The Chicago Bears are 9-1 entering this week's game with the 7-3 Patriots. They've been playing championship-level football all season long, in case you haven't been paying attention. And that's something coach Belichick and his Patriots are aware of.
"It's been a pretty interesting couple days watching these Bears," said coach Bill Belichick in the opening statement of his Wednesday press conference. "It might actually be fun if we didn't have to play them. They're really an exciting team to watch and they're extremely good at everything. There's really… I don't see any weaknesses at all in this team. On top of all their skill and their athleticism and their play-making ability, they're tough. They're a very physical team."
Coach Belichick said he thought the team would be tested in all phases of the game this week, and described the Bears defense as, "a school of piranhas," for their voracious style of play and ability to score points.
"If you make one mistake and they pounce on you, they're all over it. And the ball's in the end zone. It's not just a bad play or a turnover or whatever. They'll take advantage of it and put it in the end zone on you," said Belichick.
"I mean they're No.1 in scoring defense," said center Dan Koppen on Wednesday. "They've been really doing it all year, so it's not just one game where they've played well. They've played well in every game. They're 9-1 for a reason and it seems like they have a chance to win in any game or any type of game they get into."
At the heart of that defense is middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Urlacher was the leading defensive vote-getter for the Pro Bowl last season, and has made a postseason trip to Hawaii every year since entering the NFL in 2000 except the 2004 season where he missed seven games due to leg injuries; he was still a Pro Bowl alternate, however.
Coach Belichick explained that Urlacher is a unique fit at middle linebacker, both for his size and his speed, and described him as "a tremendous player."
"Urlacher is so big and so rangy, he gets his hands on a lot of balls. He's a real good interceptor. He's a good blitzer," said Belichick. "He makes plays sideline-to-sideline, like [Buffalo's London] Fletcher does, but he's just a bigger man. And he's got a lot more range and he's much harder to throw around in the inside part of the defense. He takes up a lot of space and he's a big threat on blitz. You've definitely got to know where he is.
"You got to block the other ten guys too," admitted Belichick. "You've got to deal with them, whatever their role is, but he's a major force in there. He's a very instinctive guy. I think a lot of plays that he makes are plays where he – I don't want to say he doesn't take care of his responsibility. He does his responsibility, but then he's able to see that he's close enough to the action to make the play and he'll drop his guy and just go in there and sack the quarterback, or drop his guy and go get in a passing lane and make a play on the ball somewhere else. So he's a very instinctive football player, as well."
In 2005, Urlacher's 171 tackles led the Bears for the fifth time in six years. He was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year last year as a leader on the defense that allowed the fewest points and second-fewest total yards in the NFL. That defense hasn't fallen off this year, either. Statistically, Chicago has the best total defense in the league right now.
"I know the guy personally, so I think he's a good guy," said Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who played with Urlacher before leaving the Bears as a free agent in 2003. "I think he goes out and tries to play hard for his team and I don't think he's going to do anything different this Sunday. As you watch around the league, you get to see guys that perform at a high level, especially on the defensive side of the ball because you play defense and he's one of those guys. He does a good job, regardless of if I knew him or not."
According to Belichick, Urlacher is dangerous in pass coverage, but he can also blitz very effectively and stop the run. He led the Bears with 10 tackles for a loss and ranked second with six sacks last season. He'll be lining up directly in front of Koppen all game, but the redheaded center isn't forgetting about the rest of the Bears excellent defense.
"Brian's a great player and we all know that, but he's got guys around him that can play too," said Koppen Wednesday. "Their defensive line is solid, strong, physical, athletic. The other linebackers are just as active as he is. It's a great defense."
What makes them so great?
"I think just their play-making ability," said Koppen. "I mean all the guys are able to make plays over there and they can change the game with one snap if you're not careful and if you're not focused on every play. They can really hurt you."
The Patriots have the fourth-best defense in the league, including the second-best rush defense. That's nothing to scoff at, but veteran linebacker Junior Seau, now in his 17th season, knows the Pats defense will need a big game from quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense as well. He sees greatness in Urlacher and knows how good the Bears defense really is.
"[When I look at Urlacher] I see a player with a purpose and a player that is destined to do great things," said Seau. "Obviously, he has a career ahead of him, and yet what he's been able to do is something I could tip my hat to.
"It always is a defensive battle when you ask a defensive player due to the fact that we're egotistic. When it comes down to playing the game of football, we think we're the only ones on the field. They are the better defense today. We're definitely going to be on the same stage. Hopefully we can win that battle, but as far as the Chicago Bears go, they're doing a great job. You can't take anything from them. They're the team to beat."
"We're going out there and we're trying to play our defense," explained cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "This isn't a statement game, this isn't a respect game, or whatever. They're a great defense. We feel that we're a great defense, and we want to go out there and execute our job [on defense] better than they execute theirs [on offense]."
Colvin said he hopes it isn't a purely defensive battle.
"I hope Tom and them go out and score a lot of points. It's up to us to stop the opposing team and hold them [to fewer] points than we score. If we as defensive players are focused on their defense, I think we're thinking about the wrong thing. I think we have to make sure that we're handling our part and let Tom and the offense go out there and play offense against their defense. If we can score points on the defensive side of the ball, that's always a plus, but our focus needs to be slowing their offense down, stopping the running game and getting of the field on third down."
So what does Brady think he and the offense need to do this week?
"I think what [the Bears] do especially well is they get after the passer and they force you into bad plays, either inaccurate plays or inaccurate throws," Brady explained. "They always have an extra guy down [near the line of scrimmage] for the run game, so you need to continue to try to run it and be balanced. And then when you're able to throw it, you have to have time to throw. They're all up there at the line of scrimmage pressing, press bailing and blitz zoning, so they give you some different looks and hopefully you have enough time to figure out what's going on so you can make an accurate throw, but a lot of times guys will come clean and the quarterback is running and throws it away. They get after the passer. So we have to do a great job in protection this week, in my calls and my reads [I have to be] right on it and make really good accurate throws."
Comings and Goings
The New England Patriots signed free agent punter Ken Walter today. Walter, a veteran of eight NFL seasons, played in 42 regular-season games and six playoff games for the Patriots over three seasons from 2001-03. Walter, 34, was last with the Seahawks in 2004, and didn't play during the 2005 season. He's now the third punter on the team, including practice squad player Danny Baugher, and starter Josh Miller, who debuted on the Wednesday injury report with a shoulder injury.
The Patriots also announced the release of first-year cornerback Antwain Spann from the roster. Spann, 23, made his NFL debut with the Patriots on Oct. 1, 2006 and has played in five career games while recording five special teams tackles. The 6-foot, 190-pound cornerback was originally signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He joined the Patriots' practice squad on Jan. 2, 2006. He was signed to New England's active roster on Sept. 30, was released on Nov. 6 and re-joined the practice squad on Nov. 7. He was re-signed to the active roster on Nov. 18 and played in last weekend's game at Green Bay, recording one special teams tackle.
Notes:The Patriots practiced outdoors on the FieldTurf inside Gillette Stadium. It was the first time the team has been on the new turf, though the replacement was completed ahead of schedule. … Unlike most other FieldTurf stadiums, the cryogenic rubber that serves as artificial dirt between the monofilament blades of "grass" is light brown. Typically, that rubber is black, but the brown rubber makes the turf look more like real grass. … The only players not seen on the field during the portion of practice available to the media were defensive backs Willie Andrews and Rodney Harrison. Harrison is recovering from a broken shoulder blade and won't play against the Bears. … Michigan alum Tom Brady apparently lost a bet to Mike Vrabel when his alma mater lost to Vrabel's old team, The Ohio State Buckeyes last Saturday. Brady was wearing a throwback, No. 94 jersey with Vrabel's name on the back of it at practice. The jersey was non-contact/Buckeye red, so that worked out well for Brady, who normally wears a non-contact red jersey at practice along with the other two quarterbacks. … Running back Corey Dillon wore a red non-contact jersey today for the second day in a row.