The Patriots are heading into another uncertain week at the quarterback position for Monday night's primetime matchup against the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium.
New England is navigating a first-world problem with two capable young quarterbacks. Mac Jones is still working his way back from a high-ankle sprain, while rookie Bailey Zappe was excellent last week in Cleveland.
Although healthy competition is a good problem to have, the Bears are in a much different situation with their young quarterback.
After trading up in the 2021 first-round to select Justin Fields, the Ohio State product is struggling in his second season. Among 33 quarterbacks, Fields is 25th in expected points added per play, 26th in QBR, and 32nd in completion percentage over expectation.
Statistically, Fields is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL through six weeks. But his issues certainly aren't all on him. Chicago's offensive line ranks at the bottom of the NFL in pass protection success, and outside of wide receiver Darnell Mooney, Fields has very few weapons in the passing game. Plus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's system is under fire.
Despite the offense's struggles, we know that head coach Bill Belichick won't allow the team to take the Bears offense lightly, so what do they do well?
As Belichick mentioned this week, the Bears rushing attack has big-play potential, ranking second in rush yards per game (170) and seventh in rushing average (5.2 yards per rush).
Chicago's best play sequencing comes when they incorporate their outside toss schemes with under-center play-action. The Bears are under center on over 40% of their plays, tenth-most, and are second in yards per play from under center (6.6).
In this two-play sequence, Chicago ran a same-side toss play out of the gun that goes for a first down. On the next play, they put Fields under center and fake the toss on a bootleg action where Fields finds Mooney on the crossing route for another explosive play.
Two plays later, Fields hit Dante Pettis for Chicago's only score on a 40-yard touchdown to open the second half.
Although the Bears don't use as many designed quarterback runs as you'd expect, Fields's athleticism on scrambles is a significant factor in this game. The second-year QB has forced 16 missed tackles as a runner this season, which leads all quarterbacks.
The Bears quarterback has arm talent (10.1 air yards per attempt) and plenty of athleticism. But the disconnect, as it often is with young passers, is in the details (timing, pre-snap indicators, progressions).
There are instances where Fields is holding the ball for too long and taking sacks because of his own doing. For example, failing to get his eyes to the right places based on pre-snap indicators and hesitating to pull the trigger to NFL open receivers.
In an alternate universe, the second-year quarterback could be flipped in this matchup if the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft goes differently.
And the career trajectories of these two quarterbacks could have easily gone differently if that was the case. Giving Fields the guidance and stability Belichick provides would benefit any young quarterback as it has with Jones and Bailey Zappe.
However, things are how they are, and all the Patriots are focused on getting a victory. In that respect, it's hard to envision Fields consistently moving the ball against the Pats defense on Sunday as long as they stick to two keys.
One, win up front again by pressuring the quarterback with rush lane integrity, so Fields's legs and the Bears running game don't take over. And two, put the offense behind schedule by slowing down Chicago's early-down sequencing and play-action concepts.
Likely with a similar formula as the past two weeks, the Patriots defense will have a clear advantage if it forces Fields to beat them as a traditional pocket passer.
Patriots Offense vs. Colts Defense
After facing his Indianapolis Colts defense last December, the Patriots are familiar with new Bears head coach Matt Eberflus's zone-based system.
"Matt's [Eberflus] obviously brought his very successful system from Indianapolis with him. In Indy, they led the league in turnovers for four straight years. Forced a lot of fumbles. They're very disruptive on the ball," Belichick told reporters on Wednesday morning.
Although they haven't been lights out, Chicago's defense has held up its end of the bargain for the most part and ranks a respectable 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The 14th-ranked pass defense has disruptive players at all three levels: edge rusher Robert Quinn, rangy linebacker Roquan Smith, and ball-hawking safety Eddie Jackson.
The Bears occasionally bring pressure on third down, but Eberflus's defenses aren't known for being heavy blitzing teams, relying on a four-man pass rush and zone coverage behind it. Eberflus mostly dials up cover-three and cover-two but is playing more man coverage this season.
In the matchup last season, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones struggled against the rotating zone structures through the first three quarters. The Colts intercepted two passes, and Jones only averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt and lost 6.55 expected points added.
As a result, New England trailed 20-0 heading into the fourth quarter, with the running game also struggling on only 19 carries due to the game script (Stevenson - 10 rushes, 38 yards).
Eventually, Jones began to figure out Indianpolis's game plan, throwing for 142 passing yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. It was too little too late that night, but with another battle against Eberflus this week, the Patriots can build on that fourth-quarter success.
The go-to passing play for the Pats against the Colts was their levels concept with a backside vertical route. By running a short and intermediate dig route into cover-two zones, Jones played mind games with the middle linebacker. First, he hit Jakobi Meyers on the short dig, then the linebacker jumped Meyers, and he went up a level to the deep dig (Bourne).
After hitting the short and intermediate routes earlier in the game, the Colts tried to counter with a cover-three (buzz) structure where the deep safety rotates into the passing window while the post-safety jumps the intermediate route. However, that left the backside vertical route one-on-one, and Jones hit now-Bears wideout N'Keal Harry for a 43-yard gain.
Along with stressing the zone structures with the levels concept, the Pats also flooded the underneath zones, and Mac found openings by moving zone defenders with his eyes.
Here, the Colts are in cover three, and the Pats run Meyers and tight end Hunter Henry into the short zones. When Mac stares down the left side in his drop, it moves the linebacker in a hook zone out of the passing lane to Henry, and it's another first-down gain for the Patriots offense.
With teams continuing to aggressively play the Patriots rushing attack with Zappe as the starter, the rookie quarterback will need to continue making them pay as a passer. Using the Lions and Browns statistically poor run defenses as proof, the stats don't mean much with teams attacking the line of scrimmage to make the first-year QB beat them through the air.
For those reasons, we wouldn't put too much stock in the Bears ranking near the bottom of the league in rush defense DVOA (27th) as some huge mismatch until teams back off the line. The Bears haven't gotten exposed that badly with play-action, giving up a modest 7.7 yards per play-action attempt, but that could be big again this week against an aggressive zone defense.
Whether it's Jones or Zappe, the Patriots should have opportunities to make plays against the Bears defense by flooding and manipulating zone coverages in the passing game.
1. Pats LT Trent Brown vs. Bears EDGE Robert Quinn
Another week, another Pro Bowl pass-rusher that the Patriots tackles need to deal with on Monday night. Quinn, a three-time Pro Bowler, is off to a slow start this season, with only one sack and 13 QB pressures in the first six games. But his cross-chop move is legendary, and he has excellent bend to turn the corner. Quinn almost exclusively rushes over the left tackle. However, with Isaiah Wynn's struggles, the Bears could flip him to hunt the matchup as the Browns did with Myles Garrett.
2. Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Bears WR Darnell Mooney
After sitting out last week due to an ankle injury, the Pats could really use Jones in this matchup. Mooney is a jitterbug route-runner with 4.38-speed who separates down the field with the best of them. He's an extremely tough guy to cover, but Mooney is also Fields's only legitimate outside threat. If Jones is a full go, expect him to shadow Mooney. If not, Belichick could mix up coverages on Mooney to take him out of the game. He'd be a tough one-on-one assignment for anyone other than Jones.
3. Pats QBs Mac Jones/Bailey Zappe vs. Bears S Eddie Jackson
Jackson is the best ball hawk the Patriots have faced since playing Baltimore in Week 3, so if it's Zappe, he has never faced a ball magnet like the Alabama product. Jackson already has three interceptions and two forced fumbles this year, had six picks in an All-Pro 2018 season, and has three career pick-sixes. He is one of those guys that the quarterback needs to be aware of at all times.