(Eds: Updates, should stand.)By ANDREW SELIGMANAP Sports Writer
Julius Peppers wasn’t interested in looking back. All he cared about is what’s coming up.
The Chicago Bears visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and the star defensive end made it clear: The pass rush that’s been missing so far will be there in force when the Bears go up against Ben Roethlisberger.
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”This week it’s going to be improved,” Peppers said. ”I’m not interested in talking about anything from last week. My focus is on Pittsburgh and getting better.”
To that end, there’s plenty of room.
The Bears (2-0) lead the NFC North after comeback wins over Cincinnati and Minnesota, thanks to late rallies by the offense. The defense has been as opportunistic as ever and is one off the league lead with six takeaways, but Chicago is getting little pressure up front.
Quarterbacks are getting all the time they need, and opponents are converting on third downs at a jarring rate. Most alarming, the 33-year-old Peppers so far has been a nonfactor with just two tackles and no sacks.
He sat out some preseason practices because of a hamstring issue and struggled against the Bengals. Then, he was sent home from the Bears facility last week because of flu symptoms. He missed practice that Thursday and was still feeling ill during the Vikings game.
Peppers insisted this week he’s feeling fine, and the Bears sure could use the eight-time Pro Bowl pick at full strength. Even if the Steelers are struggling on offense, they still have one big obstacle behind center. At 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, defenders still bounce off Roethlisberger like pinballs even if he’s been sacked seven times.
”He’s one of the tougher guys to get down on the ground,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. ”And even when you’re hanging on the guy, he still makes a throw down the field. And when he scrambles, he’s looking to throw. He can throw it 60 yards on the run. He’s a rare guy in that way. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
A breakout from Peppers would go a long way toward changing that and correcting the problems on third downs. The Bears have given up a conversion on 14 of 27 attempts and are tied with the St. Louis Rams for the worst rate in the NFL.
It’s unsettling for the players and coaches, and just jarring in general given the success Chicago has had in that area in recent years. Only once in the previous 13 seasons did opponents convert more than 40 percent of their third-down chances.
The pass rush is a major factor in those situations. That means staying in lanes, something the Bears struggled to do chasing Christian Ponder last week.
”We need to finish in our rushes,” Tucker said. ”We were getting closer but no cigar. This week is about finishing – four guys working together. And when we pressure, we got to get there and we’ll get that done as well. But there’s other areas as well – third down, we need to improve. We have to do a much better job on first and second down, so we don’t have so many third and 1s and third and 2s , things like that. That’s hard to get off the field in those situations; we need to win some of those.”
It would help if Peppers reverted to his disruptive ways, wreak havoc in a way he hasn’t done this season.
”People that doubt his ability, I think, are crazy,” defensive end Corey Wootton said. ”He’s still got every ounce of the Pro Bowl player he is. We see him in practice every day. We see what he can do. We see his speed is still there, his hands, everything. We’re expecting a big game from him.”
NOTES: CB Charles Tillman (knee) sat out his second straight practice but is expected to be ready for Sunday’s game. … WR Brandon Marshall cut short practice after his back tightened up, and TE Martellus Bennett (shoulder) and G Kyle Long (back) were full participants after being limited on Wednesday.