Joniak’s Keys To The Game: Bears-Vikings
By Jeff Joniak-
Offense: Surviving LeBeau
This is going to be quite a chess match. Many of the same west coast offensive principals used by the Bears are what 76-year old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau of the Steelers designed the 3-4 “fire-zone” to stop.
The Bears quick rhythm, get the ball out passing game will be tested against the Steelers exotic fronts and blitzes, but with zone coverage behind it.
For starters, Jay Cutler will have to identify the intentions of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu on every snap. He’s the tempo-setter, the wildcard. Age 32, healthy, and smart, Polamalu studies formation and personnel tendencies like few in the league, allowing him to diagnose quickly and play every snap on a sprint.
Avoiding confusion at the line of scrimmage and the frustration of determining which defenders are rushing and from where, is the biggest key when installing the protections for this game.
The Steelers defense in the last five years has finished number one in points allowed three times, pass defense three times, total defense three times, and rush defense 1st or 2nd three times. The personnel is different, but the damage the scheme can do is still a threat.
Defense: Chop Down Big Ben
Generating a pass rush against the Steelers requires more than just hitting Ben Roethlisberger. Finishing means making sure he’s taken to the ground and he’s not easy to bring down.
Strong and slippery, Roethlisberger never lets a pass drop die. His ad-lib ability in and around the pocket allows him to make big plays down the field. Sacked five times by the Titans, and twice by the Bengals, time to throw has been an issue for Roethlisberger.
Against Cincinnati, he completed only one of his nine deep balls. Pittsburgh’s starting center Maurkice Pouncey is out for the season, replaced by former Titans starting center Fernando Velasco, so this is an opportunity for starting defensive tackle Henry Melton to get his game back on track. The inside play of both Stephen Paea and Nate Collins has been solid in that inside rotation.
Through two games, it has taken 4.91 seconds on average to sack Big Ben according to Pro Football Focus which is second longest in the league, underscoring how long the Bears secondary must plaster coverage to make sure the Steelers don’t create something out of nothing.
Special Teams: Dangerous Devin
After a record-setting effort returning kickoffs against the Vikings, it appears Devin Hester is close to scoring again. Averaging nearly 50-yards after two games, his 76 and 80 yard returns were near misses.
He maintains his legs are fresh for every return given that he’s not on the field at receiver. That spike in field position is a huge bonus for the Bears offense and for the type of play calling Marc Trestman turns to on a short field.
The Steelers had two special teams penalties in Week 1, and allowed a 27-yard punt return setting up a game winning field goal by the Titans. Placekicker Shaun Suisham is working through a hamstring injury.
They’ve already cut two punters and in the preseason they allowed a blocked punt, blocked field goal, and a kickoff return touchdown. The man to stop for the Bears is Antonio Brown. The Steelers punt returner has a 40 yarder already this season, but also a league-high 6 fair catches.
Intangibles: Overcoming Obstacles
Unlike most NFL cities, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field doesn’t have a lot of room for Bears fans. The Steeler fans are among the most loyal and invested in the league. They will show and they will be heard from. The first road test is a significant one for the Bears given that it also comes under the bright lights of Sunday night football. Like all road teams, quieting that boisterous crowd is critical.
Among the ways to do it: avoiding pre-snap penalties, grinding out long scoring drives, staying out of third and long, getting off the field on third down, and handling the initial surge of a Steelers team backed into an unusual corner.
They have not been 0-and-3 since 1988 and their next game is in London against the Vikings. That’s a significant amount of distraction that talented head coach Mike Tomlin has to get his team to overcome.