During his Friday news conference this week, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said something interesting about his team’s next opponent, the Chicago Bears.
“This,” Brady said, “is the best defense we’ve played in a long time.”
That’s high praise from a quarterback who has faced the Jacksonville Jaguars twice in the last 10 months and the Houston Texans once, and it illustrates just how talented this Bears D really is.
Entering this Sunday’s game at Soldier Field, Chicago ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game (19.4) and first in DVOA. The Bears boast talent at all three levels, and their front seven — led by superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack — is among the best in football.
And recently, their offense hasn’t been too shabby either. Second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has played some of the best football of his career over the last two games, completing over 70 percent of his passes and averaging 11.8 yards per completion. Chicago cruised to a win in the first of those games (48-10 over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) before falling to the Miami Dolphins 31-28 in overtime last Sunday.
Let’s take a closer look at this Patriots-Bears matchup:
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago
The 4-2 Patriots, who are riding a three-game winning streak after dropping two straight in September, are listed as 3-point favorites over the 3-2 Bears, who have not beaten New England since 2000 — Bill Belichick’s first year as Pats head coach. Chicago is winless in four meetings since, the most recent coming in the form of a 51-23 beatdown at Gillette Stadium in 2014.
The Patriots ruled Marcus Cannon out with a concussion, meaning backup LaAdrian Waddle will get the nod at right tackle. Ten Patriots players are listed as questionable:
DT Malcom Brown – Knee
WR Julian Edelman – Heel
WR Josh Gordon – Hamstring
DE Geneo Grissom – Ankle
TE Rob Gronkowski – Ankle/Back
TE Jacob Hollister – Hamstring
RB Sony Michel – Knee
CB Eric Rowe – Groin
DE John Simon – Shoulder
DE Deatrich Wise Jr. – Ankle/Knee
For the Bears, Mack (ankle) and starting wide receiver Allen Robinson (groin) are listed as questionable after missing practice this week. Both practiced in a limited capacity Friday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end
Gronkowski finished with a team-high 97 receiving yards in last week’s dramatic win over the Chiefs, but 81 of them came on two crucial late-game catches. He tallied just three receptions in all on four targets — a quiet game for the four-time All-Pro, who has faced double coverage on a regular basis throughout the season.
Though he leads the Patriots in receiving yards with 405, Gronkowski hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 1 and has been targeted just once in the red zone through six games. The Bears boast the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense by DVOA so far this season but rank just 16th in DVOA against tight ends.
Khalil Mack, Bears outside linebacker
When he’s healthy, Mack might be the NFL’s best pass rusher. He’s been a wrecking ball for the Bears following his late-summer trade from the Oakland Raiders, racking up five sacks over the first four games to go along with four forced fumbles and a pick-six. He’s coming off by far his worst game of the season, though (zero sacks, zero QB hits, one hurry vs. Miami), and might not be 100 percent if he is active
LaAdrian Waddle, Patriots offensive tackle
Mack primarily rushes from the defensive left side, so if he does play, Waddle will be primarily responsible for keeping him away from Brady. That seems like a mismatch in Chicago’s favor, but Waddle actually fared quite well against Mack last season, allowing just two QB hits and one hurry in a win the Raiders. Against a player of Mack’s caliber, that’s a tremendous performance.
Tarik Cohen, Bears running back
Cohen, the Bears’ 5-foot-6, 179-pound speedster, has been terrifically productive in the passing game of late, tallying 14 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games. In first-year head coach Matt Nagy’s screen-heavy offense, the diminutive running back is a major weapon for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots assign safety Patrick Chung to cover Cohen.
Akiem Hicks, Bears defensive tackle
Patriots running back Sony Michel has rushed for 316 yards and four touchdowns over the last three weeks, but he and his offensive line will face a tough test this week against a Bears defense that’s been among the league’s best against the run this season. At the center of that effort is Hicks, the former Patriot, whose 19.7 percent run stop percentage ranks first among all defensive tackles with more than 50 snaps in run defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Hicks can rush the passer, too: He has three sacks and five QB hits this season.
The Bears are the only NFL team that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.