The Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers will be facing off tonight for the 29th time since their first meeting in 1934. Chicago holds a 20-7-1 all-time advantage. The Steelers are 29-7 versus the NFC the past 10 years and have won nine in a row against NFC teams at Heinz Field. The Bears won the last meeting 17-14 in 2009 at Soldier Field in Jay Cutler's second start with the team.
CB Cortez Allen (ankle) is out. William Gay will start in his place. Also out is RB Le'Veon Bell (foot). CB Curtis Brown (illness), LB Jarvis Jones (heel), DE Brett Keisel (calf), DT Steve McLendon (hamstring) and TE Heath Miller (knee) are all probable and expected to play.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 6th (27.5)
Total Offense: 14th (367.0)
Rushing Offense: 14th (105.0)
Passing Offense: 17th (262.0)
Pittsburgh's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 10th (18.0)
Total Defense: 10th (318.0)
Rushing Defense: 25th (119.5)
Passing Defense: 9th (198.5)
Turnover Ratio: 30th (-4)
Matchups to Watch
WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Ike Taylor
Marshall has picked up where he left off last year with 100-yard, one-touchdown performances in each of the first two contests. Taylor presents a very tough challenge though. He held Bengals receiver A.J. Green – who caught nine pass for 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears in the season opener – to just six catches for 41 yards and zero touchdowns last week. Taylor is big (6-2, 195) and physical. If he shuts down Marshall, the Steelers will have a good shot at keeping Chicago's offense in check.
TE Martellus Bennett vs. S Troy Polamalu
If Taylor limits Marshall, Jay Cutler will be forced to look Bennett's way throughout the contest. Yet Bennett's matchup isn't any easier, as Polamalu, a former AFC Defensive Player of the Year, is no slouch. Polamalu is a playmaker who can singlehandedly shift momentum during a game. Yet he also takes a lot of risks constantly looking for that game-changing turnover. Cutler and Bennett need to take advantage of the risk-taking mistakes Polamalu is sure to make in tonight's game.
Keys on Offense
-The Steelers use a 3-4 defense through which defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dials up numerous exotic blitzes. His packages involve sending multiple linebackers from any spot on the field and are often of the zone-blitz variety. As such, the two rookies on the right side of Chicago's offensive line, RG Kyle Long and RT Jordan Mills, must communicate and be sure of their assignments. The kids have played well but blitz pickup has been their weakest area. If they get confused by LeBeau's packages, Cutler could take a beating.
-The Steelers are rank dead last in the league with just one sack, yet they are still a dangerous pass-rushing team. The player the Bears must be aware of is former All Pro linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Off the edge, he can be a force, so Jermon Bushrod must be on his game to keep Woodley out of the backfield.
-In Pittsburgh's 3-4, the three defensive linemen are used as space eaters. Their task is to occupy blockers so the linebackers can make plays. As a result, Chicago's offensive line must get creative in their use of traps and pulls. It won't be easy to move the Steelers' massive down linemen one-on-one, so confusion through cross blocks and kick-outs should be very effective.
-Alshon Jeffery needs to show up in this game. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Taylor keeps Marshall under wraps. That means Jeffery, who has been fairly disappointing through the first two weeks, will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. With Cortez Allen out, Jeffery will square off with backup cornerback William Gay, which is a matchup he needs to exploit if the Bears are going to have success throwing the ball down the field.
-In the run game, getting to the second level is crucial. Chicago's offensive line must be quick to the linebackers and must hold their blocks. The Steelers have the 25th ranked run defense, so there will be room to run for Matt Forte as long as the linebackers are accounted for. In particular, middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons cannot be left free to make plays.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points Allowed: 22nd (25.5)
Total Defense: 17th (345.0)
Rushing Defense: 14th (93.0)
Passing Defense: 17th (252.0)
Pittsburgh's offensive rankings
Points Scored: 30th (9.5)
Total Offense: 31st (236.0)
Rushing Offense: 31st (37.5)
Passing Offense: 26th (198.5)
Matchups to Watch
DE Julius Peppers vs. LT Mike Adams
Adams has not been good since the Steelers drafted him in the second round last year. According to Pro Football Focus, Adams has allowed a sack and seven hurries through two contests, which is fourth worst amongst offensive tackles. On paper, this is a matchup tailor made for Peppers to dominate. Yet he faced a backup in Week 1 and did nothing, and was sick last week. If Peppers fails to have an impact for three straight weeks, against an opponent as inconsistent as Adams, then it could signal something worse than just a rough stretch of games.
LB James Anderson vs. TE Heath Miller
Miller returns this week after tearing up his knee in Week 15 last year. Despite missing the season finale, he still led all Steelers receivers last year in catches (71) and was second in yardage (816). Miller is one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets, one he consistently uses as an outlet when plays break down. Anderson, as well as Chicago's safeties, must keep Miller from doing damage down the middle of the field. If he can be effective down the seams, thing will open up out wide for Pittsburgh's speedy receivers.
Keys on Defense
-The Steelers were hoping to have rookie RB Le'veon Bell back in this game but he's not going to play. That leaves them with a committee of mediocre running backs spearheaded by Felix Jones, a group that has combined for 37.5 yards per contest this season. Jones does have homerun ability, so the Bears need to crowd the line of scrimmage early and force the Steelers to become one-dimensional.
-If Tillman can't go, Bowman will get his first start since 2011, a game in which he gave up three touchdowns to the Green Bay Packers. The Steelers boast a pair of solid wideouts in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. If Bowman has to start, expect Roethlisberger to pick on him throughout the game. That means Bowman will have to play better than he did his last time starting for the Bears.
-Henry Melton needs to show up tonight. According to PFF, he leads the team in hurries (4) yet those haven't resulted in any sacks. On top of that, he's been horrible against the run. The Bears are in the bottom half of the league in total defense and Melton has played a big role in that ranking. He needs to get back to his Pro Bowl form if Chicago's defense is going to again be a Top 10 unit.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.