Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots

Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots
December 11, 2010, 11:48 pm
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Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010
Posted 5:54 PM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

In terms of ranking a game, the Bears meeting with the New England Patriots will be less important than, say, a game against Detroit, Green Bay or Minnesota, or any NFC team for that matter. Those games factor into playoff tiebreakers more directly than a game with even a very good AFC team, which the Bears will see in two of their next three games.

But the main reason that the New England game is in fact as monumental as it is, apart from any PatriotsTom BradyBill Belichick mystique, is because of what a loss would do to the Bears playoff situation.

The Bears hold a one-game edge on Green Bay, which is in Detroit to face a wobbling Lions team. The Packers are fully expected to be 9-4 by late Sunday afternoon.

And so will the Bears if they cannot overcome the 10-2 Patriots. At that point the tiebreakers would begin coming strongly into play and the Bears have only a one-game edge over the Packers in division play. That could vanish on Jan. 2 in Lambeau Field. The only sure route to the playoffs for the Bears lies in winning out over four teams generally playing well at this time of the season.

I think every game is huge at this point, said quarterback Jay Cutler. Were 9-3; everyone is vying for the playoffs. Last game was a big game for us. We had to win that one. We have to win this one. After the Patriots weve got to look forward to the next three."

Not the old 2010 Bears offense

The Chicago offense is nothing like it was in the first portion of the season. Through the 4-3 run prior to the off-week, the Bears averaged 18 points per game despite calling an average of nearly 35 pass plays (attempts plus sacks, and not including Cutler runs) per game.

Since going balanced (translation: run-intensive) during the off-week, the Bears have averaged 30.2 pass plays per game. They have hit their early season average of 35 pass plays only once in the last five games.

Yet in spite of contracting the aerial component of the offense, the Bears have gone from that 18-point average to 24 nearly a full touchdown better per game. The 16 points scored in the shutout win over Miami has been the only game in which the Bears have scored fewer than 22 points in the 5-0 run.

From a purely numbers standpoint, that may not seem stellar when facing a team that has scored fewer than 23 points exactly twice in 12 games the two losses, scoring 14 vs. both the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

Yardage rankings are meaningless when assessing the Patriots. On offense they rank a pedestrian 11th in passing yards and 13th in rushing, yet they are No. 1 in the NFL with 31.6 points per game. More to the relevant time of this season now the Patriots have averaged 40 points in the last four games and the low was 31. Stopping or even slowing Brady is the key to the game for the Bears but only the Jets (the first time) and Browns managed that.

Brady is the best, said linebacker Brian Urlacher. He knows what to do with the football. If you play zone, he throws the checkdowns. If you put seven in the box, he runs it. He just knows where to go with the football every time. Youre not going to trick him.

You may get pressure on him, you may hurt him a little bit, but hes smart, he has a great arm, he knows everything.

But.not the old 2010 Pats either

The Patriots have held only the Dolphins (14), Vikings (18) and Jets (3) to fewer than 20 points this season. But they have five No. 1s and three No. 2s as starters on their depth chart and Ive seen them get better from week to week, coach Lovie Smith said.

New England ranking 31st in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards is of absolutely no comfort to the offense that needs to deal effectively with that defense to both score its own points and keep Brady and the offense off the field as much as possible.

They remind me a lot of our offense, playing better than theyre ranked because theyre playing better now than the beginning of the year, said center Olin Kreutz. If you watched our offense in the Washington or Seattle games, youre not watching the same offense.

Matching up

Players making or not making impact plays will determine Sundays outcome. Games arent played on paper or in theory.

But they are played by players in systems, and Bears-Patriots is a special one. Two weeks ago Lovie Smiths version of the Cover-2 system handled Michael Vick operating the West Coast scheme of Andy Reid. Now the offense of Mike Martz is against the defense of Bill Belichick, a matchup that has not gone well for Martz since a regular-season win in 2001 that was followed by an epic upset in that seasons Super Bowl.

A major portion of the Belichick aura has been forged through his use of a 3-4 base defense but with unique variations on the theme in many important games against elite offenses (including Martzs).

The Bears fortunes in 2010 were reversed by shifts in Martzs offense, to a balance theme that was missing in Martz offenses in Detroit, San Francisco and, until the off-week, Chicago.

The last two, three games have been fun offensively for us because you can really tell the guys are understanding what were doing, Cutler said. Theyre playing fast. They know exactly when they make mistakes. They know exactly whenever we miss opportunities. I think thats the good part about it. Guys come back to the huddle, and theyre aware that we just missed a big one.

Its getting fun. Were able to put more and more in. Were able to challenge guys a little bit more. Its been a fun run here.

Getting that fun run to 6-0, against the Patriots and presumably the elements, may not be fun. But if the Bears are to convince perhaps even themselves that they are a Super Bowl team, they do need to have some fun Sunday.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.