By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff.
Its been a long, long time since the Patriots played the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, either the new, remodeled one which they’ve never played at or the old one. They played the Bears on the road in 2002, but that game was in Champaign, Illinois at the University of Illinois while Soldier Field was being renovated. Before that, the Patriots played in Chicago at the old Soldier Field last in 2000 in Bill Belichick’s first year. The Bears won 24-17 as Shane Matthews had a big day at QB for the Bears. Overall, the Patriots are 7-3 versus the Bears. The most important one though, the XX Superbowl, of course the Bears won 46-10 in 1986.
This year, the Bears are 9-3. The Patriots are 10-2 coming off a thrashingof the Jets 45-3 on Monday Night. It’ll be interesting if the Patriots can keep up the intensity off that all-time beat down against a good NFC foe. How good the Bears are is uncertain. They haven’t won many games against good teams. But they’re certainly playing sound football and have a lot of good players and if the Patriots do let down, they will have a very long day.
Patriots fans may not know a lot about this opponents since we see them so infrequently, so lets take a look at some key Bears:
Mike Martz, Offensive Coordinator:
Belichick has had some memorable match ups against Martz. The first two were, of course, in 2001 when he first slowed down the Rams a bit in the regular season and then pulled off one of the great coaching games of all-time beating the “Greatest Show on Turf” in Super Bowl 36 in an all-time upset. That game literally sent the Rams “dynasty” spiraling downward and eventually cost Martz, up until that point an alleged offensive genius, his job. In five meetings against teams for which Martz was either head coach or offensive coordinator, Belichick’s Patriots-coached teams are 4-1. They’ve held his teams to games of 24, 17, 22, 21 and 21 points or an average of 21 a game. That’s despite the fact three of those games came against the supposed offensive juggernaut St. Louis.
Martz has done a pretty good job with the Bears in this his first season as their offensive coordinator, though its not really showing up in the statistics. Their scoring is at 20.5 per game (21st in the NFL) compared to 20.4 per game last year (19th in the NFL) and their yards per game is down to 300.3 per game (29th in the NFL) from 310.3 per game last year (23rd in the NFL). Where they have improved is turnovers. Through 12 games, the Bears have only turned it over a total of 16 times which would project out to 20 for the year. Last year, they turned it over 30 times. So an improvement of a projected 10 on the season shows why the Bears are playing better. Their time of possession is up slightly too and its helped the defense. Some good personnel moves and smarter play on offense has helped get their points allowed down to 16 per game from 23.4 per game. But Belichick has usually gotten Martz’ offenses to perform below their normal level. If that can continue, you’d assume the Bears will score less than their normal 20 per game.
Jay Cutler (#6), Quarterback: Coming off a horrendous season in 2009, huge doubts were beginning to surface about Cutler. The Bears paid a tremendous price to acquire him via trade from Denver and then he went out and threw 27 INTs last year. This year, he’s playing better under Martz’ offense. He’s faced the Patriots once under Bill Belichick and that was the Tom Brady injury year of 2008. That day, the Patriots crushed Denver 41-7 and held Cutler to a 64.3 QB rating, well below the 86 he compiled for that entire season. They also held him to only 168 yards throwing and threw two interceptions (to Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders). This season, Cutler has done a better job not forcing the ball into coverage, but in so doing has taken an inordinate number of sacks. In 11 games (he sat out one full game with an injury), Cutler has been sacked 41 times. He hasn’t not been sacked in any game this year. In fact, in only 3 of 11 games has he been sacked less than 3 times. As a result, he’s fumbled 9 times and lost 5 of those to the opponent. Look for Belichick to try to take advantage of this with pressure from all direction and hopefully some balls put on the ground.
Matt Forte (#22), Running Back: Forte is a good, hard runner who does a nice job for the Bears. Not a great talent or dominant back, he does a lot of things well. In some ways, he reminds of BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the Patriots, albeit a faster version. The similarities include hard running and effectiveness in short yardage. For the season, he is averaging 4.2 per carry, the best of his career. He also has 36 catches and is good in that area as well. He does fumble a bit and has done that 10 times in his 3 year career. Stopping him in early downs will put the pressure on Cutler and perhaps lead to sacks and forced throws.
Devin Hester (#23), Wide Receiver/Kick Returner: Hester came to the Bears really without a regular position, but more of a defensive back if on any side of the ball. His real value early in his career was his kick returning. And from day one, Hester has been electric in that area. His rookie year, he returned two kicks and three punts in the regular season for touchdowns. Then he added another kick return for a TD in the postseason to open the Super Bowl versus the Colts. The following season, he had 2 more kicks returned for a touchdown and a remarkable 4 punts for six. Then he went three full seasons with no kicks or punts returned for touchdowns. This coincided with Hester getting more time at a position the Bears worked on converting him to, wide receiver. And he’s done decently there as well. The past three years including this season he’s had 57, 51 and 32 catches. And finally, he’s broken back through for 2 punt returns for touchdowns this year. Hester on offense is essentially a third receiver who plays the slot for the Bears. They actually don’t use him much downfield, despite his speed, but he’s dangerous on slip screens and short routes where he can get in space. As a kick returner, the Bears only use Hester very occasionally, but as a punt returner he’s having a good season with over 15 yards per return in regular duty there and the two touchdowns. Not letting him do damge will be challenging for the Patriots and they’ll need punter Zoltan Mesko to be as good as he has been of late.
Julius Peppers (#90), Defensive End: Peppers was long rumored to be an object of Bill Belichick’s affection as a player. There were rumors for several seasons the Patriots were interested in making a trade for him. Then, when he was a free agent this past offseason, the Patriots reportedly made an offer. However, the Bears blew their offer away and Peppers ended up there. He’s done a good job with his new team. In fact, he was just named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November. The Patriots have only matched up with him twice, once in Super Bowl 38 and then again in 2005. He didn’t have a sack and was pretty inconsequential both games. But obviously he is dangerous. Belichick said this week the Bears occasionally drop him into coverage when you bring extra protection to his side, essentially making the offense waste a player. Peppers has always had a knack for getting his hands up (he is 6’7″) and tipping balls, causing interceptions. Tom Brady obviously needs to pay extra attention to that.
Israel Idonije (#71), Defensive End: I felt it necessary to mention Idonije because he is an unsung, unknown NFL player who is also quite good. He plays the opposite end from Peppers. Idonije has an interesting story. Born in Nigeria, he went with his family to Canada as a child and grew up there. Eventually, he played football in college in Canada after taking it up for the first time as a senior in high school. He bounced around for a few years after college on the Cleveland and Chicago practice squads. He’s been with the Bears regular roster since 2004 as a reserve defensive lineman and special teams player. In 2007, he blocked either field goals or extra points in three consecutive games. This year, he has finally become a full time starter and is having a good year with 37 tackles and 7 sacks. Teams generally focus extra protection on Peppers and this allows Idonije to beat one-on-one blocking. And that is something he is more than capable of doing that as he is a very good pass rusher. The Patriots really need to watch protection this game as this is one of the more dangerous pass rushing teams they’ve faced. Idonije is not only a nice underdog story, but a big part of that pass rush as well.