Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 38-31 win over the Bears, which was one yard away from coming completely undone, and way closer than it ever should have been…
Chicago’s rise to the top of the NFC North was built on its defense’s ability to wreak havoc in the opponent’s offensive backfield, with former NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack joining the Bears and immediately turning that group into one of the league’s most disruptive.
Mack entered Sunday with five sacks and four forced fumbles. Former Patriot Akiem Hicks began the day with three of each. On top of that, Chicago was football’s fourth-toughest team to run against. At Soldier Field on Sunday, though, that group in the Bears’ front seven was essentially a nonfactor. Brady was sacked once, by Roquan Smith, but neither Mack nor Hicks even got a lick on the quarterback.
Tackle Trent Brown held his own on the left edge, but he wasn’t alone in those duties, receiving help from tight end Dwayne Allen and others, including receiver Cordarelle Patterson who used his big body to crack back inside on occasion. The rest of the line did its job, too, evidenced by the lack of pressure on Brady, and also by the fact New England gained 108 yards on 27 rushes – four yards a pop – even after losing feature back Sony Michel in the first quarter. Even when the Bears knew the Pats would be running the ball late in the fourth quarter, and needed a combination of James White and Kenjon Barner to do it, the Pats picked up a couple of clock-eating first downs.
It marked the fourth consecutive contest in which the Pats gained at least 97 yards on the ground, and the unit has averaged more than 138 rushing yards over that span. Meanwhile, Brady has been sacked a total of three times in those four tilts, despite facing two of the NFL’s sack-leading defenses during the stretch.
Last spring, the Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder to free agency. This summer, after spending a first-round pick on him, they lost rookie Isaiah Wynn to injury. At this point, despite their 5-2 record, the Patriots definitely have their flaws – but after its emergence over the past month, it’s clear that the combination of the offensive line and the quarterback it protects may be chief among its strength.
SLOPPY AND UNPREPARED ON THE ROAD, AGAIN
Much was made beforehand of the way the Patriots started in each of the two road games they’d played this season, when visits to Jacksonville and Detroit saw New England look overwhelmed early.
To that end, the trip to the Windy City couldn’t have started much better. The Pats’ first three offensive plays each gained at least 13 yards, and they marched to the end zone in eight plays and four minutes. The kickoff team covered the ensuing return well. And the defense forced a punt from Bears’ territory. Everything looked sharp through a couple of series.
It didn’t last. Patterson and Sony Michel fumbled. The Pats looked unprepared on several occasions for Trubisky’s ability to run. With the Bears looking to pick up a fourth down, the Patriots had only 10 players on the field, and needed to burn a timeout on defense for the second time in the half.
Duron Harmon committed a holding penalty that gave Chicago first and goal. JC Jackson undid a third-down stop by letting his hands slip onto his receiver’s facemask. A couple times New England defenders dropped would-be interceptions in the end zone. Then an unsportsmanlike call on rookie Keion Crossen nearly gave the Bears a chance for unexpected points just before the half. And that came just after Edelman tried running with a punt before he caught it, and nearly gave Chicago possession inside the Patriots’ 5.
Ultimately, the Pats did enough. They went to Soldier Field and escaped with their first road win of the year. But based on the talent gap between the teams that was apparent throughout the afternoon, and given how bad New England made Trubisky look as a passer, this one should’ve been comfortably in hand far sooner. It certainly never should’ve been as close as a Hail Mary that wound up one yard short.
TURNOVERS REMAIN AN ISSUE
Just after the clock ticked past the five-minute mark of the first quarter, the Bears set up for first down from the Patriots’ 31-yard line. They trailed, 7-0.
Over the next nine minutes of action, their quarterback would complete two of seven passes for 17 yards. In total they’d pick up 63 yards on 17 – though eight of those yards came via injury, so those plays from scrimmage averaged barely 3.2 yards per attempt. Yet when that stretch was over the Bears led, 17-7.
Such is the way of life in the NFL when a team fails to take care of the football, and it’s a reality the Patriots have become all too familiar with so far this season. Chicago’s 17-point surge was spurred on by Patterson fumbling a kickoff, then Michel coughing it up as he was spun to the turf while being tackled.
Not only did that combination relegate Brady and his offense to the sideline for most of a quarter’s length, but it also marked the third time in four weeks (and fourth time in seven contests this season) that the Pats committed multiple turnovers in a game. In the fourth quarter, a pass popped out of James Develin’s hands, and into those of a defender, giving New England a third turnover for the day.
Since the disdained 2009 season that’s usually considered the low point of the Brady-Belichick era, there’s been only one year the Patriots have had more than four regular-season games with multiple turnovers. That was 2013, when they finished with five for the entire campaign. That season was also the last time the Patriots failed to win at least 12 games (they went 10-6), and the last time they failed to finish among the NFL’s top-five scoring teams (albeit, they were sixth).
The correlation between those valleys and the frequency of turnovers is not likely coincidental. Turnovers turn games, and it’s not sustainable for New England to keep forfeiting possessions at the rate they have if they are going to reach the level of their expectations.
MORE THAN JUST THE OFFENSE COVERING FOR GRONK
Any time the Patriots are without Rob Gronkowski (as they were Sunday), the obvious question is how the team will make up for his absence. That question had a twist to it Sunday because the Pats were also without Jacob Hollister, their next-best pass-catching tight end. Then the plans absorbed another blow when Michel was lost in the first quarter.
This time the answer to how the Pats could potentially put up 38 or more points for a fourth straight week happened to be a more holistic approach.
The offense turned to some expected sources of production. James White did James White things, leading the team in targets, scoring twice, and totaling 97 yards from scrimmage on 11 carries and eight catches. Chris Hogan and Edelman were featured regularly. Josh Gordon’s role appeared to see an uptick in responsibility, most notably when Brady threw it to the back shoulder of his big receiver when he faced single coverage on fourth and one near midfield, then again when the pair hooked up for a 54-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. (That brought Gordon to 100 yards for the day.)
New England managed to move the ball effectively – but in terms of point production the absences of two key offensive cogs were also covered by special teams, with Patterson returning a kick for a touchdown, then Kyle Van Noy later putting New England in the lead by returning for a score the punt Dont’a Hightower blocked with his chin.
Those two plays took tremendous pressure off the Patriots’ attack. So did the terrific ball skills exhibited by Jackson and Jonathan Jones in snaring tricky picks of Trubisky when the Bears started developing some offensive momentum in the second half. The game was far from perfect, or clean, or even well-played from the Pats’ perspective. But without one of their so-called planet players to help cover up the deficiencies of others, the power of complementary football came to the rescue again.
TIME TO HOLD YOUR BREATH, PATS FANS
And no, we’re not talking about the final play of the game, where Trubisky heaved a long pass that was caught at the 1 – and nearly dragged into the end zone for a game-tying score.
It’s time to hold your breath as injury news trickles out of Foxborough, because any time Gronkowski is dealing with a back injury, and Michel is dealing with a knee injury, there is real cause for serious concern. Both of them have a history with those particular injuries, and the loss of either would be potentially devastating to the Patriots’ offense and that group’s hopes of realizing its full potential.
It’s possible Gronkowski’s absence was precautionary, with the Pats erring on the side of caution in a nonconference road game that’s followed by a Monday night tilt, when a good blocker like Allen can do a representative job in what the gameplan called for from that position. It’s also possible that Michel limping off the field, rather than being loaded onto a cart for his exit, could suggest it’s a relatively minor issue for a player who missed the entire preseason after having his knee cleaned up with surgery.
But it’s also possible that these are issues that affect the performance and/or availability of each for the rest of the season. Everything is on the table with these particular players and these particular injuries. And just as it looked like the Patriots offense was again becoming a weapons-wielding force, it’s time for their fans to hold their collective breath. Again.