The Patriots upcoming game with the Bears is a fun one for me. I have a bunch of connections to this Chicago group.
At Coastal Carolina, I coached with both Brock Olivo (special teams assistant), and Mike Snyder (offensive quality control). Brock was my workout partner and kicked my butt. Mike on the other hand, not so much. Although he did help me with my golf game.
I had the opportunity to coach against Tarik Cohen when he was just a freshman at North Carolina A&T. He almost single-handedly beat us that day — he was the best college running back I’ve ever coached against.
I recruited Bilal Nichols. (He’s from Hodgson Technical High School in Delaware.) My evaluation of him at the time was that he was a very raw athlete with potential. I thought he was going to be an offensive lineman at the college level and we actually didn’t offer him! (I guess he could’ve not only played for us, but could have also been a defensive lineman…)
Having said all that, I do actually really like this roster. I think Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace are doing a great job at building this team with a certain identity in mind. I do think they are still a year or two away, but I think the nucleus of young talent is impressive.
With the exception of their win against the Buccaneers, this Chicago team has been in hard fought, close games. At 3-2, they could easily be 5-0 or 1-4. I’d like to believe their performance against the Dolphins this past week was an anomaly. Having watched a lot of Patriots’ football over the years, I think we’re all familiar with the challenges that come from playing in Miami. The Bears certainly fell into that trap, and did not play with the same energy as their previous four games.
Nagy is an Andy Reid disciple and was the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs last season. From a scheme standpoint, Chicago is very similar to Kansas City. The Bears will be multiple in terms of personnel groupings and formations and there will be a lot of shifts and motions. The passing game is West Coast-based and their run game is mostly the zone play with some power run concepts mixed in. Chicago will take shots downfield. When it does so, the Bears protect with seven and give the called play time to develop.
At the quarterback position, the Bears are grooming Mitch Trubisky to be a true franchise guy. I think Nagy is doing a great job at putting him in position to be successful. Trubisky has very good arm strength, good athleticism, and appears to be a progression quarterback. He seems to be most comfortable and in rhythm throwing the deep ball and outbreaking routes. His negatives are that he isn’t very experienced and as a result, he can easily get flustered when things break down. Teams that have pressured him and done a good job taking him out of rhythm have had success. Trubisky will keep the ball in the zone read game in critical situations.
At the running back position, I’d be most concerned with Cohen. Jordan Howard is a good, solid, between-the-tackles back, but he’s not scary. Cohen is utilized in a lot of different ways — he’s a little guy, but he’s fast and can make people miss. The Bears will align him in the backfield, in the slot, motion him and work to put him in a position to create mismatches in space. He will be a handful in the pass game for Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. I really expect this to be a big part of the Bears’ plan.
Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson are the two main targets at the receiver position. Gabriel is in the mold of Tyreek Hill. He’s small but can roll. Based on the Patriots challenges, I expect the Bears to try and get Gabriel on Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty. Robinson is the outside receiver that is smooth in his route running, and has good hands.
The Bears will run quite a bit of two-tight end sets. They often use this grouping to create compressed formations. Dion Sims is used as the true inline tight end and Trey Burton is the move, off the ball option. Burton runs well enough that he can be an issue in the pass game. He isn’t Travis Kelce, but he is utilized similarly.
To me, the biggest question mark on this offense is the line. Harry Hiestand is a very good offensive line coach, and he will undoubtedly get this group straightened out. I think they’ve gotten better throughout the season, but they do struggle at times. The weakest spot is at left guard, where Eric Kush and rookie James Daniels have been splitting time. Kush is the smarter player and knows what he’s doing, but physically, he really struggles. Daniels shows physicality but appears to often blow assignments. Both tackles, Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, show athleticism, but can get beat on the edge and overpowered at the point of contact. Cody Whitehair at center looks to be the leader of the group. Kyle Long at right guard is a big physical player that is very good when he can get his hands on guys, but shows some stiffness against movement.
Defensively, under longtime coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears are the most complex team the Patriots will have seen to date from a coverage standpoint. They are primarily a zone-match coverage team while playing cover 2, invert 2, 4, 3 and quarter quarter half. It appears on film as though they’re a formation check coverage team. They will play some man free, but that’s not where their identity comes from. They will choose their spots to blitz, and when they do, they try to bring one more than the protection can handle. Behind their blitzes, they will play hot coverage expecting the ball to come out quick. Up front, they’re mostly an even four-down team. However, they will mix in some odd three down looks depending on the personnel in the game.
The defensive line is certainly the strength on this team. At defensive end, Khalil Mack — if healthy — is a difference maker and deserves special attention. I thought the Dolphins had a great plan for him. Leonard Floyd is the other rush end, a speed guy with length and a great motor. He’s a great compliment to Mack. Aaron Lynch will see increased playing time if Mack can’t go. Lynch is a bigger, longer player that doesn’t have the speed of Mack and Leonard. I do think you can run straight at this group.
The interior group is solid as well. I don’t see them as pass-rush guys, but they play physical at the point of contact, and do a good job at re-establishing the line of scrimmage. Akiem Hicks is the best of the group and certainly flashes at times. They rotate a number of guys in and try to keep their group fresh. I don’t expect the Patriots interior three to struggle with these guys.
Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan are the primary linebackers. Both are athletic linebackers who can run and actually do a good job in coverage. I like both of these guys — they’re very active.
The secondary is the weakest part of the Bears defense. Their play against the Dolphins, specifically tackling, was probably the reason for their loss. They are an experienced group and are certainly better against the pass.
On special teams, Cody Parkey missed a huge kick against the Dolphins. He’s solid but I don’t think he will win the game in the end. Cohen is dangerous in the return game.
This will be a good game. The Bears are not at the Patriots level yet. I expect Chicago to move the ball, but throttle down when they get into the red zone. I don’t think they will hit the same big plays that the Chiefs did. On defense, the Bears will roll their coverage to Rob Gronkowski and try and squeeze Julian Edelman in the slot. As a result, I expect James White, Sony Michel and Josh Gordon to have big games.
Cory Bailey, a Wrentham native and former Xaverian Brothers standout, will be providing some film analysis for BSJ this football season. A former captain at Fordham as an offensive lineman and long snapper, Bailey signed as a free agent with the Giants and played a season in NFL Europe. A former coaching intern with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bailey has had a long career as a college coach with stints at Dean and Iona before becoming the head coach at Assumption and, most recently, as the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach at Coastal Carolina the previous six years. A former Patriots ballboy in the 1980s, Bailey recently relocated his family back to Massachusetts.