Coming off back-to-back wins, the New England Patriots have finally started to build some momentum after starting the season with a 1-3 record. In order to continue their recent trajectory and move above .500 for the first time all year, they will need to beat a rather unfamiliar opponent.
The Chicago Bears, who last squared off against the Patriots in 2018, will visit Gillette Stadium for a primetime matchup. The team of head coach Matt Eberflus is entering the contest with a 2-4 record, but it dropped its last three straight games.
Nonetheless, Eberflus’ New England counterpart sang the Bears’ praises repeatedly leading up to the game.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Belichick said last Wednesday. “They’ve had some time here and talked about some of the things that they’re going to change or do differently or whatever, so we’ll have to be prepared for maybe something that we haven’t seen from them, whatever adjustments Coach Eberflus and his staff decide to make. Need a good week of preparation here and be ready to go Monday night.”
Despite the Patriots having a disadvantage in terms of preparation time — the Bears’ Week 6 game was on Thursday Night, giving them three extra days to work on New England — they are seen as clear favorites heading into this contest. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Patriots are seen as 8.5-point favorites for Monday.
What can they do to live up to that status, though? Based on the Bears’ game tape over the first six weeks of the season, here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Bears defense
The Patriots had to play their last three games without starting quarterback Mac Jones. The sophomore passer suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens, and had to be replaced by Brian Hoyer and eventually Bailey Zappe.
Hoyer only lasted one quarter before he sustained a concussion in Week 4 versus Green Bay, paving the way for fourth-round rookie Zappe to lead the offense. While the youngster has done an admirable job, and went 2-0 in his two starts, the expectation is that Jones will return to the lineup on Monday.
Despite his struggles the first three games, Jones is a better player than Zappe and will allow the Patriots to expand their playbook significantly compared to the trimmed-down version used with the rookie under center. That being said, against the Bears New England should not be afraid from incorporating several of the plays that were ran during the starter’s absence — especially in regards to how the offensive game plan is built.
Frankly, just like the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns the last two weeks, the Bears invite a run-heavy approach.
While their defense is ranked 12th in the NFL, giving up an average of 19.7 points per game, the unit has struggled stopping the run. It is ranked last in the league in rushing attempts against (202), 31st in yards given up (978), 30th in touchdowns (9), 27th in DVOA (3.0%), 26th in yards per carry (4.8) and 24th in EPA (-0.005).
The Bears run defense has faced a lot of zone-heavy teams this season, but it has struggled in virtually all areas this season. Defenders are easily moved off their spots, they are struggling to get off blocks, take inconsistent fits and pursuit angles, and have missed too high a number of tackles; Chicago is 30th in the NFL with an average of six missed tackle attempts per game.
The following play against the Minnesota Vikings is a prime example of that:
Chicago uses stunts to let its edge defenders play aggressively and crash inside, while standout off-the-ball linebacker Roquan Smith or the team’s safeties come downhill to replace outside. Their aggression, however, oftentimes leads to big holes and the linebackers in particular haven’t managed to hold the point of attack.
The Patriots taking advantage of all of those inadequacies would not be a surprise. They have shown an ability to find success on the ground using several modes of attack — from their usual power and duo concepts, to inside zone, and, occasionally, outside zone as well. They will rely on the bread-and-butter run concepts on Monday night again, but incorporating more zone could also happen.
The Patriots don’t major in split-zone runs, but teams have opened cutback lanes for big runs on a weekly basis by having tight ends block across the formation to kick-out edge defenders:
On this play against the San Francisco 49ers, the Bears allowed the defensive right-side edge to open up when Robert Quinn (94) was drawn inside and subsequently taken out by tight end Tyler Kroft (81). The edge personnel playing too aggressively could open some opportunities for Patriots backs Rhamondre Stevenson and, if cleared to play, Damien Harris.
This aggressiveness could also impact the game in other areas, though: New England should be able to find success off of play-action concepts.
The Bears’ vulnerability against the run, after all, has translated to their defense versus play-action, where fakes have opened up a lot of space over the middle:
On this play against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears played a two-deep zone coverage out of a nickel package. The call relies on the underneath defenders dropping into their respective coverage areas quickly, something that did not happen here: the off-ball linebackers and cornerback Kyler Gordon (6) get sucked in by the possible run, leaving a big hole over the top for Sammy Watkins (11) to exploit.
New England used play-action on just 10.8 percent of Jones’ dropbacks against Miami, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, according to Pro Football Focus, with that number never exceeding 13.2 percent in any single game.
With Zappe in the lineup, the Patriots’ usage of play-action increased significantly. In what is essentially 12 quarters of play, 31.6 percent of dropbacks resulted in a fake handoff; that rate never dropped below 25 percent. The results were impressive: Zappe has completed 18 of 21 play-action attempts for a combined 322 yards as well as three touchdowns — resulting in a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
Teams play the rather inexperienced Zappe differently than Jones, but against an opponent such as the Bears play-action concepts should still feature prominently in the game plan.
Patriots defense vs. Bears offense
The Chicago offense under first-time offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has not been good so far this year. The unit is ranked just 30th in the NFL in both points scored (15.5) and yards gained (293.5) per game, while struggling mightily to move the ball through the air.
The operation, led by sophomore quarterback Justin Fields, entered Week 7 ranked dead-last in the NFL in pass attempts (115) and passing yards (737), and 25th in EPA per play (-0.035). It also only ranked seventh in yards per attempt (7.6) and 29th (5.3) in net yards per attempt.
Frankly, the Bears have not been good moving the football through the air, a combination of several factors as Windy City Gridiron’s Patti Curl told Pats Pulpit earlier this week:
The story of Fields’ season is not as bad as the box score shows, but last Thursday night’s game is a pretty good microcosm. Fields consistently shows the ability to make explosive plays but falls short in executing the short chain-moving plays that keep an offense on the field. ...
The next issue is trust — in his receivers and his offensive line. He’s not throwing into tight windows, which may be partly a slow adjustment to “NFL open” versus the separation he was accustomed to at Ohio State, but his receiving corps also hasn’t given him a lot of reason to trust they will catch a contested ball. He’s also anticipating pressure and sometimes leaving the pocket more than necessary, then other times overcorrecting and staying into the pocket too long, both situations have led to sacks although the former sometimes leads to huge runs.
The 11th overall selection in last year’s draft — coming off the board four picks earlier than Mac Jones — Fields has had a similarly up-and-down season as the Patriots’ second-year QB, even though the potential for short-term improvement appears to be smaller given what he is working with.
All in all, Field has completed 63 of 115 pass attempts (54.8%) for 869 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. He has looked good as a runner, though, gaining 285 yards and scoring a touchdown on 50 non-kneel-down carries.
The majority of those runs have come on scramble plays, with Fields oftentimes leaving the pocket on the first signs of danger or a lane opening up. In fact, only 12 of his runs were not classified as scrambles or kneel-downs by NFL Network’s Ben Fennell:
- Zone Read: 7 runs
- Busted Play: 2 runs
- QB Sneak: 1 run
- QB Power: 1 run
- QB Draw: 1 run
Getsy has shied away from putting his quarterback in harm’s way by calling an extended number of schemed runs. That does not mean that Fields is not still a dangerous player with the ball in his hands; his 5.7-yard average per rushing attempt is an illustration of that.
The Patriots therefore need to play sound team defense on Monday, something defensive tackle Davon Godchaux pointed out last week.
“All 11 have to fly to the ball, kind of like Lamar Jackson,” he said. “Very explosive, can break a 60-yard run at any moment. Very fast, so you have to make sure all 11 guys are on the ball. I think we’ve been doing a great job at practice this week, making sure all 11 effort to the ball. One guy probably can’t get him down, all 11 have to get the ball.”
Team defense will indeed be key, because giving Fields escape lanes either as a runner or passer is a recipe for disaster. The Patriots would not be the first team to find out this season, despite the Bears’ limited success on offense so far:
On this touchdown versus San Francisco, Fields spun out of a sack which resulted in Arik Armstead (91) taking out 49ers teammate Charles Omenihu (94). The Bears quarterback then caught the entire defense flowing one way and launched the ball across the field after re-setting his platform. The play resulted in a 51-yard Dante Pettis (18) touchdown.
Fields’ athleticism is elite, even though the Bears have not fully tapped into it just yet. They have only used zone read concepts a couple dozen times this season — nearly half of that came in the rain against San Francisco in Week 1 — and Fields rarely keeps the ball on those plays. Still, he is one of the league’s most talented running QBs and has to be accounted for.
Whether that means using spies over the top to account for him, or setting a stout edge — looking your way Matthew Judon, Anfernee Jennings and Deatrich Wise Jr. — New England cannot allow Fields to do what the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson did in Week 3; Jackson had 110 rushing yards on just eight non-kneel-down runs.
The threat of a running QB is not the only issue, though. Like the Patriots, the Bears have also had some success when turning to the play-action game over the first six weeks of the season: Fields has gone 20-for-35 for 355 yards with one touchdown and one interception on 49 play-action calls; his passer rating when running play-action (87.2) is significantly higher than in traditional sets (66.4).
The Bears’ early-down explosive passes have also mostly come off of play-action:
Justin Fields likes his crossers and sit routes over the middle, but his top-tier arm strength also provides easy access to downfield throws outside the numbers. On the play above, for example, he connected with wide receiver Darnell Mooney (11) for a 56-yard gain; the play-fake element did not so much impact Mooney’s matchup, but it did slow down the pass rush to give the QB time to target the deep pattern.
Discipline will be key against Fields and the Bears offense, and the tape goes beyond those plays to see why. On a lot of the 23 sacks he has taken so far, after all, his eyes started in the right place but he did not pull the trigger or moved on too quickly. Fields is in a tough position because the margin for error is so slim, but anticipation and a calmer process might have turned some of those plays into completions — something the Patriots need to be aware of. Him doing a better job taking what the defense gives him could lead to some unfavorable results from a New England perspective.
That does not mean the Patriots cannot put the pressure on him, both literally and figuratively. His hesitation, as noted above, has led to a high number of sacks; according to Windy City Gridiron’s Lester A. Wiltfong Jr., Fields is responsible for 7.5 of the sacks he has taken so far this year.
Using his hesitation against him is not the only way to challenge Fields. The Patriots also have the means to take away some of the Bears’ favorite passing concepts: Chicago has had success with cross-dagger and verticals, but most of these throwing windows should shrink against the Patriots Cover 1 looks.