CHICAGO — The Patriots finally got themselves in the win column on the road with a 38-31 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday.
The Patriots squeaked out a win, but it wasn’t a clean performance by Bill Belichick’s team.
The Patriots fumbled twice in their own territory (almost three times), were flagged seven times, and dropped two easy interceptions in the end zone.
However, despite the sloppy performance, it was good enough to avoid falling to 0-3 away from Gillette Stadium for the first time in the Belichick era.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ win over the Bears:
1. Sony Michel’s Injury Overshadows Win
The Patriots came out with the win, but the loss of running back Sony Michel could have ramifications beyond a Week 7 victory over the Bears. Michel is the Patriots’ only consistent threat on the ground, and he’s also one of their most dynamic offensive players. The Patriots lack depth at the running back position and will likely sign or trade for a running back this week if Michel’s injury is as severe as it appeared, but this is a significant blow for a running game that was on fire over the last month or so. The Patriots offense will miss Michel if he misses substantial time.
2. Offense Survives Without Rob Gronkowski
On a positive note, the Patriots offense still managed to move the ball effectively against a stingy Bears defense without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. The game plan appeared to be centered around running back Sony Michel, but his injury on the first play of the second quarter derailed that plan, but the offense survived that as well. The Pats leaned on a short passing game predicated on attacking the underneath zones of the Bears defense and got creative with their personnel usage in obvious passing situations. On those passing situations, the Pats went with some 20-personnel packages, which is a zero tight end set involving two running backs (White, Barner) to replace blocking tight end Dwayne Allen. Although Gronkowski is obviously essential for the long-term success of the team, the Pats offense got by without him on Sunday.
3. Patriots Lose Contain on Mitchell Trubisky
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had an awful day throwing the football, but he ran for 81 yards and a touchdown in the game; the second-most rushing yards by a quarterback against the Patriots in the Belichick era. The players on the field were to blame for a lot of the issues, and we’ll get to those in a second, but the Patriots’ coaching staff shoulders some of the blame as well. Even after Trubisky ran wild early on in the game; the Patriots stuck with an aggressive pass rush that didn’t involve a quarterback spy most of the time. The Patriots’ defensive front typically utilizes line stunts to get rushers free which is a sound strategy and helps hide the lack of multiple rushers that can beat blockers, but they subject the defense to the possibility of losing contain on mobile quarterbacks. The Patriots called a few T/E stunts on Trubisky’s arm side (right), and it resulted in there being no edge defender to contain him.
However, it wasn’t all on the Patriots’ coaching staff. The Patriots’ pass rushers continuously made the mistake of chasing Trubisky behind the line of scrimmage rather than staying disciplined in their rush lanes as you can see on Trubisky’s touchdown run above. After Clayborn and Flowers overrun the play, defensive tackle Adam Butler also takes a horrible angle to go inside the blocker as Trubisky is heading toward the sideline. Then, once Trubisky does get past the line of scrimmage, the pursuit speed, and effort by the Pats defense to get him down before he reaches the end zone is lackluster to put it politely.
In the post-game locker room, the Patriots defense said they were prepared for Trubisky’s ability to run the football, and that poor execution was to blame. Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler also added, “I think he had a faster clock in his head. If his first read wasn’t open, he was gone.”
Trubisky’s ability to extend drives with his legs was one of the main reasons the Bears offense was able to do anything of value on Sunday.
4. Special Teams: Both Very Good and Very Bad
The Patriots special teams unit had an eventful day on Sunday. At first, it appeared that we’d be writing about the demise of Bill Belichick’s special teams success, but the group quickly turned things around in Chicago as kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson made up for his fumble with a kick return touchdown and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy combined on a blocked punt score as well.
Let’s start with the Patterson touchdown. One of the league’s premier returners showed us why he leads the league in kick return touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2013 (six). The Patriots get a critical double-team block by Elandon Roberts and Matthew Slater to create a hole for Patterson, and then Patterson jukes Bears corner Kevin Toliver out of his shoes in the hole to break away for the score. Patterson can be an adventure at times as we saw with his fumble earlier on in the game, but he made up for it on this play.
The blocked punt was another terrific play by a Patriots player, this time linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Hightower steamrolls Bears tight end Ben Braunecker on his way into the backfield and attacks the kicking leg of Chicago punter Pat O’Donnell. Van Noy gets the credit for the touchdown, but Hightower made one of the plays of the day. An interesting note here is that the two Pats linebackers don’t typically play on the punt return unit, but an injury to core special teamer Geneo Grissom likely thrust them into that role. Van Noy (five snaps) and Hightower (three snaps) combined to play eight snaps on the punt return unit before Sunday.
5. Patriots Struggle Covering Bears Tight End Trey Burton
Other than Trubisky’s big day on the ground, the Patriots defense also struggled with covering Bears tight end Trey Burton. Burton finished with a game-high 126 receiving yards on nine catches and a touchdown. The Patriots have now surrendered a league-worst five touchdowns to tight ends this season along with 455 receiving yards to the position. The Patriots covered Burton mostly with defensive backs in man-to-man coverage, but also played some soft zone coverages that were vulnerable in the middle of the field to limit the big passing plays downfield. Although they need to improve against tight ends, some of the yards surrendered to Burton were a result of the Pats conceding the middle of the field to protect against the big plays. Patriots safety Patrick Chung still seems like the teams best option in man coverage on tight ends, but when he isn’t on the tight end, or the Pats are in zone, teams are throwing to the position at will.
6. Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady Good, But Still Room For Improvement
On the one hand, it’s fair to admit that the greatness of Tom Brady spoils Patriots fans and observers. His ball placement was mostly perfect, his processing speed is uncanny, and his ability to find matchups both before and after the snap are all things that make him who he is in the annals of NFL history.
On James White’s first touchdown of the game, you see Brady’s lightning quick progressions and ability to find matchups at work. Brady starts on the left side of the field, and works his way back to his third read, White, on the right side where he finds his running back in a mismatch against Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd. Easy six points for the Patriots.
However, it wasn’t all good for Brady, as threw his seventh interception of the season, and has turned the ball over in every game this season.
Although it’s easy to blame fullback James Develin for not holding onto the football, Brady took an unnecessary risk with the ball late in the game with a two-score lead. The Pats quarterback was hit as he threw and he ends up throwing a soft floater into the flat to Develin who has a defender breathing down his neck. Develin is open initially and should’ve hung onto the ball, but sometimes it’s okay to take a sack even on third down. If Brady takes a sack, the Patriots pin the Bears deep and bleed some more of the clock. Instead, the momentum swings again and Chicago has good field position.
Brady has the offense humming after a slow start to the season, but the turnovers on that side of the ball as a whole need to stop.
7. Josh Gordon’s First 100-Yard Game as a Patriot Comes at a Good Time
Last week, it felt like Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon was on the verge of a breakout game as his playing time increased and the Pats coaches revealed the full arsenal of routes that the former Brown can run in a game. On Sunday, we saw the breakout in the box score as Gordon led the Patriots with 100 receiving yards on four catches. Let’s take a look at some of those:
Arguably the highlight of the day was Gordon’s 19-yard leaping catch on fourth down early in the game. First of all, the fact that Brady and the coaching staff trust Gordon to the point where they’re throwing him jump-balls in this situation is excellent, but you can see why when you watch the play. Gordon’s contested catch ability to jump over the defender and secure the pass with strong hands at the catch point is rare, and the timing is something Brady and Gordon have been working on according to the receiver. Gordon said, “you know, I think we just worked on that play. Worked on the connection from last week and having that miss, some adjustments. This week, I had a better look at it, better time. Having a week of practice helped me to be able to just go and make a play.”
Although that was Gordon’s most impressive catch, his longest catch of the day came on a dig route over the middle and was thanks to some impressive work after the catch. On the play, you can see how difficult Gordon is to bring down in the open field due to his immense size and strength. Two Bears defenders bounce off of Gordon as he nearly makes his way into the end zone. Gordon said after the game that fatigue after a 96-yard drive was the reason why he slowed down at the end of the catch. The Patriots would punch the ball in for a touchdown two plays later.
Without tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots needed Gordon to step up to in the passing game, and he did just that.
8. Patriots Secondary Limits Explosive Bears Passing Attack
Although some of it had to do with Trubisky’s poor play, the Patriots defense did do a good job of limiting Chicago’s big-play passing attack save the near-game winner on the final play of the game. Entering Week 7, Trubisky led the league throwing the ball beyond 20 yards in the air on 18.6 percent of his throws and ranked second in completions, but his longest throw of the day went for 22-yards on Sunday minus the hail mary. The Patriots played both single-high and two-high safety looks but mostly stuck to their single-high stuff trusting top cornerback Stephon Gilmore to take former Pro Bowler Allen Robinson on an island. The Pats sprinkled in both man and zone coverages, but they put a lot on their corners to cover the Bears receiver in man coverage, and they were able to prevent the big passing plays.
“We knew shots were a big part of their offense,” said captain Devin McCourty. “I thought we had good awareness and guys made plays. They tried to take a shot downfield and [Jonathan Jones] makes the interception. It was a tough game, but I thought we continued to battle.”
The Patriots defensive game plan focused on keeping the Bears offense in front of them in the passing game, and although head coach Bill Belichick noted that Trubisky’s long scrambles count as big plays in the passing game, they were able to limit the shot plays in Chicago.
9. Patriots rookie corner J.C. Jackson Plays over veteran Jason McCourty
In an interesting development, the Patriots opted to go with rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson over Jason McCourty opposite Stephon Gilmore for long stretches of this one. McCourty had a rough performance against the Chiefs last week but has been a stable presence as the number two corner on the whole.
Jackson ended up making a terrific interception in the third quarter to redeem himself a bit, but he was called for two critical penalties and picked on multiple times. Jackson presents a higher upside than McCourty at the position due to his ball skills, but it’s rather obvious that McCourty is the more reliable player at this stage of Jackson’s career.
10. Patriots Face an Injured Khalil Mack
The Patriots caught a break facing a very limited Khalil Mack on Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Mack was clearly hobbled by an ankle injury that kept him out of practice for most of the week, and he was a shell of himself. Interestingly, Mack lined up most of the day over Patriots left tackle Trent Brown instead of his usual spot on the left side of the defense, and was used in coverage far more than you typically see from one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers. As a result, the Bears pass rush was held in check for most of the day, but this highly anticipated matchup didn’t live up to the hype due to Mack’s injury.
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