When the Patriots pay a rare visit to Chicago this Sunday, they'll be facing perhaps their stiffest challenge from an opposing defense since Week 2 at Jacksonville. Head coach Bill Belichick heaped significant praise upon the Bears' defense and coordinator Vic Fangio during comments to reporters around midday Wednesday.
"They're really a good defensive team. [They] take the ball away, [they're] powerful up front, a lot of good, smart coverage players. You know, Vic does a real good job with that group. They're at the top of the league in a lot of categories. I can see why."
"They're definitely a talented defense," right tackle LaAdrian Waddle confirmed. "They've got some guys up front that can cause some problems that we'll have to be ready for."
At the top of that list is outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a leading, early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Mack is averaging a sack per game this season, his first with Chicago, has forced four fumbles, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass, and returned it for a touchdown.
Last November, when Mack was an Oakland Raider, he faced the Patriots in Mexico City. That day, Mack squared off against fill-in right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, who surrendered a sack to Mack and allowed him to hit quarterback Tom Brady on three other occasions.
Waddle could be charged with protecting Brady from Mack again this weekend, as regular right tackle Marcus Cannon sustained a concussion against the Chiefs this past week and did not practice today. Media reports suggest Cannon could possibly clear concussion protocol in time for the Bears game, but for now, Waddle is working under the assumption that he'll be taking on the assignment.
He was, of course, asked by reporters what he can learn from having faced Mack a year ago.
"I don't think there's too much that can carry over," Waddle maintained. "It's a different game, different circumstances, different teams. Nothing really carries over from that, but he was definitely a challenging guy to go against. He can rush the passer and he's a freak of a player.
"He's going to play through the whistle each play. He's a guy that can give you different kinds of moves. He can rush with speed or power. Just got to be ready to roll and play with great technique and let that take care of itself… We'll take a look at all the games from this year and game plan for what he's going to do."
However, there's also some doubt about Mack's availability for this coming game, as he suffered a right ankle injury against Miami three days ago and Bears rookie head coach Matt Nagy described his star defender as "day-to-day."
Mack has yet to miss a game in his four-and-a-half-year NFL career, so, it's probably safe to assume he'll be in uniform when the Patriots arrive this Sunday.
One that got away
Belichick also had good things to say about Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who played 13 games for New England in 2015 before leaving for Chicago via free agency.
"Yeah, similar to Mack except he plays inside. He's strong, physical, very powerful, explosive guy, hard to block – hard to block in the running game, hard to block in the passing game," remarked Belichick. "He's got good power, knocks the pocket back. But, he's quick, he can get to the edge, he can make plays with his quickness, as well as he power and his strength, plays hard, tough – good football player."
On a conference call today, Hicks looked back fondly on his brief Patriots career, which he admitted he wanted to continue.
"Loved it. Man, absolutely loved it. Loved how the organization ran, great coaching. I have nothing but phenomenal things to say about that organization as a whole, from the top down," Hicks raved. "I fondly remember morning meetings at 8 o'clock, be in at about 7:30 a.m. and I see Mr. [Robert] Kraft coming in the meeting room and having a seat with his sneakers on.
"It was a great experience for me. I was interested in being back and they were interested in having me there. It turned out that there was an opportunity for me here in Chicago and I took that opportunity."
New England hasn't played at Soldier Field since 2010, when the Patriots routed the Bears 36-7 in a blizzard. So far this year, Belichick's team has traveled twice and returned to Foxborough without a win. They're hoping to change that this weekend.
"It's hard to win in general in the NFL. When you go on the road, it definitely adds another challenge," observed wide receiver Chris Hogan. "Different routine, different stadium, loud fans. You just have to go in there with the right mindset, stick to your plan, and play good football."
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore summed up what he and his teammates need to do to get a win in the Windy City this way: "Great week of practice, preparation, start fast."
The Patriots held a rare Wednesday walkthrough, rather than their customary full-pads practice today. It appeared as if Cannon was the only player unable to take part, due to his concussion.