Saturday, October 25, 2014

Big Nickle could make big difference for Patriots against Bears

The Chicago Bears are an average football team - not really that good, but certainly not that bad, just kind of existing in the back of the NFL refrigerator along with the open box of baking soda, neither of which anyone really notices until either the fridge is empty or something starts to stink.

The fridge isn't empty, as the offense has several recognizable names with tons of big play potential, but there have been times this season that they stunk up the joint, particularly at Soldier Field, where they are a gag reflex-inducing 0-3 and scoring a putrid 17 points per game.

Good thing for them that they're on the road this week.
Moore (90) and Chris Jones are vital to Belichick's run defense

The air must be much more clear away from the windy city, as the Bears are a sterling 3-1 on the road with victories at San Francisco, New York against the Jets and at Atlanta while dropping a heartbreaker in Carolina for their only loss in four tries.

The Bears come into Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium against the New England Patriots in a foul mood after dropping a 27-14 decision against the Miami Dolphins in Chicago last weekend - a loss as ugly as any in recent franchise history when, despite the big names and potential offensive firepower, the Bears could manage only 224 yards of total offense.

That is an abysmal performance, even for a merely average team - a Bears' team that is 18th in scoring and 17th in total yards, a Bears' team that for whatever reason relies so heavily on on running back Matt Forte that names like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett are mere afterthoughts as options for quarterback Jay Cutler.

Forte has 163 touches through seven games - 111 on the ground and 52 through the air - which gives him three times the number of touches as anyone else on the roster - and while those numbers are impressive, the Bears are finding out that singling out one weapon in their arsenal isn't getting them anywhere.

To be fair, the erratic Cutler is spreading the ball around in the passing game, as Bennett has come down with 41 balls, Jeffrey 33 and Marshall 31- but by comparison, the Patriots' "struggling" passing game features three pass catchers that easily top any of those three in both catches and yardage, which has to be cause for concern for the Bears' faithful.

Enter the New England Patriots' defense that comes in tops in the league against the pass, but are decimated by injury in their front seven, which could account for the Patriots coming in at number 24 against the run, yielding an appalling 126 yards per game and an average per carry of 4.4...

...most of that coming on the edges where, even when healthy, the Patriots have seldom shown the ability to set and maintain.  And now with New England losing their best edge-setting linebacker in captain Jerod Mayo for the season and weak-side defensive end Chandler Jones reportedly for a month - and with linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins clearly hobbled as well - Forte and the rest of the Bears' offense have to be licking their chops...

...particularly considering that of the 140 passes completed in seven games against the Patriots, over half end up in the hands of tight ends and running backs, by far the largest percentage against in the league.

Why?  Well, part of it has to do with the presence of Darrelle Revis in the New England secondary, which effectively shuts down one half of the field, but the biggest reason is that the Patriots haven't shown the ability to either track a tight end in coverage, nor set the edge - which means, of course, that the screen game is in full effect for New England's opponents, and will be until they prove they can stop it.

The same is true for the running game.  Many are bemoaning the fact that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick released defensive tackle Tommy Kelly in the preseason, and using that for an excuse for the bottom feeding rushing numbers against the Patriots, but where New England is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry up the middle this season, there is proof that the problem is elsewhere.

See where this is going?

The issue with the Patriots is on the edges, where they are surrendering five yards per carry and where the screen game is accounting for nearly eight yards per completion.  Do the math and it's not hard to figure out that when your opponent is averaging 6.5 yards every play outside of the box that the problems lie on the edges and beyond.

Add to that the difficulties the team is having defending tight ends in the pattern and the Patriots look to be ripe for the picking by a Bears' offense that thrives on the edges and in the underneath passing game.

But happily for Patriots' fans, there is an answer, and it's called the Big Nickle.

The 5-2-4 Big Nickle actually employs the look of a 3-4 defense but with one major difference.  The nickle back, be that a safety or a linebacker, must be a player with excellent coverage skill, but also someone who is a sure tackler and can contribute in the run defense - and it's a position that cornerback Brandon Browner was born to play.

Last season when Browner was playing in Seattle, he was getting burned deep consistently on the outside and eventually lost his starting corner gig, the problem being his lack of deep speed meant that if he didn't get a good jam on the receiver at the line of scrimmage, the receiver would be able to outrun Browner's length down the sideline.

But Browner found his niche in that defense as kind of a double slot corner, matching up primarily against larger slot receivers or tracking tight ends over the middle and up the seam, and he was excellent in that capacity.  Even if the receiver was able to beat his jam, the quarters were so tight that Browner's length came into play and he effectively neutralized his charge.

What that means for the Patriots is that Browner could carry a tight end like Chicago's Martellus Bennett and keep him in check, which would allow Hightower to play the run and Collins to pick up the running back wheeling into the pattern or sliding into the phone booth for the screen while the edge defenders, likely Rob Ninkovich and rookie Zach Moore, set the edge and funnel everything back inside...

...where a rotation featuring defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Dominque Easley, Chris Jones  and Casey Walker will be waiting to shut the play down.

It remains to be seen if Belichick will use Browner in this manner or if he continues to run with Patrick Chung as his Big Nickle - but either way the goal is to key on Forte and take away his influence, causing the Bears to become one-dimensional through the air, where that top ranked Patriots' pass defense can work it's magic.

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