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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (1-0) at Chicago (0-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Chicago Bears haven't won without Brian Urlacher in the lineup since 1999, a year before they made the middle linebacker a first-round draft choice. The Steelers, meanwhile, had Troy Polamalu for every game of their Super Bowl run a season ago.
Both injured defensive stars won't be on the field this Sunday, however, when Pittsburgh visits Chicago and Solider Field for the first time since 1995.
Kicking off the NFL season on September 10, Pittsburgh lost Polamalu in the second quarter of a 13-10 overtime win versus Tennessee due to a knee injury that could sideline him for as long as six weeks. Head coach Mike Tomlin said on Monday that Polamalu's sprained MCL won't require surgery, but he definitely won't play in this contest and is week-to-week.
Urlacher's injury was more serious. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year suffered a dislocated wrist in the second quarter of last Sunday's setback over Green Bay before undergoing season-ending surgery the next day.
Prior to this season, Urlacher had only missed seven games since being taken ninth overall in the 2000 draft. All of those absences occurred in 2004, when the multiple All-Pro missed time due to hamstring and leg injuries. Chicago lost all seven of those contests.
Without Urlacher for most of Sunday's game versus Green Bay, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a 50-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 1:11 left in the final quarter to deal the Bears a 21-15 setback.
Jay Cutler had a less-than-stellar debut at quarterback for Chicago, throwing a career-high four interceptions.
The Steelers were able to escape with a three-point victory in their opener, prevailing on Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal in overtime. They had a chance to win it in regulation, but wide receiver Hines Ward fumbled at the Titans four- yard line late in the fourth quarter. Still, Pittsburgh managed to escape with its seventh straight season-opening win.
Although the Steelers have won 16 of their past 20 games versus the NFC dating back to 2003, including a pair of Super Bowl wins, they are just 1-11 all-time in the Windy City and haven't won in Chicago since 1995.
Chicago leads the all-time series with Pittsburgh, which dates back to the 1934 season, by a margin of 16-7-1. The Steelers have won the last three installments of the series, including a 21-9 triumph in the most recent get- together, in 2005 at Heinz Field. The Black and Gold were 37-34 overtime victors when they last visited Soldier Field in 1995. Chicago's last win in the series came in 1992 at home.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 0-1 in his career against the Steelers. Tomlin will be meeting both Smith and Chicago for the first time as a head coach. Smith and Tomlin were both previously defensive coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but did not serve on the same staff.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The Steelers managed to hold off the Titans despite the lack of a run game which produced just one of Pittsburgh's 19 first downs. Willie Parker managed just 19 yards on 13 carries, while the Steelers totaled just 36 yards on the ground. Parker, though, still became the third back in club history to surpass 5,000 career rushing yards in the contest. With the offense squarely on his shoulders, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 363 yards and engineered his 18th career regular-season come-from-behind victory, utilizing a pump fake that kept the Titans secondary off balance. He was sacked four times and picked off twice, but also hurled a 34-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. Fresh off a Super Bowl MVP award, Holmes caught a career-high nine passes for 131 yards, while Ward made eight catches for 103 yards to go along with his forgettable fumble. It marked the first time since December 18, 2004 that the Steelers had a 300-yard passer and two 100-yard receivers in the same game. Tight end Heath Miller matched a career-high with eight catches.
Pittsburgh might be inclined to give the running game another chance with Urlacher out. The middle linebacker had gone over 100 tackles in each of his last nine seasons and will be replaced in the starting lineup by Hunter Hillenmeyer. It will mark Hillenmeyer's second time taking over for Urlacher, as he started all seven games that the latter missed in 2004. With Urlacher out, weakside linebacker Lance Briggs will have to lead the defense. Though it didn't translate into a win, Chicago limited Green Bay to 226 yards of offense and recorded four sacks of Rodgers. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye led the charge with a pair of sacks after notching just five last year. Rookie safety Al Afalava also had a sack, as did defensive back Danieal Manning that resulted in a safety. Manning matched corner Nathan Vasher for the team lead in tackles with six.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The Bears hope Cutler's home debut goes a lot better than his four- interception performance of last weekend. He did throw for 277 yards and completed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester against the Packers. Entering just his second season as a primary receiver, Hester had four catches for 90 yards. Meanwhile, Cutler looked towards former Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett throughout last Sunday's game. Bennett was making his first career start and failed to catch a pass in 10 games as a rookie last season, but hauled in seven passes for 66 yards versus Green Bay. Cutler is likely to be without the services of veteran tight end Desmond Clark, who suffered a rib injury and is doubtful for this week. Fellow tight end Greg Olson was held to one catch for eight yards by Green Bay. Running back Matt Forte could be in for another long game this weekend. He was held to 55 yards on 25 carries by the Packers and failed to make a catch. The second-year standout became the second rookie in league history to post 1,000 rushing yards and 60 receptions in 2008.
While Forte represents the lone challenge in Chicago's running game, the Steelers defense is coming off an outing versus the Titans in which it held the dual threat of Chris Johnson and LenDale White to a total of 85 yards, 57 coming from Johnson. Most importantly, neither back found the end zone. Polamalu notched the club's lone interception and had six tackles and two passes defensed before his injury, while Keyaron Fox led the team with 10 tackles. Fox was starting in place of injured inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankle), who the Steelers hope can make his season debut in this game. Even without Timmons, who practiced on a limited basis this week and was still bothered by the injury, the Pittsburgh linebackers were key in the victory over the Titans. James Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, forced a fumble and had five tackles, while James Farrior notched the club's lone sack and ended with six stops. Defensive end Aaron Smith had three tackles and blocked a 31-yard field goal late in the first half.
Chicago's big guns didn't come out to play last weekend, likely frustrating a number of owners who were counting on a 2008 version of Cutler and Forte. While both players are top-tier at their position, they both could struggle again this weekend. Keep an eye on Bennett, who saw a lot of Cutler passes come his way last week. Even without Urlacher, the Chicago defense is start- worthy, as Roethlisberger tends to hold the ball for a while and takes sacks. The Bears' secondary could be in for a long day, though. Meanwhile, Parker is quickly falling out of favor with fantasy owners and shouldn't be counted on this week as well. Roethlisberger is a steady producer in the fantasy game, while Holmes is emerging as a No. 1 fantasy wideout. Ward and Miller are good plays as well.
The last thing the Bears want to do is begin the season 0-2, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to happen. There will be some sense of urgency on Chicago's part after its tough loss of a week ago, but the club draws a very tough assignment in its home opener, even though Pittsburgh won't have Polamalu. Cutler has beaten the Steelers before, but doesn't have the same weapons he had in Denver. Pittsburgh will likely focus on taking Forte out of the game and putting pressure on Cutler, who lacks game-breaking receivers. Meanwhile, the calm and cool arm of Roethlisberger should be able to find its spots against an Urlacher-less defense as well-rested Pittsburgh avoids a repeat of 2006, when the team began its title defense by losing three straight and six of seven after an opening-weekend win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 17, Bears 10
09/17 18:45:25 ET