8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Steelers -6.5, Over/Under: 39
Week Nine comes to a close as two of the National Football League’s most iconic franchises face off as the Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As we reach the midway point of the 2021 campaign, the Bears (3-5, 3rd in NFC North) find themselves on unstable ground, having lost three consecutive games following a tepid 3-2 start. Indeed, this season set up to be the most complex in recent memory in Chicago, as multiple storylines have made this team one of the most difficult to ascertain. Despite advancing to the playoffs in two of his first three years on the job, (Head Coach) Matt Nagy is very much on the hot seat; after earning 2018 Coach of the Year honors in leading the franchise to their first NFC North title since 2010, he has since strung together back-to-back 8-8 campaigns, with last year’s finish proving enough to send them to the postseason courtesy of the NFL expanding it’s playoff field to seven teams from each conference. However, his record (31-25, .554) has been just one point of criticism for Nagy, with the other being his handling of the Quarterback position, particularly the development of (former signal-caller) Mitchell Trubisky. (General Manager) Ryan Pace traded up to select Trubisky (No. 2 Overall) back in 2017, passing on the likes of (2018 MVP) Patrick Mahomes and (Pro-Bowler) Deshaun Watson in the process, with Nagy, who was hired a year later largely on his acumen in developing Quarterbacks, bungled his ward’s mentorship before quickly benching him in favor of (former pupil and Super Bowl LII MVP) Nick Foles. Simply put, this move backfired spectacularly; the Bears were 2-0 and on their way to a third straight win before Nagy made the change, with Foles struggling mightily to ignite a stagnant Offense en route to a 2-5 record as the starter, before Trubisky was eventually reinstated in time to get them into the playoffs. Since then, Trubisky has left in Free Agency, while Foles has been joined by another veteran passer in the form of Andy Dalton (74.0%, 270 YDS, 4.33 NY/A, 1 TD, 1 INT, 59.3 QBR), along with the eleventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Justin Fields (59.5%, 991 YDS, 4.29 NY/A, 3 TD, 7 INT, 23.0 QBR). Most Head Coach/General Manager combos wouldn’t get a second chance at raising a potential Franchise Quarterback after grossly mismanaging their first attempt, and given how uneven the first half of the campaign has been for Fields, neither individual may be around for much longer. With Dalton quickly succumbing to injury, Fields took over midway through Week Two and has struggled mightily from a passing perspective; the rookie has completed just 59.5% of his attempts for an average of 123.9 yards per game on a pedestrian 4.29 net yards per attempt, with three touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions, all the while leading an Offense that has skewed largely towards ineptitude, scoring a dreadful 15.4 points per game (31st Overall) on an NFL-worst 294.2 total yards (32nd Overall). Furthermore, Chicago ranks dead-last in every meaningful passing metric, including passing attempts (26.0), passing yards (157.6), passing touchdowns (4), and net yards per attempt (4.28), all the while yielding the most sacks in the league (30), with Fields getting sacked on a staggering 14.1% of his drop-backs. In fact, they are the only team in the NFL to have fewer passing yards than rushing yards (136.6). Granted, the supporting cast around the 22-year old has been less than ideal for grooming a young Quarterback, with the Offensive Line spending much of 2021 in flux while (leading rusher) David Montgomery (69 CAR, 309 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 3 TD) has missed four straight games due to a sprained knee landing on Injured Reserve. This three-game losing streak has been particularly rough for Fields & Co, who have been outscored by FIFTY-SIX points against the likes of the Packers, Buccaneers, and most recently the 49ers, mustering just 13.0 points per contest on 304.0 total yards, while the rookie has thrown five interceptions and been sacked four times in each outing. Needless to say, that doesn’t bode well with the Steelers’ furious pass-rush on deck. Thankfully the Bye Week is up next for the Bears, which should give them a sorely-needed opportunity to take a step back and collect themselves, but one has to wonder that if they do indeed lose a fourth consecutive game, will ownership be inclined to make a change; it sounds cold, but Nagy missed last weekend’s 33-22 loss at home to San Francisco, with (Special Teams Coordinator) Chris Tabor filling the void, hinting that they do have options in the event of his ousting. With all that said, if Chicago can right the ship then there figures to be an opportunity for a playoff push after their bye; with five teams comprising the NFC’s elite, there figures to be two attainable spots left, and given the injuries that have befallen the likes of the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks among others, all is not lost in the Windy City. However, is sneaking into the postseason only to make a quick exit in serving as cannon fodder for another powerhouse really what they want? This organization has some difficult decisions to make moving forward and getting a head start in that regard may not be the worst idea. In the meantime, they’ll be looking for a fourth consecutive victory over Pittsburgh in what will be their first meeting since a 23-17 overtime victory at Soldier Field, along with their first at Heinz Field since a 40-23 drubbing back in 2013. Ironically, Chicago is 7-6-1 all-time in Western Pennsylvania dating back 1934. The Bears come into Monday Night Football with a 2-2 record under Nagy in such contests, though have lost two straight in that regard, including each of last year’s appearances, a 24-10 defeat at the Los Angeles Rams before falling at home to the Minnesota Vikings, 19-13.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight trends downward the Steelers (4-3, 3rd in AFC North) have gradually progressed following their disappointing 1-3 start to the 2021 campaign. Indeed, many were quick to leave Pittsburgh for dead after dropping three consecutive contests, but (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin and his charges have been relentless in turning things around in the Steel City. After fading badly down the stretch before getting bounced out of the playoffs, the general consensus was that this was very much a team on the decline coming into this season, with that train of thought rooted in the belief that (longtime Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger (65.1%, 1,781 YDS, 605 NY/A, 8 TD, 4 INT, 41.4 QBR) had come to the conclusion of his venerable career; at 39-years old, the six-time Pro-Bowler has enjoyed quite the career in Western Pennsylvania, amassing a stellar 160-77-1 (.672) record over the course of eighteen seasons, leading the Black & Gold to eight AFC North titles, eleven postseason appearances, and a pair of Lombardi trophies (2005 and 2008), appearing in another Super Bowl to boot (2010). However, he looked terrible during the early stages of this season, averaging a pedestrian 5.8 net yards per attempt with more turnovers (5) than touchdowns (4) during that span, all the while suffering ten sacks behind a reconfigured Offensive Line. At this stage of his career, Roethlisberger’s mobility has waned greatly and it was quite frankly hard to watch him attempting to run for his life. With that said, the Steelers faced a murderer’s row to open the campaign, with the Bills, Raiders, Bengals, and Packers each pacing their respective division with a combined record of 22-8 (.733). Thankfully, this current three-game winning streak has coincided with a much softer portion of the schedule, with victories over the Broncos (27-19), Seahawks (23-20), and most recently the Browns (15-10), featuring opponents all .500 or worse. So with that said, how has Pittsburgh righted the ship, you ask? Well, Tomlin & Co have gotten back to basics of late, with the Offense gradually becoming far more balanced which has in turn afforded their staunch Defense the luxury of a bit of rest. Simply put, this was a rushing attack that was an afterthought in 2020, mustering a league-worst 84.4 yards per game on the ground (32nd Overall) via a meager 3.6 yards per carry (32nd Overall), which prompted the overhaul of the Offensive Line along with the selection of (Rookie Tailback) Najee Harris (128 CAR, 479 YDS, 3.7 Y/A, 3 TD) with the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Despite the change in personnel, their rushing struggles continued during their slow start in averaging a poor 55.3 yards per game on 3.3 yards per rush, only to have since turned around and post three consecutive 100-yard games, producing a much healthier 127.0 yards in those three wins. Harris, who was utilized far more as a receiver out of the backfield through the first four weeks, has really begun to settle into his role in the run game, racking up 294 yards and a pair of touchdowns over the last three outings, including a career-high 122 rushing yards against Denver. The 23-year old has been a joy to watch thus far, totaling 165 touches for 752 yards from scrimmage and five scores, leaping over defenders in the open field and delivering savage stiff-arms. As for Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Famer has really benefitted from the resurgent ground game, turning back the clock over the last three games in completing an efficient 66.7% of his passes for 249.3 yards on a much-improved 7.32 net yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and most importantly ZERO interceptions. With a Defense that is allowing 20.3 points (7th Overall) on 345.7 total yards (11th Overall) to lean on, this is what the Steelers need out of their Offense: a balanced approach, with Big Ben judiciously taking what the Defense gives him. And this was precisely the case in last weekend’s glacial 15-10 victory over the Browns, which saw the visitors rally back from a 10-3 deficit in the second half. After punting on their first possession of the second half, Pittsburgh proceeded to travel seventy-eight yards in twelve plays, with the aforementioned Harris capping the drive with an eight-yard touchdown run. Then after forcing a punt on the ensuring possession, Tomlin’s troops went right back to work in engineering another lengthy drive (13 plays, 83 yards), culminating with a two-yard score from Roethlisberger to (Rookie Tight End) Pat Freiermuth (22 REC, 202 YDS, 9.2 Y/R, 2 TD). From there, the Defense would seal the deal, relegating Cleveland to ninety-four yards and zero points the rest of the way, stripping (Browns Receiver) Jarvis Landry of the football in Steelers’ territory before halting them on downs on their final drive of the afternoon. In the end, Pittsburgh limited the league’s most prolific rushing attack to just ninety-six yards on twenty-three carries and 306 total yards overall, along with a combined 3-of-12 on third and fourth down, while forcing the game’s lone turnover and sacking (Browns Quarterback) Baker Mayfield on four occasions. Roethlisberger on the other hand completed 22-of-34 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown, while Harris accounted for 120 yards from scrimmage and a score on twenty-nine touches. Indeed, it was undoubtedly a satisfying victory for Pittsburgh, who was embarrassed by Cleveland in last year’s Wild Card affair (48-37), while Roethlisberger, an Ohio native, further padded his stellar record in his home state (28-6-1) and against the Browns overall (25-3-1). And speaking of dominance, no team in the NFL has enjoyed a better run on Monday Night Football than the Steelers, who are a whopping 49-25 (.662) in such contests, including a ridiculous 27-5 at home with a staggering NINETEEN consecutive victories. Seriously folks, this team hasn’t lost at home on Monday night since October 14th, 1991.