Unbeaten Steelers aiming to avoid annual road letdown at winless Chicago Bears
For the second year in a row, the Steelers are off to a 2-0 start.
They have won once each at home and on the road. They have earned victories over a division rival and an NFC opponent.
And, just like 2016, they go away to face another NFC team in the third week.
This is where the Steelers would like the script to deviate. They would prefer to avoid a duplication of last season when they headed to Philadelphia in Week 3 and were humbled by the Eagles, 34-3.
A win Sunday against the winless Chicago Bears would improve the Steelers' record to 3-0 for the first time since the 2010 season, when they made their most recent appearance in the Super Bowl.
It also would extend a regular-season winning streak to 10 games dating to last season and be another step toward the stated goal of getting the AFC's top seed and the chance to host the conference championship game.
The Steelers needed to stack wins in the second half of 2016 just to win the AFC North after a four-game losing streak — including losses at Miami and Baltimore — left them with a 4-5 record.
“It's very big,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said, “because once you get to November and December, it's hard to come by wins. You want to win the games now, so that way you're not looking back and trying to line up the bullets late.”
Last year, the Steelers were stumped by a 2-0 Eagles team that was riding the hot start of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. This year, they get a much more favorable matchup. The Bears are 0-2 and are coming off a 29-7 loss at Tampa Bay after falling to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in the opener, 23-17.
Despite the loss in Philadelphia last year, the Steelers bounced back with two more wins and were 4-1 heading into a game at Miami. A loss to the Dolphins began a four-game tailspin that changed the perspective from hosting a conference championship to scrambling just to make the playoffs.
“It's 16 games, and that's a lot of games but at the same time it's not enough, especially at the end of the season when you wish you had some ‘W's' if you're not going to make it to the playoffs,” tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “We're just trying to seize every single opportunity to get better and be able to compete toward the end of the year.”
For the Steelers to put themselves in position to be the top AFC seed, they will have to avoid road losses against bad teams that have defined recent seasons.
The losses in Miami and Baltimore during that four-game losing streak last year dropped the Steelers to 5-12 since the start of the 2012 season in road games against sub-.500 teams at the time the game was played.
They took steps toward distancing themselves from that trend by winning at Cleveland and Cincinnati in the second half while rallying to capture the AFC North.
The game Sunday in Chicago will be the first road test against a team with a losing record this season. Another division game awaits when the Steelers end the month by playing at Baltimore, which is 2-0 and tied for the division lead. That makes the game in Chicago a potential trap game for the Steelers.
“We understand how important this season is,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We understand the importance of the timing of the season. I feel like every game we have to give everything we have, and we can't underestimate anybody. We have to win any game that we should win, and even the games we're not expected to win, we need to win them, too.”
Unlike last season in Week 3, the Steelers will have Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant on the field. They also will take into Chicago a defense that ranks No. 3 in yards allowed per game, No. 5 in passing yards allowed and is tied for second in sacks while playing all but two snaps without defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
“I feel like as a whole our defense is better than last year,” Shazier said. “We are doing a better job of communicating, so that is going to help us out. I think we have our pieces together and guys are ready to go.”