By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (3-4) hit the road to face the Patriots (5-2) on Sunday. Here are my keys to the game.
OFFENSE: RUN AND POSSESS
Expectations haven’t been met offensively by the Bears, but taking a deep breath and recalibrating a bit could solve the mystery of the season so far. Protecting the ball is the most important job against a Patriots defense that shares the league lead in takeaways.
You must expect everything and prepare accordingly when facing a Bill Belichick-coached team. Belichick concocts unique game plans depending on the opponent, focusing on specific matchups with versatile defenders. The Patriots are without their best linebacker in Jerod Mayo and best pass rusher in Chandler Jones, and they’ve been vulnerable against the run, ranking 24th in the NFL in allowing 126.3 yards per game on 28.7 rushing attempts. The Patriots have already faced 15 10-play drives this season, all but one resulting in a score.
While teams are moving the ball on the Patriots, throwing the ball deep on them hasn’t been easy, with quarterbacks going 5-of-20 on such throws, including three interceptions on attempts longer than 21 yards with a 37.1 QBR, sixth-worst in the NFL. The players to account for on the Patriots are defensive end Rob Ninkovich, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty in the secondary.
DEFENSE: BRACING FOR BRADY
Tom Brady has completed 42 of his 68 targeted throws to his tight ends, and those completions account for the seventh-most in the league. The Bears have to find a way to deny the Patriots that middle-of-the-field luxury that good offenses enjoy. Rob Gronkowski has been targeted 17 times on third down and has hauled in 10 catches, nine for first downs. Seventy-one percent of his catches have been for first downs, and he consistently gets yards after the catch.
At the same time, he’s only caught 31 of his 56 targets. Brady has never completed fewer than 60 percent of his throws in any single season in his career, but the Dolphins and the Jets held him under 55 percent. He’s getting pressured, and the Patriots’ offensive line has struggled to find consistency due to performance and injury.
The Bears should be able to generate a feisty pass rush against Brady but must be prepared for the no-huddle and for the veteran quarterback’s quick release. New England is 26th in yards per carry at 3.75 but are getting 4.76 yards per first down rush. Shane Vereen is a versatile weapon in and out of the backfield and could share the field with his brother Brock, the Bears free safety, depending on the health of Chris Conte.
SPECIAL TEAMS: WIN THE FIELD POSTION BATTLE
The arrow is pointing up for the Bears’ special teams units, as some of the growing pains have dissipated. The kick and punt coverage units continue to improve with more reps and opportunities. Personnel additions have increased the speed of the unit, and players are carrying out their assignments.
Punter Patrick O’Donnell is coming off his best game after a pair of 57-yard bombs against the Dolphins with great hang time. New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski is nearly automatic, making all but one of his 19 field goals. A little more than half of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, so there could be an opportunity for Chris Williams to take a few out of the end zone.
INTANGIBLES: PREPARE FOR A PHYSICAL GAME
New England plays a physical brand of ball, so Chicago has to do the same and have the ability to match that physicality. Belichick has a head start on the Bears with 10 days between games and is arguably the best game plan coach in the NFL.
Meeting that challenge will be a big storyline as the game unfolds. The type of loss the Bears are coming off of clearly has the teams’ collective attention, so the expectation is a dialed-in and emotional team will arrive in Foxborough to battle the Patriots. Turning the negatives that occurred in the loss to the Dolphins into positives against the Patriots will serve as a guide for what remains ahead in the rest of the Bears season.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.