By Rich Campbell, Chicago Tribune reporter
1:06 AM CDT, September 23, 2013
PITTSBURGH — Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker vaguely explained his position Wednesday when he was asked whether he would call more blitzes to jump-start a sputtering pass rush.
"We'll blitz when we need to, and when we want to," he said.
That answer, pulled straight from the coachspeak dictionary, was ambiguous enough to conceal what Tucker and the Bears had planned for the Steelers on Sunday night. As it turned out, Tucker repeatedly sent linebackers and defensive backs swarming after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — and it worked.
Roethlisberger turned the ball over four times, two of which the defense returned for a touchdown, as the Bears beat Steelers 40-23.
"We wanted to heat him up, put some pressure on him, help the D-line out by bringing more than four guys, and guys did a good job," linebacker James Anderson said.
Safety Major Wright returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and defensive end Julius Peppers sealed the victory by returning a fumble 42 yards for a touchdown with 3 minutes, 57 seconds remaining.
The Bears almost blew a 24-3 lead, but Jay Cutler converted two third downs on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, including the 17-yard scoring play to receiver Earl Bennett.
That lifted the Bears to 3-0 for the first time since 2010, when they eventually lost at home in the NFC championship game. That the winless Steelers are significantly weaker offensively than their Super Bowl teams at the end of the last decade matters not to a team forging its identity under coach Marc Trestman.
Trestman was eager for the Bears to play their first road game because so he could gauge just how much his team has evolved since he took over in January.
After fourth-quarter rallies were required to win two home games, he considered the hostile confines of Heinz Field an appropriate test for Cutler's command of the offense and the overhauled offensive line's communication.
"We kept our poise in the noise," Trestman said after the Bears survived their third game without a false-start penalty. "That was No. 1 tonight."
Early in the game, before the Bears offense stagnated, it appeared they would ace the exam.
They received the opening kickoff and immediately established the up-tempo rhythm Trestman demands, especially in the passing game. Cutler completed eight of 10 passes on the opening drive. Most of them were short and quick, capitalizing on the Steelers' relaxed coverage. Although the drive netted only three points, the positive start helped generate some momentum.
From there, the defense, which forced five turnovers, did its part to give the offense a short field. Tucker's aggressive approach challenged a Steelers offensive line that lost three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
"It just kind of hurried up Ben," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "He's a great quarterback, and he will find a way to extend the play with his feet. A couple of times early, that's kind of what he was (doing) that was hurting us, so I think (Tucker) tried to rattle him, shake him up a little bit, and we got some pressure in there."
A blitz by Anderson and linebacker D.J. Williams forced Roethlisberger to fumble on the third play from scrimmage. Williams came through unimpeded when left guard Ramon Foster pulled and blocked no one. Williams stripped Roethlisberger, and Anderson recovered at the Steelers' 17-yard line. Three plays later, running back Matt Forte helicoptered into the end zone from the 2-yards line, completing a 5-yard touchdown run, to give the Bears a 10-0 lead.
"The guys read it well and we played off of each other," Anderson said. "Sometimes we just brought more than they can block."
Tucker and the Bears defense were just getting started. Wright's interception with 8:57 remaining in the first half put them ahead 24-3. That resulted from a stunt along the defensive line and a blitz by slot cornerback Isaiah Frey. Roethlisberger didn't step into his throw with defensive tackle Henry Melton bearing down on him, and it sailed to Wright.
The Steelers defense, however, clamped down after the interception. Cutler stopped liking his downfield options, as the Steelers prioritized coverage and won individual blocks up front. The Bears didn't capitalize in the running game, and it allowed the Steelers to eventually cut the deficit.
The Bears clung to a 27-23 lead and faced third-and-12 from the Bears' 37 with 7:42 to play when Cutler stole back the momentum with a perfect throw to the outside. Receiver Brandon Marshall beat Ike Taylor in single coverage, and Cutler's back-shoulder throw gained 41 yards.
When Cutler hit Bennett in the back left corner of the end zone three plays later on third-and-5, Trestman and the Bears had their passing grade.
"We were able to hang in there, stay together, play together and be at our best," Trestman said.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC