The Bears defense will face one of its toughest tests of the season Sunday against a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an explosive well-balanced offense.
In his 13th season with the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger remains the face of the franchise. The 6-5, 240-pound quarterback has led Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl titles and been voted to five Pro Bowls since being selected with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft.
“He’s got a lot of unique qualities,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “His size is big. He’s courageous. So he’s going to stay alive in the pocket more than most. He’s got really big hands so he can control the ball without having it tucked in all the time. He’s really good with the pump fake, again, because of his big hands he can really give you a hard-throwing action that most can’t.”
Roethlisberger is adept at shedding tacklers, which makes it critical for the Bears defense to swarm him Sunday at Soldier Field. Even when it seems that he’s on his way to the ground, “Big Ben” is capable of turning a negative play into a completion.
“He extends plays by moving around in the pocket,” Fangio said. “And he does a great job operating their offense pre-snap. They’ll do some no-huddle. He has the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. So he’s really the complete package as a quarterback at this point and you would expect that for a guy that’s as experienced as he is playing basically in the same system for a long time.”
In leading the Steelers (2-0) to wins over the Browns and Vikings this season, Roethlisberger has completed 47 of 71 passes for 506 yards with four touchdowns, one interception and a 99.9 passer rating. A model of consistency, his passer rating the previous eight years has been 100.5, 97.0, 90.1, 97.0, 92.0, 103.3, 94.5 and 95.4.
“The impressive thing is he hasn’t really lost any pop in his arm,” Fangio said. “He still throws the ball very, very well, accurately, and with pop, and with touch when needed. The guy is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday.”
Roethlisberger benefits from a strong ground game that features running back Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries in 12 games in 2016. Last year Bell set Steelers rushing records for most yards in a regular-season game with 236 against the Bills and in a playoff contest with 167 versus the Dolphins.
Bell has a unique, patient running style, often stutter-stepping and hesitating before hitting the hole.
“It’s unorthodox,” Fangio said. “It’s a style to himself. I don’t think there is anybody else really like him. But he’s very, very effective. He’s a big guy and once he decides where he’s going to go, he’s a load. He’s very patient. You can tell the line is used to blocking for him and that style. It’s an unorthodox style that we probably won’t see again.”
Against Bell, Bears defenders must play with great discipline.
“They’ve just got to be able to stay on their blocks and stay where they’re supposed to be maybe a little bit longer than usual,” Fangio said.
Roethlisberger’s favorite target in the passing game is receiver Antonio Brown, who has been voted to five Pro Bowls in seven seasons with the Steelers. Brown leads the NFL in receiving yards with 244 after catching 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014, 136-1,834-10 in 2015 and 106-1,285-12 in 2016.
“It’s hard, because of the balance of their offense, to do things that you want to do to a great receiver does make you a little bit light on the run per se generally speaking,” Fangio said. “So we’ll pay him some attention, but you can’t do it all the time. We’re going to be able to stand up and cover him some and play him without any special help some of the time.”
Cornerback Prince Amukamara‘s expected return Sunday after missing the first two games with an ankle injury should provide a boost. But a group effort will be required from the Bears defense to contain Roethlisberger and the Steelers.