NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Eight years have passed since the Chicago Bears last visited Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots. The date was Nov. 26, 2006, and the final score was a Patriots’ 17-13 victory, but the game itself has been remembered for what transpired with 11:34 to play.
It was then, with the score tied at 10 apiece, that Tom Brady took a 3rd-and-9 snap from shotgun and felt the pocket collapse. He ran. And four seconds later, he juked, heading right as eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher headed left.
The one-on-one gauntlet ended in a first down, and ultimately a touchdown.
Much has changed since then. Urlacher is now awaiting immortality in Canton, Brady is now 37, and Chicago’s roster is no longer headlined by the likes of halfback Thomas Jones, wideout Bernard Berrian, D-lineman Tommie Harris, deep man Nathan Vasher or return man Devin Hester.
As for New England’s roster, suffice to say tight end Ben Watson will not be leading the team in receiving this time around.
Things will be different on both sides of the ball when the 3-4 Bears and 5-2 Patriots encounter each other in Foxborough at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Here is a closer look at what to monitor when the two do.
After linebacker Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley landed on injured reserve after Week 6, the Patriots appeared stay in good health through Week 7. Yet now, it appears the Patriots will be without third-year defensive end Chandler Jones for the foreseeable future because of a hip injury suffered versus the New York Jets.
Rookie sixth-rounder Zach Moore is expected to be called upon to fill the void this Sunday, but three-man lines with three defensive tackles could be utilized heavily once again, as Jones was ruled out on Friday.
While Jones did not participate this past week, offensive linemen Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming were limited in practice, and so was defensive lineman Dominique Easley, safety Nate Ebner and specialist Matthew Slater. Both Fleming and Ebner last played in Week 4, while Connolly and Stork both missed last week and are expected to make their returns.
But all of whom are listed as questionable to face the Bears. Halfback Shane Vereen, listed as having an illness, joins them as a late addition to the official injury report.
Meanwhile, a noteworthy probable for the Patriots is linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The Alabama product looks to be on the mend from his knee injury, having participated fully in practice and played in last Thursday’s game. Hightower’s presence means that this week’s acquisition, former Tennessee Titan Akeem Ayers, will likely be able to ease into the defense with situational usage.
As for the Bears, emerging tight end Martellus Bennett has been limited this week due to a hamstring injury but is probable, and rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller is following suit despite battling a broken hand and hip ailment.
Bears linebackers Lance Briggs and Jonathan Bostic are doubtful due to back and rib injuries, respectively, while tackle Jordan Mills is listed as questionable to face the Patriots with a foot injury.
- Wideout Aaron Dobson
- Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming, Jordan Devey, Chris Barker
- Defensive end Chandler Jones
- Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard
- Safety Nate Ebner
- Offensive linemen Jordan Mills, Charles Leno
- Linebackers Lance Briggs, Jon Bostic
- Cornerback Terrance Mitchell
- Safeties Danny McCray, Ahmad Dixon
There are Piscataway, N.J., roots with Bears linebacker Khaseem Greene, who was a member of the Rutgers football team alongside Patriots defensive backs Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and tight end Tim Wright for four seasons. And in 2012, current Patriots assistant Steve Belichick joined them as a senior walk-on long snapper.
In addition to that prominent collegiate linkage, though, the Bears also have a couple Patriots ties. First, there is defensive end Trevor Scott, who played in 14 games with New England in 2012 and registered 14 tackles, three sacks as well as a forced fumble along the way. And second, there is undrafted rookie safety Shamiel Gary, who spent the summer with the Patriots before joining Chicago’s 53-man roster and later the practice squad earlier this month.
Few ties are closer, however, than the one shared between Bears rookie safety Brock Vereen and his older brother, Shane. While the receiving back was a second-round pick out of California in 2011, Brock was a versatile defensive back and fourth-round pick out of Minnesota this past May.
Receiving’s His Forte
There’s something to be said for what Matt Forte has done in the Bears passing game. The four-time 1,000-yard rusher has also caught more than 44 passes in each of his seven NFL seasons. And this season, on the heels of a six-catch, 60-yard performance which also netted a touchdown, the dynamic threat has caught 52 passes – the most of any player at any position through Week 7.
The 28-year-old former Tulane Standout is on pace to do something that hasn’t been done since 1985, when legendary San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig lead the league in receptions with 92. He’s on his way to 118 catches, which would set a new mark for a running back. Fullback Larry Centers, who spent his final NFL season with the Patriots, holds the current mark with 101 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals in 1995.
If Chicago’s offense continues to create for the 6’2”, 218-pound ball-carrier, the blueprint will give way to the results. For whether it’s been out of the backfield or out wide, the designs have helped Forte get into space, where he has the hands and legs of a wide receiver.
That was illustrated last week against the Miami Dolphins, as receiver Alshon Jeffery’s crossing route meshed with Forte’s – without the collision or flags of an illegal pick route – and catapulted the back free for quarterback Jay Cutler to hit him in stride.
Chicago’s leading receiver may be the embodiment of a modern-day running back – big, strong, decisive yet elusive – but it’s how he dictates coverage on first and second down that leads to his effectiveness on third down.
New England’s linebackers will have to pay their due diligence for the duration. The nickel defense is likely the best way to counter No. 22, providing there are players who can fulfill it.
Forte will take what is given to him. And as his 3,355 career receiving yards have shown, that adds up in the long run.
New England will be accounting what he’s done on the ground along the way. The Patriots conceded 191 rushing yards to the Dolphins, 207 yards to the Kansas City Chiefs and 218 yards to the Jets. Finding a happy medium between run and pass defense will be easier said than done.
Covering Another Big Three
Bennett, Jeffery and Brandon Marshall aren’t exactly the 2006 Chicago trio of Desmond Clark, Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian. But, at any rate, the 2014 trio has combined for 105 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns through seven contests.
The symbiosis Forte has forged alongside those three has made the Bears a flight risk for defenses. Together, they’ve attacked all three levels of the field. And for the Patriots, it will about matching up to mitigate that diversity. Presumably, cornerback Darrelle Revis will take on the suddenness of Marshall, while 6’4”, 221-pound corner Brandon Browner will take on the basketball-style play of the 6’3”, 216-pound Jeffery. Those pairings would likely leave either Hightower, weak-side linebacker Jamie Collins or strong safety Patrick Chung in the vicinity of Bennett.
By assigning responsibilities to that big three, though, it isn’t hard to overlook exactly who will be assuming Forte.
Cutler’s Decisions and the Protection Before Him
Cutler’s seven interceptions have been the thorn in the side of his 14 touchdown passes. And those two numbers rank third and fifth most at the position.
Much of it has hinged on his style of play. “Jay’s a gunslinger,” Marshall said of his quarterback after Chicago’s most recent loss.
As time has shown, however, that style is a double-edged sword. Cutler has also lost three fumbles this season, and those collective issues with ball security have escalated in multiple turnovers in each of Chicago’s four losses. He hasn’t turned the ball over once in each of the Bears’ three wins.
The trend between those outcomes would presumably start up front, where Chicago’s offensive line has witnessed its quarterback get sacked 17 times, hit eight times and hurried 57 times, per Pro Football Focus.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod struggled adjusting to the speed and low flexibility of the Dolphins’ Derrick Shelby this past weekend on the way to a sack. It took place during a three-man rush.
And Mills over at right tackle has received the aid of tight ends and guards in pass protection as well. But, even with those edge issues, Cutler has only thrown one interception when under pressure, and the Patriots are limited in terms of who can be deployed to bring that pressure.
Perhaps the pressure will have to come from elsewhere, from another form. For Cutler, much of it has simply come from the chances he’s taken; the throws – like Bennett’s out route versus Miami – that were not there.
If the Patriots are able to stay in line with Chicago’s downfield creators, the odds of Cutler forcing passes into tight windows will inevitably increase. But it is far from a certainty that the secondary will be able do so.
Chicago’s Fast Front Four
Bears defensive linemen Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea and Willie Young have amassed 16 sacks this season. And Young, a former Detroit Lion who was no stranger to Brady during a preseason matchup just over a year ago, has seven sacks on his own.
Though New England’s offensive line has found its way through a lack of continuity of late – eight blockers have played over 140 snaps this season – Chicago’s pass rush won’t provide much time for the unit to find its way through Week 8.
The Bears’ front four has been creative in its alignments, stretching wide on one side while stacking the other with one-, three- and nine-techniques.
From one end to the other, the assembly has brought the speed, power and precision to overwhelm. Leaving guards and tackles uncovered has resulted in hesitancy in blocking responsibilities. And with linebackers sugaring, there are several variables fo blockers to keep track of.
Even if Chicago’s run defense has been far less dominant, you can’t block what you can’t see. Vereen and the rest of New England halfbacks – Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden and perhaps James White – will have to see their lanes through to the end.
Patriots Tight Ends vs. Bears Linebackers
New England should be able to see things more definitively when it comes to Chicago’s second level.
The Bears have allowed 33 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns to tight ends this season. And while some of those grabs have come in a single-high defense with a dropped safety, the Chicago’s linebackers have also given up their share.
Play action has caught the eyes of Bears linebackers in the backfield. In the process, they have been swayed out of the play side for quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill connect on throws behind them.
Yet, even without play action, Chicago’s linebackers remain susceptible. Outside linebacker Shea McClellin conceded one score to Miami’s Charles Clay last Sunday, on a corner pattern down in the red zone.
With injuries accumulating in the middle of the Bears’ defense, “Y” tight end Rob Gronkowski and “F” option Tim Wright could see the output rise on Sunday. They could be facing some free releases at the line, or they could be facing jams.
Odds are, they will be points of emphasis. However Chicago elects to approach New England’s tight ends, the game could ultimately hinge on it.