The Chicago Bears will face their first road test of the season on Sunday when they travel to the Steel City to battle the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
Obviously, the game doesn't have quite the panache of a divisional rivalry, but when you're talking about two historical franchises, then there is a certain mystique that goes along with it. We won't focus on that, but instead we will focus on the five keys for the Bears as they attempt to run their record to 3-0 this week.
Keeping Contain on Roethlisberger
Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears did a good job of largely keeping the lid on Adrian Peterson's running game, but they didn't do nearly as good a job of keeping Christian Ponder in the pocket and under durress. Ponder was able to move about freely even if a Bears' defensive lineman got near him, and was able to survey the field at will. He isn't the most fleet of foot quarterback in the league either, so the entire performance was indicative of a Bears front four that has yet to find its stride this season.
With the team now facing Ben Roethlisberger this week, the defense is going to have to be even more vigilant in keeping him in the pocket. His receivers haven't exactly been sterling so far this season, and his pass protection has been weakened by the loss of Maurkice Pouncey from the center position. That being said though, Roethlisberger is still more than capable of moving around the backfield and extending plays with both his quick feet and with his ability to shed tacklers, so the Bears are going to have to be ready to get pressure on the edges to keep him in check.
Slowing Down Bell and Miller
The Steelers' offense has struggled to get going this season due to a confluence of factors, including the loss of field-stretching WR Mike Wallace to free agency, and more recently the loss of rookie RB Le'Veon Bell and veteran TE Heath Miller to injuries.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they will likely be getting both of those players back this week, as both practiced with the team on Thursday. The addition of Miller to their lineup is especially beneficial, as he is both talented at blocking in pass protection and getting downfield as a safety valve for Roethlisberger to dump the ball off to.
For the Bears, that means that they will have to keep up the good work that their secondary has been doing for the most part this season. There have been hiccups, including the difficulty they had in shutting down Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham in Week 1, but with the help of LB James Anderson, who has been dominant in pass coverage so far this year, they should be able to minimize the impact that Miller will have on the game.
As for Bell, it's tough to tell what he will actually be capable of doing if he is on the field on Sunday, but the onus for stopping the Steelers' run game in general will once again fall on tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea. Melton hasn't looked like himself so far this season, but Paea has been picking up the slack well, and if both players can play like themselves against the Steelers, then it doesn't matter who is running the ball.
Facing Down the Dreaded "Noise Test"
If a fan were to walk by the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall this week, they likely would have heard the crowd noise that the Bears were blaring into their practice facility in an effort to replicate the hostile crowd they will be facing at Heinz Field on Sunday.
For the Bears, dealing with the noise on the road is something that they haven't done much of yet under Marc Trestman's new offensive system, so this will be quite the first test for them. QB Jay Cutler has been working on using signals and non-verbal techniques to get plays called in from the sideline during the week, but until the tactics are put into full use, there's no clear answer as to how well they will work.
The biggest test with the noise won't necessarily be the playcalling either. Rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills have both looked solid in their first year on the Bears' line, but it is always a tough test for a rookie to go into a road game and to adjust to not necessarily being able to hear the snap count. It wouldn't be surprising at all if that duo picked up at least one or two false start penalties in the game, but if they can minimize those errors, then the Bears have a great shot at putting up an effective offensive attack against the Steelers.
Cutler vs. The Pass Rush
Hand in hand with the offensive linemen being able to hear the snap count on Sunday, Cutler and the Bears are going to have to do a good job of contending with the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme this week, especially on the pass rush.
The Steelers may be a veteran team that has been robbed of some of their speed by Father Time, but the fact remains that they are still playing in a system that they are totally used to, and have picked up little tricks to gain an inside edge on the pass rush.
With that in mind, Cutler is going to have to be a bit more decisive in his reads than he was during the Bears' Week 2 victory over Minnesota. In that game, Cutler was guilty of not only holding onto the ball for too long, like he did on the play that Jared Allen stripped him of the ball with the ensuing fumble return going for a touchdown, but he also made a bad read on the goal line and ended up throwing an interception as a result.
Spreading the ball around to Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffrey should help alleviate some of the Steelers' effectiveness on the rush, but Cutler is also going to have to be able to recognize where the pressure is going to be coming from, and to get rid of the ball quickly if necessary.
He hasn't gotten hit much this season thanks to the solid play of his offensive line, but with a more aggressive team and a hostile crowd against him, he is going to have to shoulder a bigger chunk of the responsibility for keeping his uniform clean.
Helping Hands in Coverage
Finally, the Bears' secondary is going to be tested on Sunday because of Roethlisberger's ability to evade pressure in the pocket, but they won't necessarily be at full strength.
That's because CB Charles Tillman has been limited in practice this week with a knee injury, and there's no word on just how much playing time he'll be able to give the Bears this week. Zack Bowman has been doing a lot of work with the first team at the corner position, but he definitely represents a step back for a group that relies on Tillman's coverage skills and ball-attacking mentality to be successful.
That being said, the onus is going to be on the Bears' other starting cornerback, Tim Jennings, to step up his game, and the Bears will also need good efforts from starting safety Major Wright and their linebacking core in order to make up for any Tillman shortcomings.