Three of the Patriots’ last four games have come against some very familiar opponents. And while you know everything there is to know about the Steelers, Colts and Jets, you could be forgiven for not staying up to date on your Bears knowledge.
That’s why we brought in Kevin Hand of the Windy City Gridiron (follow them on Twitter) to share his Chicago knowledge. Here’s what Hand had to say about the Bears’ comparisons to 2006, the new addition of defensive end Julius Peppers and quarterback Jay Cutler‘s new ways.
NESN: Is this season in any way reminiscent of the 2006 season, when the Bears were led by a dominant defense that had to overcome a struggling offense? If not, how were those two teams different?
Kevin Hand: Yes and no. To a large degree, you’re right. Defensively, it’s very similar, in that it’s a fast defense that doesn’t play a particularly exotic style of defense, but they’re executing that style nearly flawlessly. One of the big keys was special teams, because 2006 was the year of Devin Hester. While special teams this year is still arguably one of the best of the league, we’re not seeing anything quite like Hester’s ridiculous performance.
In regard to the offense, it’s almost the reverse. Rex Grossman was a passing leader earlier in that season, before playing some of the worst quarterbacking of a Super Bowl team you’ve seen this side of Trent Dilfer. The defense was big during that time, holding teams down, but they really took a prominent spotlight during the “They Are Who We Thought They Were” game in Arizona on Monday Night Football.
While there are flashes, I don’t know that you can necessarily say that 2010 is that reminiscent of 2006.
NESN: Jay Cutler has been the recipient of some high praise for his play since the bye week. Do you believe Cutler has turned it around? And has the offensive line gotten any better during the recent stretch?
K.H.: Jay Cutler does indeed seem to have settled down a bit, especially since Mike Martz realized that you keep running backs on the roster to run the ball, and not just run out of the backfield and catch it.
Jokes aside, he really is showing some maturity. While some Bears fans, or Mike Martz fans, are sorely missing the deep ball, he’s making the right decisions based on what he’s seeing from defenses, and from what his offense is able to help with him.
The offensive line is, well, still really not up to par. Even in these recent good games, Cutler is still seeing more sacks and hits than you’d really like to see. That’s the kind of growing pains you’ll get from starting a rookie right tackle (J’Marcus Webb), while making your former left tackle draft pick learn the guard position (Chris Williams). Additionally, Brandon Manumaleuna was brought in during the offseason because of his relationship with Martz and his ability to block. The problem is, his contract doesn’t seem to have covered the blocking portion, because he’s very inconsistent with it, being part of the play last week where Cutler fumbled because Manumaleuna completely lost his block. Generally speaking, though, you don’t see those kinds of growing pains from a 9-3 team that’s contending not only for their division, but possibly a playoff bye.
However, they’ve been playing a consistent line during this time, and while their play is not always pretty (and sometimes looks downright brutal), something they’re doing is successful.
NESN: It seems like Matt Forte has rebounded from a down year in 2009. What’s been the difference with him?
K.H.: Matt Forte is better for a couple reasons. First, the playbook seems to fit his skill set better, in that it involves a little less of the good old “run into the guard and fall down.”
More importantly, though, he’s healthy. We found out toward the end of last year that Forte played with an injured MCL for most of 2009. This limited his explosiveness and held him back from being able to push through the hole like he did his rookie year. Now that he’s fully healthy and the game plan is being called to help him succeed, he’s looking a lot better. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
NESN: Julius Peppers is getting a lot of credit for the defense’s strong play, and rightfully so. But are people overlooking the return of Brian Urlacher?
K.H.: I don’t know that overlooked is the right word. If anything, I’d say that most just assumed Urlacher would be playing at the level he has. 2009 was disappointing when he went out in the first game of the season, but that year off allowed him a lot of time to rest the other problems he’s been having. Keeping that year of wear and tear off his body seems to have helped bring back a lot of speed, and with that speed comes his ability to drop in the zone, or go sideline to sideline for tackles.
However, Peppers really does deserve the credit. He really has rejuvenated this defense. He’s bringing up the level of play of the whole team, be it the line, the linebackers or the secondary. If you look at 2007 and 2008, you could see that the pass rush just wasn’t there, which forced the Bears to blitz more often than they’re comfortable with. Brian Urlacher isn’t really a strong blitzing linebacker. He’s a lot better pursuing the ball carrier, or dropping and covering those zones. He can have problem shedding blocks, so if the front four can get that pressure, it allows Urlacher and Lance Briggs the ability to be big playmakers underneath.
During those blitzes, it ended up leaving a lot of the underneath open, and the defensive backs had to play too far back and give up too much cushion. This led to debacles like when Brian Griese (whom the Bears had traded back to Tampa) threw for 407 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
NESN: What is your prediction for the game?
K.H.: The prediction is tough, in that I’m not 100 percent sure what the weather is going to do. Snow and wind are in the forecast, which will largely work to take the dynamic play away from both teams. Overall, I see a pretty hotly contested game, and I’m thinking it ends up somewhere along the realm of 24-21 Bears. It’s an important home game for the Bears, and I think they’re going to come out swinging.