Before delving into the matchup, a quick rant: Pundits have been casually tossing off the point, free of context, that the Steelers are 6-2 in the eight games Troy Polamalu has missed in his career. And as much as I want to hear that the team is just hunky-dory without him, there's also the implication that he doesn't mean all that much to the defense, which is retarded for oh so many reasons. So let's take a gander at these eight Steelers games sans Polamalu.
2006: (Three games)
Week 13 -- vs. Tampa Bay W 20-3
Week 14 -- vs. Cleveland W 27-7
Week 15 -- @ Carolina W 37-3
On paper, yes, it looks very impressive. Three consecutive wins in which the defense allowed fewer than 10 points. It was also during by far the easiest stretch of their schedule that season. The 2006 Bucs, Browns and Panthers combined to go 16-32. The three starting QBs the Steelers faced over that span? Bruce Gradkowski, Derek Anderson (before he found his 2007 flash in the pan touch, mind you) and Chris Weinke. That's right. CHRIS. FUCKING. WEINKE.
2007: (Five games)
Week 5 -- vs. Seattle W 21-0
Week 12 -- vs. Miami W 3-0
Week 13 -- vs. Cincinnati W 24-10
Week 14 -- @ New England L 34-13
Week 17 -- @ Baltimore L 27-21
Again, the two shutouts look somewhat impressive, though the one against Miami (if you'll recall, a 1-15 team that year) was in the infamous Mud Bowl game where no one could generate any offense. The Seattle game is the most standout performance by the defense (or even the team) of any of the games Polamalu missed. He was one of five key starters to miss that game and they decimated the Seahawks. The Bengals, as it goes without saying, also sucked that year and the final Ravens game means nothing because the Steelers sat everyone. The Patriots are the only other quality opponent the Steelers played aside from Seattle with Troy missing. What happened? The secondary got torched. Yes, Ryan Clark was also missing, so Tom Brady was able to pick on Tyrone Carter and Anthony Smith that day, but I think it makes us all realize that something is definitely lost with Polamalu out.
If I've suddenly made you worry that Jay Cutler is going to have a field day, I'm sorry, though I seriously doubt that he will. Nor do I expect a repeat of his disastrous game against the Packers last week. Having seen what happens when Cutler tried to force passes to young receivers who don't know how to run routes, Lovie Smith is going to simplify his offense even more coming into this week. That could potentially work in the Steelers favor, but it will also mean they will have fewer opportunities for turnovers. The Bears are coming off playing a Packers team with a similar defensive structure to the Steelers, so it worries me that studying what they did against Green Bay will translate well to what the Steelers will try to do, especially when LeBeau won't be able to use quite as many exotic blitz packages with Troy out.
On offense, everyone's dying to see something out of the running game, but my concern, especially with some of the comments coming from Willie Parker during the week, is that the team will overemphasize it early on in an attempt to prove something. Urlacher's absence will make it easier to run the ball (there was a big difference in the Bears defense from the first to second half last week). The thing is, the Bears anticipating the Steelers trying to pounce on an expected weakness coupled with anxieties about the run game is going to cause them to play up to the line early. Which is why I'd love to see some play action on the first two drives.
Timmons has written on his blog that he expects to play, and that's certainly a welcome sign. Keyaron Fox did a good enough job last week that it wasn't even a huge concern, but Timmons still has far more raw ability and playmaking instinct. If he's close to 100 percent, I think the defense is going to need him bearing down on Cutler a few times. The pass rush wasn't all that present last week, even though that was kind of expected against the Titans, who base their passing game on timing routes and have a good offensive line. The Bears, meanwhile, will have ancient tackle Orlando Pace going against James Harrison. That's potentially a game-altering match-up right there.
Even on the road, I think this is a game that the Steelers should expect to win, though they will need to improve obviously on run blocking and pass rush from a week ago. Should they come through, it could be the biggest achievement for a Steelers defense playing without Polamalu since he was drafted.