Here are five things to watch when the Bears battle the Patriots this coming Sunday.
Jay Cutler’s decision making: New England mixes things up with the front seven with pressure packages and multiple looks designed to confuse quarterbacks. But Cutler has proven adept at diagnosing such nuances and adjusting accordingly. His ability to do that will be put to the test against the Patriots. Interestingly, Cutler played his worst this season against two of the three worst defenses in the league. Against 32nd-ranked Washington, Cutler tossed a season-high four interceptions. Against Seattle’s No. 30 defense, Cutler finished with his lowest completion percentage (43.6) of the year. Well, this week, Cutler faces a Patriots defense ranked 31st.
Cutler’s protection: Chicago’s Swiss-cheese offensive line could make Cutler’s decision-making process more difficult by not allowing him adequate time to get through progressions to make the appropriate throws. New England’s multiple looks could prove confusing for the offensive line, especially rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb, who has struggled in recent weeks. Webb needs to lean on experienced right guard Roberto Garza for guidance on identifying the most dangerous threats. The Patriots aren’t considered a dangerous team in terms of sacks. But the Bears have given up four sacks in each of the last two games. Those numbers definitely need to dip for this team to accomplish its goals, offensively.
Matt Forte's impact: Balance has been the key to Chicago’s success on offense this season, and the running game plays a major role in the Bears achieving that on a week-to-week basis. The rushing attack will be especially important, given the expected snowy conditions for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. Forte has averaged 3.9 yards or better in each of his past three outings, which bodes well because if the Bears can’t consistently run, at some point, they’ll have to abandon the rushing attack. When they’ve done that in the past, it’s been disastrous. In addition, it’ll also be important for the defense to shut down New England’s running game, led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Inclement weather will force both teams to lean a little more heavily on the running game. The team most successful running likely wins.
The tackling of Chicago’s back seven: The Bears will be content to stay in Cover 2 and allow Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to pick them apart with short and intermediate passes. That’s fine because it forces Brady to be precise in taking the Patriots on long drives of 10 or more plays (the thinking is sooner or later he’ll make a mistake or the Bears will make a big play). Then, the Bears can stiffen in the red zone, where the area for them to cover is much more confined. What’s key for the Bears, though, is making sure tackles with the linebackers and secondary on Brady’s completions to keep his receivers and running backs -- which are skilled at gaining yards after the catch -- from turning 4- and 5-yard completions into longer gains.
The Bears' pressure on Brady: New England's QB has shown the ability to demolish Cover 2 teams with pinpoint precision. Against a Cover 2 Jaguars team in the 2007 playoffs, Brady set a postseason record for completion percentage (92.8 percent; completing 26 of 28 for three touchdowns). The main reason for his success was a lack of pressure, and shoddy tackling on his short completions. So if the Bears can get pressure with the front four -- which they’ve excelled at all season -- they can alter the accuracy of Brady’s passes, and possibly force turnovers. The Bears are 5-0 this year when they lead in turnover margin. So scoring an interception or fumble due to pressure from the front seven -- or at least altering Brady’s accuracy -- gives the Bears a better chance of prevailing.