Hub Arkush: Key matchups, players to watch and more for Bears vs. Steelers

To say their meeting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Monday night is a must-win for the Bears, if they harbor any hopes of salvaging their 2021 season, is a study in understatement.

After a quality Week 1 win in Buffalo and subsequent three-game losing streak to Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Green Bay – two clubs the Bears beat and a Packer team they played to a standstill until the final four or five minutes – recent wins over Denver, Seattle and Cleveland have certainly energized the Steelers. Still, there are plenty of questions as to who they really are.

The Bears are 6 ½-point underdogs and the over/under is 39.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Steelers offensive line vs. Robert Quinn, Akiem Hicks; Bears offensive line against T.J., Watt, Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith

The key to winning for both these clubs will be running the football, defending the run and making sure their quarterbacks have clean pockets and time to find their targets.

Watt is one of the top edge rushers in the game today. Watt can create turnovers, which has been a problem for Justin Fields, who has now put the ball on the ground eight times.

COACHING DECISION TO WATCH

Will head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor open the playbook a little wider for Fields?

The Bears still have the worst offense in the NFL (32nd in total offense, 31st in points scored) and that’s having come close to maximizing the ground game and with Fields showing significant improvement in that aspect of his game.

If they are not willing to play less max-protect, give Fields more targets to choose from and start pushing the ball to the middle and deep parts of the field, it’s hard to envision much improvement.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Steelers RB Najee Harris, WR Chase Claypool, ILB Joe Schobert and S Minkah Fitzpatrick – when all eyes aren’t on Watt.

While the Steelers are just 28th in the league in rushing, Harris has come on the last three weeks with 122-, 81- and 91-yard rushing games.

Claypool (6-4, 238 pounds) is a wideout in a tight end’s body. Schobert is the main cog in Pittsburgh’s run ‘D,’ and Fitzpatrick will line up at safety but is their Swiss Army knife and will make plays all over the field.

THE X-FACTORS

Both offensive lines

After long owning one of the best O-lines in the game, the Steelers blew it up this past offseason due to salary-cap concerns and age. They have a group similar to the Bears: inconsistent, young and developing with the exception of former Pro Bowler Trai Turner at left guard.

They have protected Ben Roethlisberger well but struggled in big moments and in the run game.

The Bears’ front took a step backwards last week vs. the 49ers, but Borom already appears to be an upgrade at right tackle, and Peters gets better each week.

WILD-CARD PLAYERS WHO COULD SURPRISE

Steelers TE Pat Friermuth, WR James Washington; Bears WRs Allen Robinson, Marquise Goodwin, TE Jimmy Graham

Friermuth is a second-round rookie out of Penn St. with almost half his production (11 catches, 102 yards, 1 TD) on the season in the last two games.

Washington is a 2018 second-rounder who arrived with a game-breaker rep but has teased without exploding yet.

The Bears offense isn’t going anywhere until they unleash Fields in the passing game and having now shown the ability to back defenses up with his legs, will this be the week they cut him loose a bit more, giving his under-used trio of pass catchers a chance to make plays?

THE FINAL WORD

Steelers 20, Bears 16

There are a number of matchups here that could be favorable to the Bears, and it’s impossible to believe their defense is as bad as it played last week. The Steelers are just 26th in scoring at 18.9 points per game and just 3 ½ points better than the Bears.

But what have the Bears done the last three weeks to give you any confidence they can beat anybody right now, until they do?

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is a Bears/NFL Insider for Shaw Media