CHICAGO – We check in with Chicago Tribune beat writer Brad Biggs to let the lowdown on the Bears. And, as usual, Biggs brings it:
1. In your mind, what has been the key to the Bears’ five-game winning streak?
Either Mike Martz realized he was in the midst of a final opportunity in the NFL and decided to dramatically alter the offensive play calling during the bye week, or a cosmic intervention took place at Halas Hall. Either way, the Bears have managed to find balance on offense, something that had been sorely missing. In the four games prior to the bye, Martz called pass plays 76 percent of the time when Jay Cutler was on the field (he missed 1 ½ games with a concussion), a figure that would make pass-happy Andy Reid blush. At the time, the offense was converting less than 18 percent of its third downs, leading to lopsided time of possession that impacted the defense. The Bears were predictably bad in the red zone as well. Cutler was airing it out so much that Martz had made the Bears one-dimensional. The offensive line was struggling to hold up, particularly for seven-step drops, and the sacks were the only thing piling up faster than turnovers. After the bye, the Bears ditched the seven-step drops and went to a shorter passing game that eliminated some of the bad decisions for Cutler. Martz is calling enough running plays to keep the opposition off balance and the young offensive line has gotten some confidence while also keeping the same five starters in place for the last five games. A practical offensive approach paired with the opportunistic defense and one of the NFL’s best special teams units has made the Bears a serious contender in the NFC.
2. Who is the one Bears player most Patriots fans don’t know right now, but will by the end of the game on Sunday?
Tom Brady didn’t dare try to pronounce his name last week, but he sure took notice of left defensive end Israel Idonije (e-DON-e-jay) on film. He’s a versatile lineman who has literally played all four spots on the line at some point in his career. Prior to this season, he’d primarily been a tackle and a nickel pass rusher. But Idonije won the starting job opposite Julius Peppers and the 30-year-old who was born in Nigeria and raised in Manitoba, British Columbia, and he’s providing a pass-rush presence opposite the prized free agent addition. Idonije is tied with Peppers for the team-lead with seven sacks and he’s a solid two-way player who plays the run. A raw project when he arrived from Cleveland in 2003 as a free agent, he’s really coming into his own now that the Bears have a true edge rushing presence in Peppers. He’s always been a top special teams player, and this year he’s piling up some impressive defensive statistics with seven QB pressures to go with the sacks, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
3. What’s the biggest weakness on the Bears’ offfense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
The offensive line, under the tutelage of first-year position coach Mike Tice, remains a work in progress. Injuries and tinkering led Tice to use five different starting combinations in the first eight games but the Bears have settled in during their winning streak. Chris Williams, a first-round draft pick in 2008 selected to be the left tackle of the future, has been moved inside to left guard. Frank Omiyale, a free-agent addition last year, is now protecting Cutler’s blind side at left tackle, and the return of veteran right guard Roberto Garza from arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus has stabilized the unit. Right tackle J’Marcus Webb, a seventh-round draft pick from West Texas A&M, has struggled at times. He’s got all the physical tools at 6-7, 328 pounds, and he spent his freshman season playing for Texas. Webb’s cousin is Richmond Webb, the longtime standout offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. Opponents have looked to take advantage of him but the Bears are aware of this and will give him help from time to time.
4. What’s the biggest weakness on the Bears’ defense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
Entering the season, the secondary was a major question mark because the team struggled for several years to maintain any consistency at the safety position. Chris Harris, drafted by the Bears in 2005, was re-acquired in a trade with the Carolina Panthers and he and Danieal Manning have settled things down. Tim Jennings, a cheap addition after the Indianapolis Colts non-tendered him as a restricted free agent, has supplanted Zack Bowman at left cornerback. The Bears have allowed only nine passing touchdowns, and the opponents’ passer rating against is only 71.1. Still, if the forecasted winds don’t make it too treacherous to throw the ball, Brady and his variety of targets should present the Bears with their biggest challenge of the season. The defense handled Michael Vick well three weeks ago, but the Cover-2 scheme worked well to keep the Eagles’ fast receivers in front of the safeties. Vick was forced to throw the ball underneath. Brady makes a living throwing the ball to the middle of the field. When Wes Welker lines up in the slot, he’ll present an interesting matchup for confident nickel cornerback D.J. Moore, an undersized performer from Vanderbilt who isn’t lacking for confidence. Moore has a nose for the ball and leads the defense with four interceptions. Veteran Charles Tillman remains a fixture in the secondary, although he’s moved to the right side this season.
5. Finally, Bears win on Sunday if….
Lovie Smith’s formula for success has always been about takeaways. That’s where it gets interesting because Brady hasn’t thrown an interception in seven games and the Patriots don’t have skilled-position players who are sloppy handling the ball. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is such a big and rangy player and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs plays with great range, so they can complicate the passing game. If the Bears can force Brady into some errors, they’ve proven they capitalize at critical times. The key number for the Bears might be 18. When they score 18 points or more, they’re 51-10 under Smith.