Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Offense: Guard Kyle Long
Sidelined since breaking his ankle last Nov. 13 against the Buccaneers in Tampa, Long is expected to return to action Sunday against the Steelers—and the three-time Pro Bowler plans on picking up where he left off before he was injured. “The expectations are where they left off when I left,” Long said. “I always have high expectations. If you play the game, you change the game. If you’re out there doing anything other than that, then you’re just witnessing it. You’re watching. It’s not a spectator sport.”
Long’s return should help solidify an offensive line that has been plagued by injuries at guard. Backup Eric Kush is on injured reserve, while both starters in last weekend’s game in Tampa—Josh Sitton and Tom Compton—exited the contest with injuries. Sitton did not practice this week and is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Steelers. “It is a continuity game and so obviously you’d like to have everybody together for some time,” said coach John Fox. “But you know it’s kind of been how our season started and we’ll make do.”
Defense: Inside linebacker Christian Jones
Fox announced Friday that Nick Kwiatkoski’s pectoral injury isn’t as bad as the one that landed fellow inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman on injured reserve. But Kwiatkoski has been ruled out of Sunday’s game versus Pittsburgh, which means that Christian Jones likely is the next man up. During training camp, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and special teams-coordinator Jeff Rodgers both identified Jones as a player who has made the greatest strides over the course of the last year or so. Fangio said that Jones has “shown significant improvement in his play.”
Since joining the Bears in 2014 as an undrafted free agent from Florida State, Jones has appeared in 49 games with 20 starts in three seasons, compiling 210 tackles, two sacks, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and four tackles-for-loss. He also has added 27 special-teams tackles. Last season the 26-year-old tied his career high with 11 special-teams tackles and registered eight tackles and one pass breakup on defense while appearing in all 16 games with two starts.
Offense: Receiver Markus Wheaton
Through two weeks, the Bears offense has struggled to stretch the field. They’ve averaged just 5.18 passing yards per play, which ranks 25th in the NFL. Because of injuries to several receivers, the team has lacked a true deep threat. Because of that, quarterback Mike Glennon tends to go with shorter passes and hasn’t even tested many defenses down the field. Glennon averages 6.8 average intended air yards per pass, third-fewest in the NFL among qualified starters. The NFL defines average intended air yards as yards a passer throws for on all attempts, both complete and incomplete. In the first two games, the Bears are 3-for-5 on passes 15 yards or longer, with Glennon’s longest completion of the season going for 22 yards to tight end Dion Sims in Week 1 versus Atlanta.
Enter Markus Wheaton. The fifth-year receiver is expected to make his debut with the Bears on Sunday after missing the first two weeks as he recovered from a broken finger. As luck would have it, he’ll be facing the Steelers, the team he played with for the first four years of his career. Wheaton has the ability to stretch the field and be the downfield target that Glennon needs. Over the course of his career, Wheaton has averaged more than 14 yards per catch. He has 16 career grabs of 20 yards or longer, including seven that went for 40 yards or more. If Wheaton is able to test defenses deep, that should open up the offense for Glennon and give the Chicago running game more room to operate.
Defense: Cornerback Marcus Cooper
The Bears have had nine home games since the start of the 2016 season, and during those contests they have faced some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins are among the players who have graced the Soldier Field turf since the start of last year. In those nine games, against a handful of elite passers, Chicago has allowed only seven touchdown passes. The tough pass defense on the home turf has kept the Bears in some close games, and limited those quarterbacks to some of their worst performances.
Playing strong pass defense will be a top priority once again on Sunday. The Steelers have one of the game’s best players at the position, Ben Roethlisberger, who is averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt so far in 2017. Pittsburgh also has a deep crop of receivers. There’s Antonio Brown, who has led the NFL in receptions twice during his career and through two weeks, led the league in receiving yards (244) by a healthy margin. But Brown’s not a one-man show, as fellow receivers Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers also pose threats for defenses.
Cornerback Marcus Cooper has 10 tackles and a pass breakup so far this season while defending top receivers such as Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. In Week 3, he’ll have another tough task trying to stop Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh passing offense. Chicago has done well protecting its end zone at home over the past year, but Sunday’s intruder may present the toughest challenge yet.