PITTSBURGH (AP) — Julius Peppers picked up the ball, turned toward the wide swath of open field in front of him and took off.
Sure, the Chicago Bears’ defensive end admits he doesn’t have the “blazing speed” of his youth. The way the Pittsburgh Steelers are backpedaling these days, it was hardly required.
Peppers scooped up a Ben Roethlisberger fumble and ran 42 yards with just under 4 minutes remaining to clinch a 40-23 victory Sunday night that kept the Bears (3-0) perfect.
“I happened to be at the right place at the right time and the ball bounced to me,” Peppers said. “I got a hand on it and took it in, so there wasn’t much else to talk about. That was the longest run I had with the ball, yes, I will tell you that.”
The Bears forced five turnovers in all, converting four of them into points to stave off a second-half rally by the Steelers (0-3). Pittsburgh trimmed a 21-point deficit to four in the fourth quarter but couldn’t stop from stumbling to the franchise’s worst start since 2000.
Roethlisberger completed 26 of 41 passes for 406 yards and threw two touchdowns to Antonio Brown, but also fumbled twice and threw two interceptions.
“We can’t, I can’t, turn the ball over, plain and simple,” Roethlisberger said.
Major Wright returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and Peppers’ stroll to the end zone capped kept Chicago unbeaten. The Bears needed a pair of fourth-quarter rallies to win their first two games, but never trailed against Pittsburgh thanks to a defense that specializes in havoc.
“We came in here and got the job done,” Peppers said. “They got close down the stretch, but we have veterans on our team that stayed cool. We don’t panic no matter what.”
Jay Cutler passed for 159 yards and threw a 17-yard touchdown strike to Earl Bennett with just under 6 minutes remaining to give the Bears breathing room after the Steelers pulled within 27-23 on Shaun Suisham’s 44-yard field goal with 10:43 to play.
Chicago’s offense, which generated little after a 17-point outburst in the first quarter, responded behind Cutler.
The quarterback scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-10 to start the drive. Cutler then hit Brandon Marshall for 41 yards on third-and-12 to move into Pittsburgh territory. Facing third-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 17, Cutler found Bennett in the back corner of the end zone.
Officials ruled the pass was incomplete, but the play was overturned after replays showed Bennett deftly dragged his right foot before sliding out of bounds.
“The (defensive) back was there, but the throw was perfect and I was able to make the play,” Bennett said. “The way we played in the fourth quarter, that really shows how resilient we are.”
Pittsburgh tried to get back into the game, but Lance Briggs stripped Roethlisberger, and Peppers pounced. The veteran defensive end followed a parade of blockers down the sideline for Chicago’s second defensive score of the night and third in two weeks.
“We try to scoop up every loose ball and run it back for a touchdown in practice,” linebacker D.J. Williams said. “Even if it’s not a fumble, we pick it up and go with it. We knew they had some problems with their offensive line, so we wanted to pressure them as much as possible. We were able to get past their tackles and pressure Ben quite a bit.
Roethlisberger’s second interception on a late stat-padding drive was Pittsburgh’s ninth turnover through three games. The Steelers defense, meanwhile, hasn’t recorded a takeaway through 12 quarters.
It’s a recipe that rarely leads to victory.
“As of right now we have way too many turnovers and it goes both ways,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “We’ve got to find ways to get the ball. That’s what great defenses do.”
And none do it better than the Bears. While not the snarling force it was when recently retired linebacker Brian Urlacher was running things, the Bears make up for their lack of bark with a pretty feisty bite.
When opponents get loose with the ball, the Bears swarm.
The mistakes started early. Pittsburgh turned it over twice in the first half. Williams stripped Roethlisberger in the first quarter, leading to a 5-yard touchdown run by Matt Forte.
Chicago was up 17-3 midway through the second quarter when Roethlisberger threw off his back foot in the face of a blitz. The bail sailed into the hands of Wright, who sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown to give the Bears a commanding 21-point lead.
The score marked the second straight week and the 10th time since the start of the 2012 season that the Bears returned an interception for a touchdown, easily the most in the NFL.
“That’s what we do, we take the ball away,” Peppers said. “We stress it in practice every day, and it carries over to the game … we have to continue to do that on a weekly basis to continue to win, and I believe we’ll be able to do that.”
NOTES: Steelers TE Heath Miller caught 3 passes for 35 yards in his first game back from torn ligaments in his right knee. … The Bears lost DT Henry Milton to a knee injury early in the fourth quarter. … Pittsburgh outgained the Bears 459-258. … Steelers WR Antonio Brown finished with nine receptions for a career-high 196 yards and two touchdowns.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org