Familiar elements of the Bears defense were in place through the first two games, foremost the takeaways, but alarmingly the pass rush was nowhere to be found.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker discovered it Sunday night at Heinz Field with a position in the Cover-2 scheme that has provided plenty of pressure on occasion. Middle linebacker D.J. Williams, looking much better than he did through the first two games, helped bring the heat against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was no surprise Tucker was standing at the entrance to the team's locker room afterward handing out hearty congratulations to all players.
Now, we have a better glimpse into why coaches have been steadfast about going with the veteran over second-round draft pick Jon Bostic. After missing all of preseason with a right calf injury, Williams was immediately made the starter upon his return, inserted for the opener after Bostic made some big plays in his place. Know this much: The decision for Williams to start was not a surprise to veterans on the defense.
Williams' sack/strip of Roethlisberger on the Steelers' first possession set up a short field on the Steelers 17 and Matt Forte's 5-yard touchdown run that staked the Bears to a 10-0 lead in a 40-23 victory that propelled the Bears to 3-0 -- a game up on the Lions, next on their schedule, and two up on the Packers in the NFC North Division. Williams had a second sack at the end of the quarter.
It was Lance Briggs' sack/strip that set up Julius Peppers' 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown with 3:57 remaining that was the finishing touch on a wild game full of challenges. It was the fifth takeaway and the second defensive touchdown following Major Wright's 38-yard interception return for a score.
Statistics show teams with a 3-0 start are a good bet to reach the postseason. Since the NFL expanded to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, 75.4 percent of teams to begin 3-0 reach the playoffs. The Bears have had four 3-0 starts since 1990 and made the playoffs each time, most recently in 2010 when they reached the NFC championship.
But this defense just escaped after a furious rally from the Steelers, who started handling the blitz as Roethlisberger picked apart the secondary. Antonio Brown finished with nine receptions for 196 yards and scored on touchdown passes of 33 and 21 yards.
Bigger challenges could lie ahead for a defense that expects to be without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton. The team fears he suffered a torn left ACL in the victory. Without Melton, the Bears could be forced to continue blitzing to generate pressure on the quarterback.
Williams, 31, can help in that regard. He was signed to a one-year contract March 22, two days after the club announced it was moving on from Brian Urlacher. Of course, Urlacher was a big part of the pass rush during his career. He ranks seventh in the team's record book with 41 1/2 career sacks although he didn't have any in his final two seasons. When Urlacher would show pressure in the 'A' gap, he never went unaccounted for by the offense. On the sack/strip, Williams ran through an open hole between right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who turned out to block blitzing linebacker James Anderson with running back Felix Jones. The last time Urlacher made two sacks in one game was Dec. 17, 2007, at Minnesota.
"I am getting more comfortable with the defense," Williams said. "Still trying to grind and get healthy. With more playing time comes more comfort."
Williams isn't going to be a prolific pass rusher and he comes off the field in the nickel package when Tucker will often look to pressure, but he was solid doing it with the Broncos and made 5 1/2 sacks in 2010. The Bears typically have shied away from being a big pressure team because the base defense calls for a four-man pass rush with seven in coverage and Roethlisberger, who passed for 406 yards, did a good job of exposing the defense as the game went on.
The Bears have met challenges but if Melton is indeed out for the remainder of the season, it will create one that will put pressure on the entire roster.
"You can't replace a Henry Melton," Briggs said. "He is an elite D-lineman. He will be missed. The next man has to step up and do his job. Phil Emery and our coaching staff will find the right guys."
Brad Biggs: firstname.lastname@example.org.