The Steelers and Bears enter Monday night’s contest in Pittsburgh heading in opposite directions. Pittsburgh is 4-3, has won three straight and is improving, particularly on offense. Chicago is 3-5, has lost three straight and appears to have regressed after a promising start.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for Steelers fans who have been burned in these situations before. Pittsburgh’s penchant for playing down to weaker opponents during the Mike Tomlin era has been well-chronicled. Just last season, an 11-2 Steelers’ squad was humiliated in prime time by a 2-10-1 Bengals team quarterbacked by Ryan Findley. Of course, that Steelers team was beginning its free-fall after an 11-0 start while the 2021 Steelers are on the rise. There are so many differences between this team and that one it is almost impossible to make comparisons.
This bodes well for the Steelers. Often, the defeats they’ve suffered at the hands of weaker opponents came with veteran Pittsburgh teams who played exceptionally poor football, the cause of which may have been complacency. Complacency is not measurable, and it’s hard to know what motivates someone or what lies inside his heart and mind. But the sense of urgency some of those Pittsburgh teams lacked, or the absence of a killer instinct against a weaker foe, or shoddy execution, are often the product of diminished focus resulting from overconfidence. The head coach, and the veteran players on a team, must prevent this from occurring. The Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger Steelers have not always done so.
This season feels different. The Steelers are much younger than they’ve been in recent years. They start four rookies on offense and are getting important contributions from several others. Additional key players include Kevin Dotson (2nd year), Zach Gentry (3rd year), Chase Claypool (2nd year), Diontae Johnson (3rd year), Devin Bush (3rd year), Henry Mondeaux (2nd year), Isaiah Buggs (3rd year) and Alex Highsmith (2nd year). Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is already in his fifth season, is just 24 years old. So is Terrell Edmunds, who feels like he’s been in Pittsburgh for a decade. Even T.J. Watt, the perennial Pro Bowler and highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, is just 27. Because of the way the Rooney family operates, and the fact the team seeks to be competitive each year, Pittsburgh often fields a roster stocked with veterans. This team, however, is exceptionally young.
The detriments of that youth are obvious. Growing pains, lack of cohesion, inexperience. Pittsburgh’s 1-3 start was in part a product of these factors. But there are benefits as well, particularly when it comes to preparing for an opponent like the Bears. Young players, who are so intent on proving themselves, are rarely overconfident. They rarely suffer from hubris. They have not spent enough time in the league to have had their egos massaged or their bank accounts swollen. Most are simply fighting to stay in the lineup or on the roster.
I say “rarely” in the above paragraph because there are always exceptions. Some players come into the league with a sense of entitlement. Many fail as a result. The young players the Steelers have assembled appear to be humble, blue-collar types. Najee Harris has demonstrated himself to be a hard worker on the field and an individual with a strong sense of empathy and community beyond it. Pat Freiermuth is anything but flashy. His fellow rookies on the offensive line, Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., are quintessential linemen. They plug along, largely anonymous, striving to get better at their craft. And they are getting better, each and every week. The Steelers are improving as their young players improve. It’s a group that appears hungry for success.
Not all of them are spring chickens, of course. There’s Cam Heyward, the soul of the defense, whose professional approach is undoubtedly a positive influence on the young players on his side of the ball. And there’s Roethlisberger, the old man of the bunch. His willingness to make compromises in his approach, such as scuttling some of the 11 personnel groupings he prefers in favor of heavier sets that incorporate multiple tight ends, has been a pleasant surprise this season. He and new coordinator Matt Canada have struck a nice balance between the offense with which Roethlisberger is comfortable and the one Canada wants to implement. Increasingly, Roethlisberger seems willing to embrace Canada concepts, such as the 12 personnel formations, the use of RPOs, a higher run frequency and even some play-action. It’s no coincidence Roethlisberger has had his best games of the season the past three weeks as we’ve seen more of “Canada’s offense.” That’s not a knock on Roethlisberger. Rather, it’s a tribute to his adaptability, which many questioned prior to the season.
Roethlisberger’s counterpart on the Bears, rookie Justin Fields, is improving as well. Fields had his best game of the season last week against San Francisco. He threw for 175 yards and rushed for 104, including a spectacular 22-yard touchdown in the 4th quarter where he weaved his way in and around the 49ers defense like he was navigating traffic in a game of Frogger.
Therein lies the rub for Fields and the Chicago offense. Bears’ quarterbacks (Fields and Andy Dalton) have been sacked 30 times this season, by far the most in the NFL. Fields has run the ball for good yardage recently but often they are runs of necessity more than design. He has had little time to get comfortable in the pocket, where much of the learning for a young NFL quarterback takes place. It’s been hard for Fields to read defenses or work through route progressions when so often he’s had immediate pressure in his face. The pressure has caused Fields to make some bad decisions with the football, as evidenced by his 7 interceptions in just 158 pass attempts. Projected over a full regular season, where 500 pass attempts is the norm, that amounts to about 23 interceptions. The Bears need Fields to cut that number down significantly. To do so, they must find a way to protect him.
That won’t be easy against a Steelers’ pass rush that, after a few dormant weeks earlier in the season, has found its mojo again. T.J. Watt has recovered from the groin injury he suffered in Week 2 and is tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks. As a team, Pittsburgh is fourth in the league in that department. They’ve been especially torrid the past four weeks, averaging almost four sacks per game over that span. Watt is the facilitator but eight different Steelers’ have registered at least one sack this season. Chicago will have to protect Fields from a Pittsburgh defense that can bring pressure from just about anywhere.
This will require a big performance from an offensive line that has been largely ineffective. Its premier player is 39 year-old tackle Jason Peters, whose best days were behind him three seasons ago. 2nd round pick (and 2021 BTSC draft crush) Teven Jenkins was supposed to help. But Jenkins has missed the entire season with a back injury. The rest of the unit is a patchwork bunch that includes players most fans have never heard of, like Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher and Elijah Wilkinson.
The low point for the line was Chicago’s game against Cleveland in late September when Fields was hit an astounding 15 times on just 27 drop-backs, with nine of them resulting in sacks. Pressure like that is a sure way to make a young quarterback jittery. Fields, to his credit, has found a way to improve despite the chaos around him. It’s hardly a sound growth-plan for his long-term progression, however.
At the skill positions, Chicago is equally ordinary. Allen Robinson is a solid receiver and Cole Kmet is a good pass-catching tight end. Chicago has run the ball well at times behind David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert. But there are no stars for Fields to lean on and no easy way to help him shoulder the burden.
Defensively, the Bears face challenges as well. Star edge-rusher Khalil Mack is out with a foot injury. And, while cornerback Jaylon Johnson is a nice player, his partner at corner, Kindle Vildor, has struggled mightily. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 25 of 35 passes thrown at Vildor for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Steelers want to run the football and undoubtedly will try to do so against Chicago. However, minus Mack, and with Vildor to target, they may get good looks to throw it, too.
All of this seems to bode well for the Steelers. Throw in the fact that Pittsburgh has not lost a Monday Night Football game at home since 1991 and this game feels like a lock. Which means, of course, it will be a nail-biter that will come down to a few perilous possessions at the end and make us all miserable at work on Tuesday because we had to stay up past midnight to watch the Steelers finally put Chicago away. That’s just the way it seems to go in these situations. It’s never as easy as it feels like it should be. But this Steelers team is young and hungry and headed in the right direction. One way or another, look for them to get it done.