In just 24 hours, the Chicago Bears get to play football again, and quite frankly, everyone's ready for the game. We regularly bring you five questions with our fellow SB brothers and sisters, but given the marquee match-up this week, we've got an extra treat for you.
We exchanged questions with Jeff Howe, Patriots beat writer for NESN, the New England Sports Network. NESN is a regional sports network (think Comcast Sportsnet), and is owned by the Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox. Jeff is in his second year with NESN, and has been covering the pro sports scene in Boston since 2006.
You can find the questions they asked us right over here in their "Across Enemy Lines" column. You can follow Jeff on twitter (@jeffphowe), or you can check out his columns at NESN.
A great many thanks to Jeff for taking time out of his busy beat writer schedule to answer some questions for us! We appreciate it!
WCG: Statistically, the Patriots' defense looks, we'll say, less than stellar. How much of that would you attribute to it being a generally young squad, and how much of it is because the poffensive prowess sets the defense to go into a deep cover defense early?
Howe: It's actually a pretty good combination of both. First and foremost, they've had to overcome their youth, which is an obvious process in the NFL. There's been no doubting how talented the Patriots are on defense, even right from training camp, but they've needed to grow together.
There have also been a handful of occasions when the Patriots have built huge leads--against Buffalo, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, for instance--and then yielded a lot of points and yards late in the second half. That's a significant reason why the passing defense is ranked 31st in the league.
WCG: We've heard concerns from Pats fans visiting WCG that there is some susceptibility to this offense up the middle. What do the Patriots do to shore up the interior of the line, and do you think pressure up the middle is the key to slowing down Tom Brady?
Howe: Logan Mankins' return has helped in that area, but at the same time they got Mankins, they lost right guard Stephen Neal. Opposing defenses have definitely attacked over the top with varying degrees of success, but some of that has to do with the strong play of left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Of course, Light catches a lot of heat in this town because he's prone to getting beat badly once (or more) each game, but on the whole, he's been pretty solid this season.
WCG: We very rarely hear about the Patriots special teams unit, since that offense gets SO MUCH ATTENTION, but how would you rank them, and would you say that's an area of concern for NE versus the Bears?
Howe: The Patriots' special teams are very well coached by Scott O'Brien, and they're almost always excellent in coverage. However, kick return Brandon Tate has really dropped off since a red-hot start(Brandon Tates' Return to Earth on Kick Returns Not Discouraging Second Year Speedster), and it would be encouraging for him to rebound. Kicker Shayne Graham has also filled in nicely for Stephen Gostkowski, who was placed on injured reserve, but the Patriots miss Gostkowski's big leg on kickoffs.
WCG: How much concern is there that this Patriots team might come out deflated this Sunday, not unlike how the Bears did against the Lions this past Sunday? Two other times this season (NYJ#1 and CLE) the Patriots went on the road and laid a bit of an egg.
Howe: The Patriots were flat-out beaten by the Jets in Week 2, but that Cleveland game was the only time the Pats failed to show up this season. It took a half for the Patriots to wake up in Detroit, too, but they aren't overlooking this Bears team. They're too mentally tough for that, mostly because they really learned their lesson in Cleveland.
WCG: What are the biggest weaknesses on each side of the ball for this team?
Howe: On offense, they've struggled with efficiency at times, although not much recently. There were complaings of guys running the wrong routes, and there was a four-game stretch from Week 6-9 when drops were an issue. When defense are able to cover Wes Welker and Deion Branch, Tom Brady needs the next guys--tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Brandon Tate--to play more efficient. Again, that hasn't been an issue in the last four games, but with the cold weather and Chicago's sturdy pass defense, there will be less room for those types of mistakes this week.
Defensively, the Patriots have sometimes struggled to generate anything consistent for a pass rush, and that has allowed quarterbacks too much time to find open receivers. Also, the inside linebackers have at times struggled in pass coverage.
Bonus Question--Get it right, and we'll send you a peppermint--What's your prediction for the game?
Howe: I think it's going to be an ugly game, but I can see the Patriots pulling it out. Even though it sounds like Jay Cutler is playing well, I just can't imagine him beating Tom Brady in an important December game. Plus, Brady has been absolutely on fire lately, and I can see the Patriots pulling off a hard-fought, 21-17 win.
A big thanks again to Jeff for taking the time to answer our questions!