Friday, December 10, 2010
Bears will be a test for Patriots
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field (4:15 p.m. ET).
Mike: A good place to start this week is how the Patriots will respond after such an emotional victory. Prior to Monday's win, Robert Kraft said he couldn't think of another regular-season game as big as Patriots-Jets, so it seems like a fair question to ask: Will the Patriots have a tough time coming down from that high and beating the Bears?
Tedy: It's a short week, too. We used to have a saying in our locker room, that we used to do to other teams when talking in the media, and it was "pour the perfume on and pour it on thick." That's what is going to happen this week to the Patriots. Everyone is going to be on board, starting to talk about Super Bowl favorite and all that. They are going to be talking playoffs and home-field advantage and that can be very distracting. It's hard to put that behind you, especially when you have a blowout victory like that. You want to relish that a little bit. But I do think this team has already learned this year; I think Coach Belichick can draw back on that experience in Cleveland when the team thought it smelled pretty good going into that game. The message is that if you don't put the work in, it doesn't matter what you did on Monday night or the Sunday before, you can still get beat.
Mike: The Bears are one of the most surprising teams in the NFL to me. At the start of the year, I certainly didn't expect them to be 9-3. They mortgaged some very high draft choices for proven players, spent big in free agency and brought in Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. When I looked at this game on the schedule before the year, it looked like one of the easier ones for the Patriots, but that's not the case. The Bears' plan has worked.
Tedy: Martz is a guy that I used to look at as being stubborn as an offensive coordinator. When he was with the Rams, we always thought he wanted to throw the ball -- get it down the field, stretch the defense, attack the defense vertically. If the run didn't work, he didn't care because he would just throw short passes to Marshall Faulk and those guys. It looks like he's changed a little bit. He's starting to commit to the running game a little bit more with Matt Forte. Last week, the play distribution was 28 runs and 30 passes. He's really established that balance and it's made them a better team.
Mike: This is the Patriots' first trip to Soldier Field since 2000. The team played in Illinois in the 2002 season, but that game was at Memorial Stadium in Champaign because Soldier Field was being renovated.
Tedy: The field there is terrible. They've re-sodded it, but when you do that, it is still soft and mushy. You still bring up divots and it slows things down. If I was Bears coach Lovie Smith, I'd water down that field each day for the Patriots and those small, quick receivers. You saw it when the Eagles went in there and played -- Michael Vick was slipping, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy, too. This isn't the friendly FieldTurf that the Patriots are used to playing on at Gillette Stadium.
Mike: Before we get to the breakdown of the game, let's continue with the routine of breaking down one technical aspect of the game. There has been some discussion in recent weeks about the differences of having safety Patrick Chung play in the slot in the nickel defense over Darius Butler. What are the important aspects of playing that position and what assets do Chung and Butler bring to that job?
Tedy: Slot receivers in the NFL are usually quick and very sudden in their movements. Like Wes Welker. So you want a defender that can match that type of ability. In obvious passing downs you would like a corner drawing the assignment because they are typically better in coverage than safeties. One aspect that is sometimes forgotten is the communication that goes on that involves the slot defender. He sometimes is in combination coverage adjustments with the sub linebacker, the safety over the top and the outside defender. The slot defender must sometimes make an adjustment in a split second. Having Butler in that position not only gives him much needed reps and experience, it allows one of your most instinctive playmakers in Chung to roam the field.
Patriots defense vs. Bears offense
Mike: This looks like a new Jay Cutler for the Bears at quarterback. The key number on the stat sheet is that "10" under the INT column. When I think of Cutler, the two things that come to mind are that strong arm and usually a high interception total.
Tedy: He's played his best over the last five games, with just three interceptions. It all comes down to making good decisions. One thing, though, is that he has been sacked -- eight times in the last two games. With that, he's had to use his athletic ability. He's had 12 rush attempts in the last two games and those aren't planned rushes. He's running for his life out there at times, but he has the athletic ability to avoid pressure and extend the series with his feet, moving the chains -- getting those third-and-6 conversions. He can impersonate an athlete at times.
Mike: For the Patriots, the importance of turnovers is highlighted in these stats -- they are 9-0 this season when they have a positive turnover differential and 79-3 since the 2001 season. So, to me, it's a question of whether the defense can turn Cutler into the Cutler of old, and he doesn't get a lot of help from his offensive line.
Tedy: Bears quarterbacks are the most sacked in the NFL this season -- 45 times. Cutler has been brought down 41 times, as he missed a game and a half after suffering a concussion from one of those sacks. The Patriots should be able to get pressure on Cutler. The Bears' offensive line got better with right guard Roberto Garza coming back from injury. The center, Olin Kreutz, is sort of that scrappy player, almost like Dominic Raiola in Detroit, but a better player. They bring a little stability along the line, but still, they have struggled to protect to Cutler.
Mike: When you look at the Bears' receivers -- Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Co. -- it's not necessarily a big-name group. But these guys look like they can make plays with the ball in their hands, especially when Cutler backs out of center quickly, squares those shoulders up and fires to the defensive right side of the field while backpedaling. That's something a bit unique to the Bears' scheme.
Tedy: Cutler is the key, and you start to see him looking a bit more like Kurt Warner, from those old Rams offenses, in this scheme. One thing I think that has really helped the Bears is ending the experiment of Devin Hester being the No. 1 receiver. He's back to being more of a specialist, with game-plan plays -- screens, catch-and-run type plays that help them utilize his abilities. They're hoping Knox can be that No. 1 receiver, and last week Bennett had a great game with seven receptions for 104 yards, and four of those receptions came on third down. At tight end, Brandon Manumaleuna is almost like an offensive lineman in an "80" number. In the run game, they sort of lean him on a lot. The other tight end, Greg Olsen, is a guy who isn't utilized much in the passing game, as the Martz scheme doesn't really focus on the tight end at times.
Mike: We've made it to this point without talking that much about arguably the Bears' most productive offensive player, running back Matt Forte. He leads the Bears with 748 rushing yards and five touchdowns and is third on the team in receptions. So he's one of those rare dual-threat backs that can hurt you equally in both areas.
Jay Cutler and Matt Forte are both having solid seasons for the Bears.
Tedy: Think of the past Rams teams that the Patriots played when Martz was there. Who was the running back there? Marshall Faulk. Martz is using Forte in that Faulk-type role -- catching the ball out of the backfield but still being committed to the running game. A lot of fantasy players know about the big numbers that Forte has put up, as he's a guy you have to account for in both the running and passing games. In the passing game, it's not just short checkdowns and screen passes. They send him vertically. There was a play the Rams had that was called the "Ram" pass, where the inside receiver clears out that middle defender and creates that opening in the middle of the field for that No. 2 receiver, and a lot of times that No. 2 receiver will be Forte, making an inside move on that slot defender and catching that ball with a lot of room in front of him and turning it into a big gain.
Mike: From a Patriots perspective, what do you see from the defense at this point and what will be the key against the Bears?
Tedy: I think you're seeing some players emerge. Everyone knows about Vince Wilfork. I think Devin McCourty is having a comparable year to what safety Jairus Byrd had for Buffalo last year, with nine interceptions and going to the Pro Bowl. McCourty is in position to be a breakout player, which is amazing considering he's a rookie. Jerod Mayo is continuing to play well. Against the Bears, I think this team needs to dominate up front against this offensive line, which is very possible. Tully Banta-Cain needs to have a big day getting after the passer, Jermaine Cunningham needs to continue his development; I really like what he's been doing coming off that edge. Getting pressure on Cutler is going to be key and I think that's the big advantage the Patriots have.
Patriots offense vs. Bears defense
Mike: I could envision how the first meeting of the week went, as Bill Belichick got up in front of the team and listed the keys to the game. I would imagine that close to the top of the list was something like this: "Identify where No. 90 is and block him." The Patriots had interest in Julius Peppers as a free agent in the offseason, but now their only interest is in stopping him.
Tedy: I really see Peppers as a standard defensive end, every single down just lining up on the edge and rushing up the field. It's the right fit for him with the Bears. The Patriots, and their 3-4 scheme and the constant moving parts with different game plans, I don't think that's really what Julius Peppers is. He's a guy that you want on that edge, always threatening that passer. You don't want him dropping into coverage too often. That defense in Chicago is based on pressure, getting to the passer with a four-man rush because they have a cover-2 concept where the players drop back, they look at the quarterback, they read the quarterback, and once that quarterback makes one read to the left or right, they start to break that way. They believe if the quarterback has to re-set himself and start to look back to the other side of the field, the pressure will be there. That's why they need players like Peppers. Israel Idonije, on the other side, is also a quality pass rusher. For a quarterback to go through his full progression -- from 1 to 2 to 3 and sometimes to his check-down -- you need time to do that. The Bears make it hard on you and Peppers is a big reason why.
Mike: The Bears also flip Peppers from side to side, so both left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer could match up against him, and a player like tight end Alge Crumpler could be a big help.
Tedy: Lovie Smith is also a great defensive mind. It's almost like what Coach Belichick does with Vince Wilfork, who is the best they have. They move him around. It's the same thing with Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with Peppers. It could be the left side or the right side, depending on the matchups.
Mike: When we look at the Bears' linebacker corps, it starts with Brian Urlacher.
Tedy: He played great last week against the Lions with 19 tackles. He was all over the place. Lance Briggs is one of my favorite players; I think he's a great linebacker. They've had some injuries at the other linebacker spot; it's been a revolving door over the last few weeks. Those linebackers are based on functioning as one unit in this gap-penetrating scheme. One of them has outside leverage, the other has inside leverage, and the other one flows over the top. They really work well together in this scheme.
Mike: It's also not unusual to see them 10, 15, 20 yards down the field in pass coverage.
Tedy: It's the old Tampa Cover-2 scheme that the Bears are known for. They played it best when they went to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season, with Urlacher dropping back in the middle, the two outside linebackers reading the quarterback. That's what they're best at. In those zone coverage concepts, all eyes will be on Tom Brady and reading him, making his reads and finding his receivers in those zones. Then you have the cornerbacks -- Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. They're not shutdown types, like Nnamdi Asomugha, Champ Bailey or Charles Woodson. Those guys, you put them on a receiver and you're done. You feel comfortable with that. Scheme corners, instead of shutdown corners, is when you play within a system. In this case, it's that Cover-2 system, where you play zone concepts and you're responsible for certain areas of the field.
Mike: The Bears have surrendered just nine touchdown passes this season, a statistic that jumps off the stat sheet. The Bears are allowing an average of 16 points per game, so this looks like a tough challenge for Brady, who is playing some of the best football of his career right now.
Tedy: I think Brady is on track to get another MVP award. Lions quarterback Drew Stanton had a 102.4 passer rating against the Bears last week, and a lot of that came in the first half. The Bears looked like they were sleepwalking in the first half before shoring things up at halftime and played the Bears defense they are used to being. In this game, I think the Patriots will have to sustain drives, because it's rare to see the Bears give up big plays. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had a big catch-and-run last week before the half, but that was before the Bears woke up.
Special teams and predictions
Mike: This could be the game where we look back on April's draft and say, "That was a really good pick by the Patriots, taking punter Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round." Mesko has been solid this season and I think he is one of the most important players in this game with his directional punting and not allowing Devin Hester to be a huge factor.
Tedy: We'll see how well Mesko takes coaching. I've been on the sideline before when the punter has been Chris Hanson or Josh Miller and Coach Belichick looks at them and says, "Kick it out of bounds." When Todd Sauerbrun was here, Coach said the same thing and Sauerbrun didn't. He got an earful. Coach Belichick sometimes just wants to take the strength of a team away from them. I don't think it will be every attempt, because in certain situations you have to kick to a guy and trust your coverage units. Also, it will be windy, and that could make it a little more difficult to angle a kick a certain way. Elements will come into play.
Mike: The Bears also have a kicker in Robbie Gould who got his start in New England. I believe Belichick views Gould as his biggest personnel mistake in terms of letting a player go.
Tedy: He's been a great kicker for them, especially when considering that he kicks in Chicago. Last week against the Lions, he had a 54-yard kick in Detroit, which was a career long. If it comes down to a kick, the Bears feel comfortable.
Mike: Let's answer a question from a reader. There was a lot of interest from readers of the Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com about rookie Patriots outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. What have you seen from him?
Tedy: I know he hasn't been lighting up the stat sheet week in and week out, but I see him making plays that affect games that don't show up. It could be a subtle little pressure, like he had against Peyton Manning and force a throw where James Sanders can get an interception. Or setting a solid edge in the running game. You don't always notice those at times, but you're seeing that with Cunningham and he is starting to develop into one of those every-down players. If you play every down, you have to have skill and intelligence in a Bill Belichick-coached defense. It looks like Cunningham has that.
Mike: Let's wrap it up with our predictions. This looks like it will be an elements game and special teams becomes a big part of it. I think the Bears are better equipped to handle the heavy winds and possible snow flurries that are part of the forecast, and it also helps that they are getting the Patriots on a short week after an emotional win over the Jets. All those factors seem to favor the Bears, but in the end, I still see the Patriots as a cut above. In a lower-scoring game, I like the Patriots, 24-16.
Tedy: I actually think the Patriots are better equipped to handle the elements. Brady is a terrific cold-weather quarterback. Cutler hasn't thrown an interception the last two games. That short-lived streak ends. This Patriot defense is extremely opportunistic and will continue to make big plays. Patriots, 21-13.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.