By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers are 0-2 for the second time since 2000, when Kordell Stewart stepped in for Kent Graham at quarterback after week four to lead the team to a 9-7 record but without a playoff berth. That season was also Plaxico Burress’ rookie year in which he infamously spiked the ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars without being touched, turning the football over and making Steelers fans everywhere question Burress as a first-round pick. 2000 was also the last time that the Steelers started 0-3, and if they don’t improve in their showdown on Sunday Night against the Chicago Bears, they could claim even more similarities with the Stewart-led squad.
Following the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, there aren’t many reasons to feel optimistic about the 2013 season, even though there was improvement over the performance the week prior against the Tennessee Titans. The offensive line continued its struggle to run, resulting in a rushing attack that is on pace to be the worst in franchise history. They were equally as bad in the passing game, allowing serious pressure on the quarterback, resulting in Ben Roethlisberger being out of sync.
Turnovers continued to be an issue as well, as the offense surrendered a fumble from David Paulson and an interception by Roethlisberger, and like the past two seasons, the defense was unable to generate any of their own.
There were some signs of life from the offense, small as they may be, with Felix Jones showing something that neither Isaac Redman nor Jonathan Dwyer could not, a burst and definitiveness in hitting the hole. Redman has looked slow and overmatched in the first two games and more of a liability than a bruiser at the running back position. Until Le’Veon Bell is able to get healthy, Jones should shoulder the bulk of the carries and rightly so as he is the only back to show any potential in the backfield.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown had decent games receiving, and if Paulson could have held on to the football, it could be said that he had an OK night receiving considering his limited starting experience. Ultimately though, the receivers need to make bigger plays and to score points, otherwise this season will continue to spiral into an unconquerable abyss.
Defensively, the team wasn’t great against interior runs, and there were too many missed tackles overall by the defense. Jarvis Jones continues to tease, but Steelers fans have yet to see him explode as he did at Georgia.
The offense is as chaotic and frantic as it has ever been, and the unit is devoid of confidence, though players say otherwise. On defense, as has been the case the past two seasons, they are being asked to do too much as the offense is stuck in reverse.
Across the board, nobody has stepped up to be the playmaker that this team needs, and it is uncertain of whether or not one will emerge and claim that spot in 2013. With the contest against the Bears near, the Steelers are hoping that a playmaker has a coming out party, or that their franchise QB can resume playing like one. If that doesn’t happen on Sunday night, the Steelers will be “wearing” 0-3 when they prepare for the Minnesota Vikings next week.
What to Expect…
After two dreadful games, it is difficult to expect the Steelers to miraculously play like a playoff caliber NFL-team. However, the NFL is full of surprises, and hot teams change week-to-week. That being said, the poor results in the running game has made it a focus during this week’s preparations. With Felix Jones being expected to get the bulk of the carries, the Steelers will make a concentrated effort to resuscitate a running game that has a near-death pulse. Marcus Gilbert asserted in an interview earlier this week that the team would go to its outside zone running scheme, but whether or not it will be successful is a big question. The ultimate goal this week is not to rush for 100 plus yards, but to extend drives to keep the defense rested and to create short third down distances that are manageable by Roethlisberger and his still-developing receivers. More drives by the offense will result in a fresh defense that can pressure Jay Cutler and force turnovers.
The Bears may try to exploit the middle of the defense with Matt Forte because of the loss of Larry Foote and the inexperience of Kion Wilson and Vince Williams. Though the Bears are only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, the Steelers gave up some uncharacteristic long runs up the middle, and the Bears will more likely see if they can experience similar success. Wilson and Williams will have to show growth in their second game and be ready to stop the run. Steve McLendon, who didn’t play a great game last week, will need to be better as well.
Keep Your Eyes On…
The unquestioned leader of the Steelers is Roethlisberger and last week was the first time in a long time, maybe the first time in his career, that he visibly expressed intense frustration on the field. When the general sneezes, the entire army catches a cold, and Roethlisberger’s normally poised and calm demeanor will be an indicator of a Steelers team executing effectively come Sunday Night. Roethlisberger is this team’s greatest asset, but recently, he has not performed at his usual high-level. Against Cincinnati, Roethlisberger did not play particularly well, missing on several throws, and if this team is to ameliorate their current condition, they are going to need franchise play from their franchise quarterback. And this doesn’t mean throwing 30 plus times, it simply means connecting on passes that sustain drives. Much of that however, will depend on the play of the offensive line.
As Roethlisberger goes Sunday, the Steelers go.
I am 0-2 so far in my predictions, and to be completely honest, I am surprised of the Steelers poor play in their first two contests. Based on those performances, it is difficult to have confidence as they advance forward in their schedule, but I can’t count out a team with Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, and a much-welcomed Heath Miller. It is entirely too early to throw the season out as a loss, but the Steelers cannot afford to drop this game against the Bears.
Feeding Felix will be the way to victory in this game in an effort to keep the Steelers defense off the field. Roethlisberger settles things down and revitalizes the third down offense. Jarvis Jones is due for his first game-changing play.
Steelers have to win this one; the season hinges on it.
Steelers 23, Bears 17