The Patriots will make their primetime debut of the 2022 season as they welcome the 2-4 Chicago Bears for a Monday Night Football tilt!
Having evened their record at 3-3 last week, New England has the opportunity to climb over .500 for the first time this year. But questions remain as to which quarterback will be under center. Mac Jones advanced to questionable last week leading into the Browns game and could be ready to return to action, though Bailey Zappe has won both of his starts and shown remarkable poise for a rookie signal caller.
Regardless, the Patriots are learning what to expect from their defense and over the last two weeks that has been dominance. Facing two offenses that had little trouble moving the ball previously, the Pats D shut out the Lions and then held the Browns rushing attack to their lowest output of the season. Against Justin Fields and Football Outsiders' 30th-ranked offense, New England's defense should have another opportunity to impose its will.
Here are the other key things to watch as the Pats look for their fourth win of the season!
It's been tough sledding for Fields in his second season after being selected with the 11th-overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Chicago has the fewest passing attempts and yards in the NFL and is 29th in points. Fields is completing just 54.8 percent of his passes and has four touchdowns to five interceptions. He's been more effective with his legs, logging 282 rushing yards on 54 attempts, good enough for a solid 5.4 yards per attempt. But if the Bears are to threaten the Patriots defense, they'll need to take to the air and find a way to attack New England's secondary. That likely means Fields will need to put together the best game of his season.
"He's accurate. He can throw on the run. He can throw in the pocket. He sees down the field as well as at other areas, in the intermediate, check-downs, screens and things like that. Which they're very good at. Especially with the two outstanding backs that they have," said Bill Belichick this week.
Montgomery/Herbert ground attack
For as toothless as the Bears passing attack looks (31st DVOA), the two-headed rushing attack led by David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert is potent, with both players off to strong starts. Herbert leads the way with 403 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, while Montgomery missed one game but still has 246 rushing yards to go with 113 receiving yards. Together with Fields they've posted the third-most rushing yards in the NFL, ranking 22nd in overall in DVOA. Any successful Patriots gameplan must include shutting down the Bears run as they did to Cleveland's last week. A return of Lawrence Guy would provide a boost while Christian Barmore's health bears monitoring. Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai should be heavily counted on to make plays against the run game, while Carl Davis and Davon Godchaux should continue to control the interior.
"This running game is right there with Cleveland," observed Belichick. "I mean they literally have about the same exact amount of yardage. I think [Khalil] Herbert is leading the league in yards per carry. They're very hard to tackle. They do a real good job with their running game and the play action game as well. A lot of explosive plays."
Mooney and Kmet top receiving weapons
Darnell Mooney (17/241) and tight end Cole Kmet (10/116) top the list of passing targets for Fields, while Dante Pettis is a downfield threat that averages 27.0 yards-per-reception and the only player on the roster with more than one receiving touchdown (two). Equanimeous St. Brown is another secondary target who has chipped in six catches and a touchdown. The Patriots should have the secondary pieces to match up with this collection of threats and make life difficult for Fields in the pocket.
Go right at Roquan Smith
There's little question who the best player on the Bears defense is, it's linebacker Roquan Smith who had previously requested a trade this preseason that never came to fruition. Despite that, Smith has been extremely productive with a team-leading 66 total tackles, an interception and 1.5 sacks. He's a mobile off-the-ball linebacker and the Patriots will have to get him blocked on their running plays. Smith's range can be a problem against wide zone runs, so the best plan of attack should be to go right at him with the size and power of the Pats' offensive line.
Perhaps the Bears' biggest strength is their special teams unit which earned praise from Bill Belichick this week. Kick Cairo Santos has been perfect on his seven field goal attempts, including three from 50-plus yards, though he has had two extra-point misses. If the Patriots get into another field goal battle it could level the playing field. Overall, the Bears special teams units come in at eighth overall, despite ranking in the 20s in starting field position on both sides of the ball. With core player Cody Davis hitting injured reserve this week, the Patriots will need solid contributions from some new faces against the Bears to make up the difference without Davis.
"Special teams is another young group, core group of players," said Belichick. "[DeAndre] Houston-Carson is really one of the better coverage players that we'll see all year. [Velus] Jones [Jr.], the rookie, has been great for them and [Josh] Blackwell is very fast. They have a lot of team speed. [Dane] Cruikshank, and some of their linebackers, which those guys run well too. It's really a good group. One of the better groups that we've played."
Mac or Zap
Of course, the biggest question facing the Patriots heading into this one is who will be under center. Is Mac Jones healthy and ready to return? Or will Bailey Zappe get his third-straight start? Either way, the plan would appear to be similar given Chicago's deficiencies, especially against the run. It could be a good chance to get Mac back into the flow of the season, against a defense that has had problems against the run (27th in DVOA). A play-action-heavy, simplified passing attack should be able to do the trick without attempting risky downfield throws against the Bears' better pass defense (14th in DVOA, fourth in yards allowed, fourth in passing touchdowns against).
It was a bit of a surprisingly quiet game for Rhamondre Stevenson against the Browns' lowly-ranked run defense. A week after posting 161 yards at a 6.44 yards-per-attempt clip, Stevenson fell to 76 yards and a 4.0 yards-per-attempt average. But make no mistake, Stevenson remains an emerging star for the Patriots offense and this week against the Bears presents another major opportunity for the second-year back to feast. While Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris got their feet wet last week, this should still be the Rhamondre show, and he could be the single most impactful player the Patriots have.
Judon and Wise sharpen the edge
Fields' mobility will require some additional discipline from the Patriots defense, especially on the edge where Matthew Judon and Deatrich Wise have been an eye-opening one-two punch this season. Judon's strength and quickness are excellent complements to Wise's length and motor as the duo has combined for an eye-popping 11 sacks through six games. Once again Judon and Wise will play a key role in containing Fields and forcing him to use his arm instead of his legs.
With mounting injury questions at wide receiver, rookie Tyquan Thornton's role could continue to grow against the Bears. Last week against the Browns, Thornton jumped from 25 snaps in his debut to 40 and chipped in four catches, three rushes and two touchdowns. Thornton's speed should do a lot for the Patriots passing offense and with the team's consistent attempts to push the ball downfield when Mac was under center, it seems like only a matter of time until Thornton strikes with a big play, long score. His continued development is one of the most exciting new elements to watch for, and one that could have a big impact when the games get more important down the stretch.
Rookie runners get more chances?
With Damien Harris missing last weeks game with a hamstring injury it opened up opportunities for the two rookie running backs. Kevin Harris (12 snaps) and Pierre Strong (4 snaps) combined for four carries for 10 yards, not production to get anyone enthralled but enough to get their feet wet and perhaps earn more carries this week against the Bears. Of course, how the game unfolds could play a major part in this, but with a rookie class that seems to be increasing their contributions by the week, getting something out of the rookie runners remains one of the few unanswered questions with the 2022 class.