By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) – While it wasn’t pretty for four quarters, the Bears put together solid bookends on the road, defeating a desperate and prideful Pittsburgh Steelers team 40-23, running their record to 3-0.
The Bears were hitting on all cylinders to start the game, scoring on their first three drives, jumping out to a 17-0 lead, and it looked like the rout was on. The third drive, however, was costly from a clock and challenge management standpoint. After burning their second timeout early on the drive, Michael Bush (8 carries, 9 yards, 1 touchdown) seemed to score on a first down carry. Head coach Marc Trestman chose not to challenge this play, instead challenging — and losing — a third down carry, costing the Bears their final time out. This decision was particularly costly near the end of the first half, preventing the Bears from running their two-minute offense.
The Bears hit a lull in the second quarter, failing to convert a third down. The offensive line was unable to protect Jay Cutler (20/30, 159 yards, 1 touchdown, 90.3 quarterback rating) long enough to find receivers down the field. Their longest play during the second and third quarter went for nine yards. Sensing blood in the water, Steelers defensive coordinator dialed-up blitzes that the Bears had difficulty picking up.
Bernstein: Bears Blitz To ‘Historic’ Win
Trestman: Melton’s Knee To Be Evaluated
Hoge: ‘Mr. Fourth Quarter’ Does It Again
Durkin’s Rapid Reaction: Pass Rush Still An Issue
Hoge’s Notes: Bears Catch Steelers Off Guard
Unlike the first two games, Cutler didn’t throw as frequently from clean pockets and he was forced to move his launch point and step up in the pocket. The Bears responded to the barrage of blitzes by keeping backs in and using Martellus Bennett (2 receptions, 10 yards) as a blocker, which left Cutler with only three eligible receivers. To his credit, Cutler was patient, protected the football and didn’t try to force plays that weren’t there.
Once again, when his team needed him the most, Cutler delivered in the fourth quarter. Up 27-23, Cutler converted a third-and-ten from the Bears’ 26-yard line on a 13-yard scramble. Facing yet another third-and-long just three plays later, Cutler threaded a gorgeous back shoulder throw to Brandon Marshall (5 receptions, 52 yards) for a 41-yard gain. The capper was an equally gorgeous effort by Earl Bennett to secure the ball and drag both feet in the end zone on a 17-yard touchdown, stretching the Bears’ lead to 34-23, making it a two-possession game. Cutler was 3/4 for 61 yards on the drive, accounting for 74 of the 76 yards on his own.
Old habits die hard on defense. The Bears defense was as opportunistic as ever, generating five takeaways, which the offense turned into 23 points.
Given the Steelers’ inability to run the ball and stretch a defense vertically, I assumed the Bears would play a lot of Cover-2. Putting trust in their defense to stop the run with seven and force the Steelers to put together long drives to score. However, once again, the Bears defensive line was unable to get pressure on their own. Thus, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker brought a complement of blitzes to create pressure.
Blitzing with your safeties is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can potentially bring more blitzers than your opponent has blockers, but when they don’t get home, you’re exposed down the field in single-high looks. Safety Chris Conte was manipulated by Ben Roethlisberger (26/41, 406 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 92.1 quarterback rating) twice on pump fakes, opening his hips in the opposite direction, leaving huge passing windows on sideline vertical routes. Antonio Brown (9 receptions, 196 yards, 2 touchdowns) was the primary beneficiary. I wrote a lot about the Steelers’ safeties struggling with their eye discipline last week versus the Bengals, yet it was Conte who was guilty tonight.
Conte’s counterpart, Major Wright, delivered two huge turnovers. The first came on an interception in the second quarter, which Wright returned for a pick six. Tucker sent Lance Briggs up the middle and Isiah Frey off the edge, exchanging Wright with Frey. Roethlisberger threw to his hot receiver, but Wright jumped the route and took it to the house. On the second play of the third quarter, Wright jarred the ball loose from Felix Jones, which the Bears turned into a Robbie Gould field goal.
The Bears linebackers were excellent all game in both their run fits and blitzes. In terms of disruption, this group generated the most pressure on Roethlisberger. It’s early, but free agent James Anderson looks like a free-agent steal at a bargain price.
Opponents are starting to target Shea McClellin in the run game, which is cause for concern. A big knock on McClellin last season was his inability to set the edge against the run and early indications are he’s still a liability in this area. McClellin’s ineffectiveness may render him purely as a situational pass rusher who cannot be on the field – without repercussion – on early down situations.
The Bears may have suffered their first major injury of the season, defensive tackle Henry Melton. It’s never a good sign when a player is carted off the field and while the MRI is still pending, per the Tribune’s Brad Biggs, the fear is he suffered a torn ACL. Despite a slow start to the season, this would be a major blow to the Bears front, which is already struggling to get to the quarterback.
Cornerback Charles Tillman was absent for stretches, further calling into question just how healthy he is. With Calvin Johnson next on the docket, this is a situation to monitor.
Leading 24-3 in the second quarter, Anthony Walters roughing the punter call stymied the Bears momentum. Granted, Walters came inches away from the block, but it was a costly mistake. With a fresh set of downs, the Steelers went 55 yards in three plays on a touchdown drive that made it a two-possession game. The Steelers were able to carry this momentum all the way into the fourth quarter, but to be fair to Walters, he had nothing to do with the offensive and defensive line’s inability to control the line of scrimmage.
While there are certainly several areas to improve upon, the Bears are 3-0.
It wasn’t as much of a surprise to see the offensive line have some difficulties on the road in a loud environment. There will be plenty of film to review to correct mistakes and assignment issues, which is part of the maturation process of a young line seeking continuity.
The most alarming trend is the lack of a pass rush. For the third straight week, the production from the Bears’ front four was anemic. Given the lineup of quarterbacks the Bears will face over the next seven weeks, they need their money players — particularly Julius Peppers — to win one-on-one matchups.
The Bears head to Detroit next Sunday for first place in the NFC North. My Know Your Opponent preview of the Lions will be up this Wednesday.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin