Chicago Bears

Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots

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Run Bears, run: Ground game can ground Patriots

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.

The 5 Bears players with the most to prove in training camp

The 5 Bears players with the most to prove in training camp

1. Mike Glennon

Glennon is, for now, the Bears’ unquestioned starting quarterback — a role the Bears made clear he wasn’t going to lose after drafting Mitch Trubisky with the second overall pick in April. It would take a monumental effort from Trubisky — and a disappointing one from Glennon — for that to change. But Glennon has only attempted 11 more passes in the NFL than Trubisky since the beginning of the 2015 season, leaving plenty of uncertainty heading to Bourbonnais. Glennon’s three-year, $45 million contract is structured so the Bears could cut him for $2.5 million next spring, and with a highly-touted player developing behind him, he may not have as much leeway as his contract would appear to give him. As Glennon put it in May: “This is my year. There are no guarantees in the NFL.” The 27-year-old is well aware this year is his best opportunity to prove, either to the Bears or the rest of the league, that he’s capable of being a successful starting quarterback. That process begins in earnest this week. 

2. Mitch Trubisky

While it remains unlikely that Trubisky will be the Bears’ Week 1 starter, if he proves to be better than Glennon at the end of August…why would he not be the starter? It’s not a simple yes or no question, given Trubisky has to learn a largely different offense than the one he ran in college (unlike Philadelphia’s No. 2 pick, Carson Wentz, a year ago) and only started 13 games since leaving high school in Mentor, Ohio. But it’s the job of John Fox and his coaching staff to win games, and if they come to a consensus that Trubisky gives them a better chance of winning, then it would make sense for him to start. What’s more likely in reach for Trubisky during training camp is showing enough to the coaching staff to lay the foundation for him to play in 2017, either as a substitute or as a starter later in the season. 

3. Kevin White

Aside from the quarterbacks, it’s hard to think of a player with more to prove than White. It’s too early to label White a bust, given those two leg injuries limited him four games in his first two years, but the Bears at least need him to be healthy this year to start to figure out what they have in the former seventh overall pick. White was targeted 36 times before suffering his season-ending injury last year and averaged 5.19 yards per target, which was the third-lowest average among receivers with at least 35 targets in 2016. That's surprising for a guy who was drafted with such good speed, so not only will White have to prove he can stay healthy, but he'll have to prove he can be more productive within the Bears' offense. 

4. Leonard Floyd

While White may have the most to prove, Floyd probably has the highest expectations placed upon him in 2017. Floyd’s 7 1/2 sacks last year were promising, and he appears to be past the scary post-concussion malaise he suffered in January and February. If Floyd grows into a double-digit sack guy for the Bears this year, he could be the catalyst for some significant improvements for the entire defense (a better pass rush begets more opportunities for interceptions, etc.). But he’ll also have to prove the issues that led to those two concussions last year — chiefly, poor tackling form — are a thing of the past, and that he’s able to make that Year 1 to Year 2 leap the Bears think he can. 

5. Kyle Fuller

Fuller faces an uphill climb to make the Bears’ 53-man roster, so what he’s trying to prove may be of more value to finding a post-Chicago landing spot. Vic Fangio’s pointed comments about Fuller’s willingness (or lack thereof) to play last year cast doubt on his future, but he’s still still here after being neither cut nor traded in the offseason. The Bears declined Fuller's fifth-year option earlier this year, though, so training camp may be Fuller's last chance at sticking in the NFL, either with the Bears or elsewhere. 

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

This Bears rebuild has taken longer than expected. Ideally, in year three of a GM/head coach tandem, they should be contending for the playoffs. 

That’s not to say the 2017 Bears can’t. It’s just unlikely. They don’t have enough players opponents have to gameplan for. They don’t have the depth to overcome key injuries. When franchises get on a winning roll, it’s when they have enough of those studs on both sides of the ball, and have the depth to avoid as many emergencies as possible. And that happens when second- and third-year players make a jump in their play.

Offensively, we saw an impressive jump by Cam Meredith, but another left leg injury still have us wondering exactly what Kevin White is, and how good he can be. Jeremy Langford’s growth was stunted by his ankle injury. Second-year center Hroniss Grasu missed the entire year. On the defensive side, we never got to see if Kyle Fuller could’ve proven his first-round status in his third year. Safety Adrian Amos started another full season, but is now in a battle to do the same a third straight year. We can see star qualities in Eddie Goldman, but how much of a difference-maker can he be by remaining on the field? We’ll learn the same about Leonard Floyd if he can do that this fall. And there are a handful of other second-year players we’ll be watching, from Deon Bush to Deiondre Hall to Cre’Von LeBlanc. There’s also 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard, who learned what it took to become a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.

“It was okay. I got about 17 snaps a game,” Bullard said of his rookie season during last month’s minicamp. “That’s not what I wanted coming in. But it is what is. I want to move on to the next year and hopefully be able to help this team in a big way.”

Rookie seasons for every player lay the groundwork. How high their ceiling goes starts to get established in year two, between the player’s effort, and getting coached-up correctly.

“They asked me to gain a few pounds. I was like 282 last year, and right now I’m at 296, so hopefully that helps me, said Bullard. “I’m just trying to make all this solid and not lose my burst that got me here. So I’m looking forward to it. I got a year under my belt now, I know what they expect. I’m gonna be ready.”

Part of Bullard taking things upon himself was hooking up with a former defensive end, from the same alma mater, who happens to be fourth in franchise history in sacks (albeit in a 4-3 scheme): CSN’s very own Bears analyst, Alex Brown.

“We saw each other at the Florida spring game and we kind of linked up and put in some work at his facility down the road,” Bullard explained. “We’ve met up quite a few times, just working on little things. He’s just trying to give me a better understanding of the game, and some of the veteran things he knows that I want to incorporate into my game.”

So what kind of a teacher is Alex?

“He’s alright. I make him him jump in there. I tell him he’s not that old.”

And while Pace didn’t make the big splash in free agency as he tries to match up salary with his grades for players, Bullard has to prove he’s now better than last year’s starter, Mitch Unrein, as well as a hungry fellow former Gator, Jaye Howard, who was brought in on a “prove it” one-year deal after being cut just before the draft by Kansas City.

“As far as him being a Gator, it’s exciting. But it’s a competition. He’s gonna come in and try to win the starting job, and I’m gonna do the same. It’s just gonna have to be a friendly competition when training camp comes, and may the best man win.”

Let this, and many other Bourbonnais battles, begin.