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Pregame stretch:
Bears at Steelers

September 19, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2) vs. Da Bears (2-0)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC

Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth
Annoyance factor: Now that Mike Mayock has read too many of his press clipping and cannot stop talking during the game, Collinsworth has re-emerged as the No. 1 analyst in football. We know he has a lot of haters, but that hate is not about his ability to analyze football games, which is all we care about. Michaels has long been the No. 1 play-by-play guy in sports.
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Weather – or not?: Partly cloudy, mid 50s. Perfect football weather in the evening will follow perfect tailgating weather during the day. If you’ve ever been to a Sunday night game at Heinz Field you know how drunk a good portion of the crowd can be. Mix that in with a bad football team in black and gold and it should be a lovely evening at the old ball yard.
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Referee: Pete Morelli
Competence factor: Morelli, of course, is blind and has been since 2005 in Indianapolis when he took Troy Polamalu’s diving interception away in that classic playoff game the Steelers eventually won. That only becomes a serious problem when he goes under the hood for a replay so let’s hope there are no critical ones here. He and his crew have called a very modest 22 penalties through two games.
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The line: Chicago -2.5
Smarts say: What? How? Well, I’ll be… You know what’s going on here, right? Vegas knows there’s still a lot of public money out there that can’t believe the Steelers are really as bad as they appear to be. This line is a classic case of trying to get half the bettors on one side and half on the other rather than a legitimate indicator of the game’s likely outcome. The over/under of 40.5 means 21-18 Bears but we’re not sure the Steelers have six field goals in them.
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Key matchups:
Bears TE Martellus Bennett vs. Steelers LB, S
Because: Tyler Eiffert and Jermaine Gresham went 9 for 122 last week and Bennett is coming off a 7-76, 2 TD effort against the Vikings. That spells trouble. With Pittsburgh’s linebacking corps now relatively inexperienced, it’s critical its safeties get on top of tight end deep routes quickly.
Steelers run blocking vs. Bears front 7
Because: Guess what? The Steelers are going to try and run the ball Sunday night. Why? Because they hired a run-first offensive coordinator who calls run-first offensive plays. Much was made about Pittsburgh running more zone blocking schemes this year, but that idea was apparently shot to hell when Maurkice Pouncey and Le’Veon Bell were both injured. Has Fernando Velasco been around long enough to pick up the scheme? Has Felix Jones? We’ll find out Sunday (and it could be on the first three plays once again)

Quick hits:
+ A lot has been made this week of the success the Steelers defense had in Cincinnati with its “quarter package,” which involved 2 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers, 3 cornerbacks and 3 safeties. There’s been a lot of speculation of why it’s a good look for the Steelers right now (free Troy Polamalu up to roam, 6 DBs communicate well, etc.) but we’d surmise it works not necessarily because of who’s on the field but because of who’s off. That’s be one defensive lineman and one linebacker for those you scoring at home.
+ It was widely reported this week that Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Clark organized a players’ only meeting after the loss to the Bengals. A couple of Pittsburgh TV stations took it further, reporting that one of the things that came out of that meeting was a new players-only rule that no one with under four years’ NFL experience can play pool or ping-pong during business hours. First, if you look at the Steelers roster and see who fits that age profile it’s pretty obvious the “rule” was likely aimed at the team’s young offensive linemen. Secondly, shouldn’t no one be playing pool or ping pong during business hours?
+ We’re as big a fan of the technical side of pro football as any geek (blocking schemes, technique, personnel packages) but we also think that a lot of analysts (and some coaches) go too far in weighing those kind of things over a) production and b) a sniff test. Case in point, Markus Wheaton, the Steeler’s third-round draft pick from Oregon. You just have to WATCH the kid play for a few minutes to see that he’s a potential impact player. We’re sure he misses assignments, runs the occasional bad route and forgets things, like just about any rookie. But if he can make a couple big plays, that’s more than enough trade-off when the guys in front of him might be doing everything right but aren’t make any impact plays. What’s the worst that could happen? The offense could score zero touchdowns a game instead of one, right?
+ As hard as what is happening to the Steelers is to swallow for a lot of fans, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is exactly what is supposed to happen to teams after a prolonged period of prosperity. Eventually, picking between 24th and 32nd and playing a tougher schedule is supposed to catch up with you. Perhaps the Steelers have spoiled us by outsmarting the system for so many years.
+ Speaking of outsmarting the system, one way the Steelers did that 8-10 years ago was through a trade (for Jerome Bettis) and key free-agent signing (of James Farrior). Both of those moves were made before they were paying their quarterback $102 million, of course, as the salary cap is now the biggest obstacle to trying to repeat those kind of trade or free-agent success stories. Again, it’s a check in the system to balance out winning.

The pick: The Bears defense is giving up 25.5 points per game. The Steelers offense is scoring 9.5 points per game. Something’s gotta give, right? The Bears are playing their first game away from Soldier Field and their first game vs. a 3-4 defense, a scheme against which they’ve traditionally struggled. There are a lot of subtle reasons to like the Steelers in this one, foremost among them is this: In the NFL, it’s very unusual for a team to win or lose three games in a row. But there’s one not-so-subtle reason to ignore all that: Pittsburgh doesn’t have enough good players … Da Bears 24-14.
Last week: Mike Carey’s failure to recognize Ben Roethlisberger’s clear spike with :01 left in the game, kept the Steelers from covering and left us 0-2 against the spread. We’re 1-1 straight up.

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