The New England Patriots offense showed some encouraging progress over the last three games. Scoring 38, 38 and 43 points during their current three-game winning streak, Tom Brady and company appeared to have finally found their rhythm after an inconsistent start to the season. Today, however, the unit will face its biggest challenge since the Jacksonville Jaguars defense in week two: a Chicago Bears team that ranks fourth in the league after allowing just 19.2 points per game so far.
New England – shorthanded due to injuries suffered by starting right tackle Marcus Cannon and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister – therefore needs to play its best football. In order to do that and come away with a victory, three things need to be done.
Keep Tom Brady clean
Making sure that quarterback Tom Brady is given space and time in the pocket is something that needs to be high up on the Patriots’ list of priorities every single week. However, against a defense like Chicago’s, this rings especially true. After all, the Bears are one of the NFL’s best clubs when it comes to pressuring opposing passers and taking them down for a loss of yardage: only two teams average more sacks per game than Chicago’s 3.6.
After some questions earlier this week when it comes to the availability of star pass rusher Khalil Mack, the unit will be at full strength today: Mack, who leads the team with 5.0 sacks and is coming off an ankle injury, is expected to be active against the Patriots. New England, meanwhile, will be without stalwart right tackle Marcus Cannon who has already been declared “out” on Friday after suffering a concussion during last Sunday’s game. In Cannon’s place, LaAdrian Waddle will start at right tackle and go against Mack.
Naturally, this matchup favors the Bears. The ex-Oakland Raider is far from the only player to worry about from New England’s perspective, though: defensive tackle and ex-Patriot Akiem Hicks is one of the NFL’s most productive interior rushers, while the rest of the front seven has also shown tremendous ability to get after the quarterback. After allowing only two sacks over the last three games, Dante Scarnecchia’s unit therefore needs to bring its A-game not just when it comes to slowing down Mack.
Don’t get greedy
The Patriots and especially Tom Brady have a tendency to try to make something out of nothing this season with oftentimes negative results: at multiple points over the first six games, the greatest quarterback of all time tried to force a play when the better decision would have been to just throw the football away or take a sack. This, in turn, led to an increased number of Patriots turnovers this season.
Now, New England has to go against one of the NFL’s premier squads when it comes to taking the football away: the Bears defense registered a league-best 14 takeaways so far this season. Chicago came away with 10 interceptions and also recovered four fumbles. All in all, 24.1% of the team’s defensive drives ended in a takeaway, which is clearly the best number in all of football.
Taking care of the ball is therefore imperative for New England. One way to do that is by limiting the risk of negative plays through smart decisions and not trying to get greedy when no chance to gain yards presents itself.
Use misdirection to gain an advantage
One of Chicago’s defensive strengths is the athleticism of its linebacker corps. Led by the aforementioned Khalil Mack, former first-round draft picks Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd, and veteran Danny Trevathan, the group has been able to play aggressively against both the run and the pass and so far held its own in both areas.
But while this approach has yielded very good results for the Bears defense this season, New England could try to take advantage of it by challenging the linebackers’ instincts and quickness through misdirection plays. Whether it is classic play-action passes or more elaborate schemes like jet sweeps or reverse runs, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should try to put pressure on Chicago’s hyper-athletic linebackers early and often.
Why? Misdirection counteracts defensive aggressiveness by forcing players to trust their eyes and knowledge of an opponent over their athleticism and instincts – and the Patriots have the right personnel to attack the Bears’ hyper-athletic linebacker group that way. Don’t be surprised therefore to see Julian Edelman or Cordarrelle Patterson carry the football, or to see Sony Michel get regular carries early on against one of the best run defenses in the NFL.