Friday, Dec. 10, 2010
Posted: 9:46 a.m.
By John Mullin
Every game turns on a small handful of plays or factors. Here are the three that will decide the Bears-New England Patriots game Sunday:
1. Blunt Brady
If the Bears can't fully stop Tom Brady, recent history says they stand a better-than-most chance of containing him, at least partially, and that may enough.
The Bears have held nine of the 10 "regular" starting quarterbacks they've faced this season to a passer rating below that quarterback's season average. Only Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck was better than his average. The Chicago defense has allowed an average passer rating of just 71.1 while Jay Cutler has been passing at a career-best 92.8. Only the Green Bay Packers (69.6) have been better at stopping passers.
Why that opposing quarterback rating matters in this case is because the only two teams to defeat the New England Patriots (New York Jets, Cleveland Browns) were responsible for two of Brady's three lowest passer ratings of the season and his two lowest completion percentages.
Brady hasn't thrown an interception in seven games, so blunting him is far, far easier schemed than done, particularly since only four teams have given up fewer sacks than the Patriots. But with a vulnerable defense, Brady is the absolute point of the New England spear with his own personal ball-control program built around completing 66.8 percent of his passes.
It is not a spear that lives with deep thrusts in the Martz downfield tradition. The Patriots average 11.8 yards; the Bears by comparison average 12.4. But Brady has thrown 385 passes and only four of them were intercepted vs. 27 going for touchdowns.
"That's why he's got all those Super Bowl rings," said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "He doesn't make many mistakes."
2. Stay the course
The change in offensive philosophy from pass-first to balanced has been the biggest single key to the makeover of the Bears' season, from a stretch of losing three of four to reeling off five straight victories. The commitment to running the ball has helped bring the offensive line together and, if not necessarily reducing the sack total down to acceptable levels, has taken a huge chunk of pressure off Cutler.
The Bears are 7-0 this season when they rush for 100 yards. All three of their losses have come when they've rushed for few 75 yards, regardless of attempts or average per carry.
Their play-calling has been nearly 50-50 run-pass over the last five games. Cutler has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three wins in the five-game run and, most important, has thrown 10 touchdown passes vs. three interceptions.
"It starts at the top with Mike Martz," Cutler said. "He does a good job in meetings of keeping guys positive and keeping them on point with the system and believing in it and showing guys examples on tape of how the system works -- if we do it right, what would happen.
"And guys got it. There were glimpses of it on tape, and guys understood if we completely got everything down that we could be explosive. Are we there yet? Not yet, but we're definitely on our way."
The problem with New England, however, is that no defensive schemer is better at forcing players, coaches and teams out of what they want to do than Bill Belichick. He has done it to Martz in the past and one dangerous scenario for the Bears would be Belichick completely shutting down the Chicago run game to the point where Martz and Cutler become impatient and risk turnovers in search of big plays, particularly if they believe they cannot afford their balanced game plan in the face of some quick New England points.
The Bears are 6-1 when they have had an edge in time of possession, a normally meaningless statistic if only looked at in terms of minutes and seconds. But every minute that the Chicago offense is on the field, New England's is not. It is a course Martz needs to stay on more than against any opponent to date this season.
3. Take the points
The Bears are 8-1 when they have scored 18 or more points. Only once this season (in Detroit) have they scored touchdowns on every possession reaching inside the red zone but they have won four of the five times that they have scored points of some sort.
The temptation may arise to press for touchdowns when facing a scoring offense like New England's, and when dealing with a defense like the 2010 Patriots which is 18th in points allowed and among the NFL's worst against the pass.
The Patriots committed three turnovers in the losses both to the Jets and Browns, accounting for two-thirds of New England's entire 2010 turnover total. Only three teams have taken the ball away more than the Bears' 26. The defense is tasked with adding to the New England turnover total and the offense and special teams need to turn every freebie into points and avoid point-less gambles.
"We have to be detailed to combat Tom Brady and the Patriots," said linebacker Lance Briggs. "We have to play fast and physical. We know he's going to take what defenses give him. He's going to take what he sees. We have to be ready when that ball does come out, we have to punish ball carriers and be opportunistic when that ball is in the air and get pressure on him."
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.