10 things for Patriots-Bears
Ten areas that project to be critical, from a Patriots perspective, in Sunday's game against the Bears at Soldier Field (4:15 p.m. ET):
1. Directional kicking and punting. With heavy wind gusts and low temperatures in the forecast, this game could have the feel of the 2008 season finale in Buffalo when the goalposts at Ralph Wilson Stadium had to be tied down so they wouldn't blow over. This highlights the importance of specialists like kicker Shayne Graham and punter Zoltan Mesko, as well as overall special-teams play. The Patriots should be focusing on directional kickoffs and punts as the Bears have been explosive in the return game.
2. Identifying and accounting for Julius Peppers. The Bears' defensive end is a game-changing player, similar to Colts pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Bears move Peppers around in their 4-3 scheme and even sometimes drop him off the line of scrimmage. This will be a big test for offensive tackles Matt Light (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right), while tight end Alge Crumpler figures to chip in at times.
3. Playing with good balance. Players were preparing to wear longer spikes in their cleats because of the field conditions at Soldier Field, which are not good. In the Bears' Nov. 28 win over the Eagles, several Philadelphia players -- including quarterback Michael Vick -- had trouble staying on their feet at times. This will challenge players from both clubs, especially with high winds and snow flurries in the forecast, to play with good balance.
4. Limiting running back Matt Forte. The Bears' leading rusher is also dangerous as a pass-catcher, with his 36 receptions ranking third on the team. Forte is utilized in a somewhat similar way that offensive coordinator Mike Martz used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, as he's one of the NFL's most productive players. If Forte is limited, in theory, it would put the ball in quarterback Jay Cutler's hands in long-yardage situations, which is a matchup that looks to favor New England.
5. Exploiting the Bears' weakness up front. If there is a soft spot on the Bears' offense, it's the offensive line. Bears quarterbacks have been sacked the most in the NFL this season, in part because of struggles up front. The Patriots might not have a feared pass-rusher, but there should be opportunities to get to quarterback Jay Cutler. Outside linebacker/defensive ends Tully Banta-Cain (4 sacks) and Jermaine Cunningham are top rushers.
6. Defensive backs playing physical. The Bears' pass-catchers have shown a knack for making plays after the catch, with Cutler sometimes backing out from center and quickly delivering the ball while backpedaling, a la Kurt Warner from his Rams days. So getting physical with Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester at the line of scrimmage -- similar to the way the Patriots played the Jets -- figures to be part of the plan with the idea of taking away those quick routes. The Mike Martz offensive system is based on timing, so the Patriots will be looking for different ways to disrupt that timing.
8. Balance and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Patriots' offense has struck a solid balance between the run and the pass over the last four games -- 109 rushes vs. 124 pass attempts. That has opened up play-action possibilities as Green-Ellis' knack for picking up positive yardage has kept the team in manageable situations. The Bears are tough to run on, ranking second in the NFL for fewest rushing yards allowed per game (84.9) and sixth in rushing average (3.7).
9. Slot matchup -- Wes Welker vs. D.J. Moore. Almost fully recovered from his left knee injury, Welker has been surging. His 72 receptions for 672 yards leads the Patriots, and when he lines up in the slot, it projects to be against Moore, who came up big for the Bears in Sunday's win over the Lions. That figures to be one of the big matchups in the game.
10. Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and return game. With cold temperatures, high winds and snow flurries in the forecast, special teams will be an important part of the game. Tate has shown explosiveness as a kickoff returner at times (2 returns for TDs in first 4 weeks of the season) and the Patriots will be hoping that spark shows up against the 27th-ranked kickoff return coverage unit of the Bears. Edelman has also proven to be dangerous on punt returns, although the Bears and punter Brad Maynard haven't given up much ground there.