The New England Patriots’ offense showed some tremendous improvements over the last three weeks but the unit did not necessarily face a murderer’s row of defenses. The upcoming game against the Chicago Bears will be different: head coach Matt Nagy’s team features one of the best defensive units in the NFL – one that leads the league in takeaways and is among the best in stopping the run. The Patriots will have their hands full.
To find out more about Chicago’s defense, we spoke with Jeff Berckes who covers the team as a contributor for our sister site Windy City Gridiron. Speaking to Jeff about the group, one thing becomes clear rather quickly: the Bears’ defense has a lot more depth and talent to offer than just the two big names up front in Khalil Mack and ex-Patriot Akiem Hicks – the unit has playmaking potential on all three levels.
“First, thank you for Hicks,” Jeff said about the defensive tackle, who was with New England in 2015 and has since turned into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. “I honestly think he was the start of the turnaround to this Bears franchise. General Manager Ryan Pace had a tough time signing free agents and when Hicks broke out and earned an extension, that started rolling the ball for the Bears.”
Of course, Hicks is just one piece of the puzzle. “In the front 7, you should probably know about Eddie Goldman, the nose tackle,” continued Jeff. “Goldman has been a major factor in the run game but can also help collapse the pocket. It will be interesting to see how he and the rest of the front four fare against the Patriots line. Also of note, Mack is one of three linebackers drafted in the top ten picks on the Bears. Leonard Floyd starts opposite Mack, and rookie Roquan Smith starts at one of the inside linebacker spots.”
The Bears’ talented linebackers in general will be in for an interesting challenge: New England loves to attack opposing front-sevens with the speed and quickness players like James White and Julian Edelman bring to the table. Considering the talent Chicago has in that area, however, New England’s passing offense has to be up to the challenge – one that is clearly a tougher one than what the Patriots have faced over the last three weeks.
“This will be interesting because on paper, that should be a strength for the Bears,” Jeff said about the linebacker group. “Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, and Leonard Floyd hold up pretty well in coverage. Add in the Rob Gronkowski factor and I’m very interested in how they’ll match up. I guess I wouldn’t want any linebacker covering Edelman – I’m hoping that Bryce Callahan can matchup there – but that likely puts a linebacker on Gronk.”
No matter who ultimately draws which assignment, one aspect of the Bears defense in particular will challenge the Patriots: speed. “They’ve added a lot of speed and individual talent that has helped Chicago get off to a fast start defensively,” Jeff noted about a team that has given up just 96 points so far this year. The front seven alone is not responsible for this, however, as the backend is also coming together well this season.
“Eddie Jackson is really emerging as a top end free safety, despite his forgettable showing in Miami last week,” Jeff noted about the second-year man. “He’s really brought that unit together and with all five starters returning from last year, that continuity is bearing fruit. Kyle Fuller had two interceptions last week, Prince Amukamara has looked good and Bryce Callahan is a very talented slot corner.”
The Bears’ collection of talent combined with an aggressive scheme will make for an intriguing battle on Sunday. “Truthfully, I’ve enjoyed watching the Patriots offense operate over the years and I have a level of morbid curiosity to see how the Bears defense can match up against this attack,” Jeff said. “Brady is so surgical and the Bears simply have never looked good against him so it’s hard to imagine great success.”
“However, the Bears, at home, do have the ability to get pressure with the front four and shorten Brady’s time in the pocket to prevent breakdowns in coverage,” he continued. “That side of the ball will be a lot of fun to watch.”
New England’s fans generally travel pretty well, so we also asked Jeff about his culinary expertise when it comes to one particular topic: Chicago-style deep dish pizza. He brought fellow writers and Chicago natives Andrew Link and Sam Householder to the conversation to talk about where to get the best deep dish pizza in the city. So for all of you visiting this weekend, make sure to go there:
“Lou Malnati’s is the staple of deep dish pizza in Chicago,” Andrew said. “Everyone has their favorites, but the one that you hear most frequently by locals and ex-pats, is Lou’s. They have a flaky crust with a traditional cheese on the bottom, meat/toppings in the middle, and sauce on top recipe. The Lou is their specialty. Spinach mix (enhanced with garlic, basil & onion), mushrooms and sliced Roma tomatoes covered with three cheeses, on a garlic Buttercrust, and whatever you do, DO NOT skimp on the few pennies it costs for the Buttercrust! While most Chicagoans don’t actually eat much deep dish, when they do, most of them turn to Chicago’s most trusted name in pan pizza (what we call it).”
“Giordano’s is the classic and probably the most famous outside of the city,” said Sam about the topic. “They have a flakier crust and more robust sauce if that’s your thing. Wait times are usually on the longer side, but newer locations let you order your deep dish before you are seated so you won’t be waiting as long. Lou Malnati’s fans are perhaps the most fiercely loyal, as Andrew points out, theirs is a little bit sweeter of a sauce and, of course, their Buttercrust. Malnati’s also prides themselves on their house made sausage so be sure to get that on the pizza. Exchequer is a sweeter, thinner sauce but was just as delicious.”
One thing to note, as the three colleagues pointed out: deep dish pizzas typically take about 45 minutes to an hour to cook, so don’t go get one if you’re on a time crunch or if you’re starving.