harrison is versatile, but he will need utilize his speed to penetrate one of the biggest tackles in the league. Pace is an astounding lineman, but his size can be used against him. He isn't what he used to be in protecting the quarterback, but this is one lineman who won't be afraid to clear-the-way for the run. Pace will make his adjustments as the game progresses, so expect to see different looks from different angles as an unstoppable force (Harrison) meets an immovable object (Pace).
Lamarr Woodley vs. Chris Williams
Williams was far from mediocre last week, and this first round draft pick has yet to establish himself as force to reckoned with. He is transitioning from the left side to the right, but his awareness is lacking, and after his performance last week, Lamarr Woodley shouldn't have any problem bypassing his lackluster efforts. I don't see Williams as being capable of stopping the complex blitz schemes LeBeau will be throwing at him. Last week he was more the dumbfounded on several occasions by LB Brandon Chillar, and company. Woodley had a rather poor performance last week, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him, and his counterpart (Harrison) break out against an underachieving, and aging Bears O-line. Williams is the ''future'' for the Bears, but if he continues to play like that, Cutler won't have an arm to throw with.
Casey Hampton vs. Olin Kreutz
This is a matchup well worth the wait, two perennial players demanding the attention of the opposing team. Hampton had a good performance last week, but the Titans running game was rather effective against a defense that prides itself in stopping the run. Kreutz played well, but he is showing the typical signs of his age. Kreutz is more than just a center, he is the leader of this line, and one of the most important players on this team. When things are going sour, Kreutz pulls it together. Hampton obviously has the size advantage, but Kreutz is a genius at reading defensive schemes. This matchup will certainly be a test for both players, both physically, and mentally. I expect to see these two butt heads on more than one occasion.
Ike Taylor vs. Devin Hester
Taylor is the Steelers best CB, but he is going up against a wide receiver with more than enough speed to compensate for his inability to run routes like a #1 wide receiver should. Taylor can make great reads, and has descent hands, but he will have to utilize his strength by slowing down one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Hester isn't a great receiver, but he isn't bad. He understands how to get open, but his hands aren't always on the same page. Taylor will need help at times covering Hester from the SS, but for the majority of the game he will be his own. Hester is Cutler's most explosive weapon at WR, but Hester and Cutler haven't exactly found their stride yet. Hester led the Bears with 4 receptions for 90 yards and 1 touchdown last week, but Devin wasn't even a factor in the short yardage passing game. If the Bears want Hester to be their #1, he will have to work on his short yardage abilities despite his presence as a deep threat.
Max Starks vs. Alex Brown
Alex Brown is very underrated, and although Starks is enormous, Alex Brown is just as versatile as his counterpart Adewale Ogunleye. Brown has a knack for sacking QB's, but in even a bigger knack for taking the ball out of his hands. If the Steelers want to establish any sort of a passing game, they will have to contain the ends. Brown is just as good at stopping the run as he is in hitting the quarterback, so be sure to lock him up on every snap. If he isn't accounted for, he will be after the game as he reaps the benefits as the NFC's defensive player of the week.
Willie Colon vs. Adewale Ogunleye
Colon will have his hands full on Sunday, Ogunleye had 2 sacks last week, and was simply punishing the Packers RT at will. Colon will be up against a dynamic DE with speed, power, and the ability to strip the ball. If there is one thing the Bears have going for them, it's a versatile, and effective D-line led by one of the best DE cores in the league. Ogunleye is quick, but he has the power moves to back it up. Colon will be looking for help from the RB on passing downs, but he should be able to contain Ogunleye on the rushing attempts. If there is one flaw to Ogunleye's arsenal, it's that he is mediocre at stopping the run. That in no way means he's useless, every player on the Bears defensive is exceptional at stripping the ball.
Hines Ward vs. Charles Tillman
Hines Ward had a good game last week, but it was overshadowed by a mistake a rookie would make. As of now, Tillman is slated in as the #1 DB, but he is still suffering from shoulder problems. These are two athletes capable of leading, and changing the outcome of any game. Tillman will press, and he will blitz, but Hines is no slouch. Be ready to see an outstanding matchup between two veteran pro-bowlers. This could be the most equally paired matchup between the two teams.
Santonio Holmes vs. Nathan Vasher
Holmes started this season off just as promising as when he ended it last year, and this week's matchup should be no different. Vasher has been digressing into a side note since being injured last year, and after a very lackluster performance last week, I don't see him doing much better. Vasher is quick, and is very instinctive, but lately his instincts have been backfiring. He's not the strongest DB, but he is looking to bounce back from a very sub par performance against the Packers. His main target, Greg Jennings, led the Pack with 6 receptions for 106 yards, and 1 touchdown last week. Although I have Holmes having another great performance, I wouldn't be completely surprised if Vasher takes one away. Both players are explosive, but Holmes is out to prove that he is one of the league's most entertaining wideouts, and after a strong start, I don't see any reason to believe he isn't.
Other Notable Performances to Watch:
Cutler's debut in a Bears uniform was just as controversial as his arrival, but unlike his arrival, the media wasn't on his side the following morning. Jay finished last week's game with over 275 yards, and 1 touchdown, but it's his 4 interceptions that nearly got him crucified. In all fairness, Cutler was given no time, nor the targets to throw to. That doesn't excuse his forcing the ball into quadruple coverage, but Cutler is only human, and he is a pro-bowl quarterback. Cutler will bounce back, but it will require a very strong support from his TE's Greg Olsen, and Dezmond Clark, along with a young WR core filled with only two players who had previously caught a ball in the NFL until last week. Cutler needs to compose himself as a leader, not a cocky gunslinger.
Forte wasn't a factor whatsoever last week, and in order for the Bears to have a chance at winning, they will need to incorporate him into the offense any way they can. Forte will be neck, and neck with the league's most ferocious run-stopping defense, and if the Bears want Cutler to perform well, Forte will need to jump start the Bears run game fast. The Steelers should account for Forte in the passing game as well, he did lead them in receptions last year, and after putting up 0 last week, offensive coordinator Ron Turner will be looking to implement him in the passing game.
Olsen was double-covered on nearly every play last week despite OC Ron Turner's best effort to move him around the field. At 6'5, 255, Olsen is Cutler's favorite option as a receiver, and I don't blame him. Olsen has wide-receiver speed, and great hands, but his blocking skills are very mediocre at best. If the Bears want any sort of success in the air, they need to get Olsen the ball. The Packers contained Olsen by keeping him double-covered at all times, I'm not sure if the Steelers will emulate this approach, but it was extremely effective last week.
Johnny Knox – X Factor
Knox is the equivalent to Mike Wallace, they are both rookies, and they both recorded some of the fastest 40 yard dash times in combine history. Knox played well for a rookie last week, and exhibited some of that speed as he burned CB Charles Woodson on several occasions. He finished the game with 2 receptions for 82 yards, but he will be this week's X-factor to look for. If there was a bright spot in last week's dismal passing game, it was the rookie receiver out of Abilene Christian.
With LB's Brian Urlacher, and newcomer Pisa Tinoisamoa out, the Bears will be leaning heavily on pro-bowl LB Lance Briggs. Briggs wasn't much of an impact last week, but that will only fuel his determination to succeed this week. Briggs maybe a little unusual off the field, but his antics on the field remind me of the great one, Greg Lloyd. He's unbelievably strong, makes great reads, and is fearless. His only drawback is his coverage abilities, he will drop back in coverage, but he will often undershoot his gaps or make erroneous reads. Briggs isn't as talented at getting to the quarterback as Lloyd was, but this is one man I would never want to take a hit from.
Fast Willie Parker looked hesitant, but after reviewing the game, his options were far from welcoming. He played conservative, but I don't necessarily blame him. The offensive line has got to do a better job at creating gaps for Willie to squeeze through, otherwise it'll be another lackluster performance from a RB heading into possible free-agency. Willie has still got the speed, and looks to be in great shape, but his numbers will ultimately reflect his abilities. Parker has his hands full in going up against a very underrated Bears defense, and if the outside lane is there, I want to see Willie take it.
Miller's performance last week was under shadowed by the brilliance of Holmes, and Ward (despite the fumble), but Miller should be used to being overlooked by now. He has been the Steeler's best kept secret since his arrival, providing exceptional blocking with great hands. He was Ben's safety blanket last week, and Ben was not hesitant to use him on 3rd down conversions whatsoever. Miller finished with 8 receptions for 64 yards, and at this pace, he will jump over 60+ catches for the first time in his career (career high is 48). I don't want to see Ben throw over 30 passes a game, but with the targets he has, I'm no longer cringing when he does. Expect to see Miller play the same role in the passing game this week, but an even more vital role in the run game. Miller will need to free up the outside if the Steelers intend on ever running the ball effectively.
Logan reminds me of Darren Sproles, but Logan will have to refine his abilities a bit more if wants to reach that status. Logan has got the speed, and the quickness, but he needs to find the holes in the kick coverage quicker. Logan averaged about 29 yards per kick return last week (which is a drastic upgrade), but I believe Logan is a big-time play-maker in the return game. The Bears have a very solid special-teams unit, but Logan will need to rely on his ability to break tackles in order to break one loose. I'm not sure how much Logan will be on the field come Sunday, so when his chance comes, I hope to see him take it.
Sweed's performance last week was overshadowed by Wallace's. Sweed finished the game with 0 receptions, but he was mainly in there as a decoy, enabling Holmes, and Ward to free-up. Sweed will be going up against some very talented nickelbacks in Danieal Manning, and Trumaine McBride, so when he's on the field he will have his hands full. I don't expect Limas to have a career day, but I do expect to see him make at least 2 receptions.
With pro-bowler Troy Polamalu out for at least 3 more weeks, Ryan Clark will be their #1 safety at this point. Everyone knows Clark for his punishing blows, but he will need to utilize his abilities as a coverage safety to sure up a secondary that was rather mediocre in last week's win over the Titans. Clark will team up with fellow safeties Ryan Mundy, and Tyrone Carter come Sunday, but it will be Clark that leads this unit onto field, and into battle. Clark is also a possible free-agent come next year, so like many other big names on this squad, I'm sure this aspect only adds to his yearning for greatness.
Brett Keisel – X Factor
Keisel performed well last week against a very solid offensive line, finishing with 7 tackles (5 solo). Like his counterpart Aaron Smith, Keisel is vastly underrated. His specialty is stopping the run, but Keisel will be paired up against 5th year LG, Frank Omiyale. Omiyale had a horrendous start last week, and resembled an open door more than an NFL lineman. Cullen Jenkins shoved Omiyale around like a child in last week's game, and although Omiyale allowed only 1 sack, his run blocking was even more atrocious. I give Keisel the X-factor this week in what should be an outstanding game for the Steelers D-linemen. Keisel will open up lanes for the blitz, and will shut down the gaps on the run. And when the time comes, Keisel will be getting his fair share of shots at Cutler.