In Week 3 of the 2017 NFL regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to ride the crest of a fortuitous scheduling wave, as they prepare to square off against yet another lower-echelon opponent struggling with inadequacies at the crucial quarterback position. For a team blessed with the rare talents of Ben Roethlisberger, it’s difficult for the Steelers or their fans to identify with the nagging hell that the Chicago Bears and their loyal fans have endured in recent years.
Chicago hasn’t had a championship-caliber quarterback since the mid-1980s era of Jim McMahon. While Jay Cutler is, by far, the all-time statistical leader among Bears’ QBs (doubling McMahon’s career passing yardage), Cutler’s overall winning percentage with the Bears was only .500 (51-51) in the 102 games he started from 2009 to 2016. McMahon appeared in only 66 games from 1982 to 1988, but his record as a starting QB is a stellar 46-15.
In addition to the obvious mismatch at QB in Sunday’s game, the Bears remain in the throes of a long-term rebuilding program under Head Coach John Fox—a rebuild that seems to be taking longer to bear fruit than many anticipated. What’s worse, the Bears might actually be poised at the brink of the abyss, having added two more regular-season losses already this month to their dismal 3-13 record in 2016. To appreciate the full dimensions of the Bears’ problems, they’re currently using career-backup Mike Glennon principally as a placeholder QB during the same period when injuries have compelled them to start certain players on their offensive line whose NFL credentials are paper-thin. At the same time, they’ve also been forced to relocate more-experienced linemen to less-familiar positions.
This presents a totally different challenge when it comes to identifying the keys for a Steelers victory at Soldier Field on Sunday. The usual commandment to “stop the run” seems less significant because the Bears’ running game has been practically non-existent of late. Likewise, pressuring Glennon almost seems a given due to the musical chairs currently being played on Chicago’s offensive line. So while everything else associated with this matchup, including the expert picks, seems pretty straightforward, these Three Keys for Week 3 focus on the broader need for the Steelers to develop a more distinctive offensive personality, rather than strictly to utilize specific tactics:
Key No. 1: An offensive game plan well suited to the Steelers’ personnel.
Sure, this one sounds boringly self-evident. But if it’s such a no-brainer, then why have we seen so many totally head-scratching plays being run by Ben, Todd Haley and company during the first two weeks of the regular season? As for the specifics, you’d certainly hope to see a lot more of Le’Veon Bell running in a north-to-south direction—where he’s most effective—rather than taking delayed handoffs on ill-fated end-sweeps or catching short, dump-off passes with linebackers breathing down his neck. Also, it might be nice for Ben to remember that Antonio Brown, for all of his monumental talents, isn’t his lone receiver. At Heinz Field last Sunday, Martavis Bryant made a compelling statement that, indeed, he’s resumed his former role as a dangerous bookend threat. Eli Rogers already has established a pretty solid identity as Ben’s change-of-pace receiver, and Rogers clearly has the athletic skills to divert the opponent’s defensive focus from Brown and Bryant. JuJu Smith-Schuster is still growing into what ultimately will be his role in this offense. So the best possible sign of an offensive awakening for the Black-and-gold might simply be to implement a game plan that better matches the character of each of these players and the things we already know they can do best. This key assumes that the proof of Ben’s higher level of confidence in receivers not named Brown or Bryant will be shown when No. 7 starts distributing the football more broadly than we’ve seen so far this season.
Key No. 2: Don’t forget the preseason ended in August, but do pretend the Bears are the Patriots.
The Steelers must resist a strong temptation to view this game mainly as a tune-up for future clashes like, for example, next week’s matchup versus Baltimore. If Steelers Nation has learned anything during the past several seasons, it’s that Pittsburgh can make virtually any NFL team—regardless of which free-agent QB they recently pulled off of the street—look like a Super Bowl contender, if only for one glorious day. The Steelers’ defense might be seeing Mike Glennon across the line from them on Sunday afternoon in the Windy City, but they really need to visualize Tom Brady, evil deflator of footballs and Steelers’ egos.
When an NFL team takes the field absent a true sense of urgency—and when it allows itself to subconsciously downplay an opponent whose recent track record mainly comprises a series of self-inflicted wounds—it’s easy to lose that all-important edge which must be maintained from week to week in the quest for a league title.
Key No. 3: Your gas pedal is working just fine, so don’t be afraid to step on it.
If Pittsburgh’s offense cannot muster a potent attack against Chicago, then Steelers Nation might justifiably begin to challenge the accuracy of most preseason forecasts that envisioned a rising, Black-and-gold juggernaut. A potential pitfall in Week 3 is the challenge of facing an NFL team with absolutely nothing to lose beyond yet another game—and possibly another head coach. Steelers fans old enough to remember the mediocre, pre-Noll teams of the 1960s have fond memories of those chilly Sunday afternoons at old Pitt Stadium when vastly outmanned Pittsburgh teams occasionally rose up to defeat opponents favored by double digits. In their Week-3 matchup in Chicago, the Steelers will face a mirror image of their 1960s brethren—a group of football Bears only about as dangerous as cornered animals.
But assuming that Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t don a Superman outfit and come off of the bench at some point in the game to light up the scoreboard, the element of surprise central to the notion of a trap game will likely be missing from this matchup. The Bears will take the field in Chicago looking pretty much exactly like the team we thought they were. But that’s no reason for the Steelers to get careless or sloppy. On the contrary, it presents a golden opportunity to make a clear and convincing, early-season statement about the true identity of the Black-and-gold, 2017 Edition. That means pressing the pedal to the metal and not allowing another struggling opponent to hang around until the fourth quarter, particularly not when they’re playing before a raucous, hometown crowd starved for an upset.
The postscript to these Three Keys is that, even with all of their sheer offensive talent, the Steelers probably won’t start generating the kind of point totals many fans expect until their defense begins forcing more turnovers, as Head Coach Mike Tomlin recently suggested they must do. Based on the first two games of the regular season, the Steelers appear to have the defensive talent necessary to reach this objective as the current season unfolds. But thus far, we haven’t seen the Steelers’ offense and defense truly working in concert throughout the course of a game. Once they succeed in doing that, they’ll become a very difficult team for any NFL contender to beat.