Which Bears playmaker will Patriots try to take away? Or do Bears have too many?
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Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” columns appears in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Patriots’ path to winning Super Bowl LI was full of examples of what coach Bill Belichick’s defenses have been known to do over the years.
The best offensive threats of the Texans, Steelers and Falcons — in these cases, their No. 1 receivers — were taken away.
• Divisional round: Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler threw the ball 40 times but receiver DeAndre Hopkins had six catches for 64 yards in a 34-16 win for the Patriots.
• AFC Championship: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 47 times but receiver Antonio Brown had seven catches for 77 yards in a 36-17 win for the Patriots.
• Super Bowl LI: Falcons receiver Julio Jones had four catches for 87 yards but he made only one reception in the second half as the Patriots rallied for a stunning 34-28 victory.
It’s a history that stretches beyond that Super Bowl run, and it’s one that coach Matt Nagy acknowledges as the Bears’ play-caller. But it’s also one that the Bears are built to handle — and possibly overcome — on Sunday.
“A benefit for us is that we have different guys that can do different things,” Nagy said. “That’s a philosophy that we have as an offense. When you run into situations where you feel somebody can take somebody away, then it’s on your other players to step up.
“That makes it easier for you as a play-caller in regards to just being able to call concepts. And if they’re going to decide to take somebody away, then you go somewhere else. But then you need those guys to step up if that’s the case.”
That said, here’s a look at the Bears’ best playmakers and what could be coming against the Patriots.
No. 1 receiver?
Based on production, receiver Taylor Gabriel is the Bears’ top receiver. He has 27 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns. But based on Allen Robinson’s size, previous production and hefty contract, he’s still the No. 1 wideout. And he’s making No. 1-type plays.
Early in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, quarterback Mitch Trubisky fired a back-shoulder throw to Robinson, who made a diving catch for a 21-yard gain down to Miami’s 3.
“That was a check we had at the line of scrimmage, and they also made a great adjustment on defense and that was just me trusting a great playmaker, putting the ball in a spot that he could only make a play on it and he made a heckuva catch,” Trubisky said. “That’s the types of plays that we know No. 12 can make.”
It’s an example of their trust and chemistry. Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said it was a goal to “cultivate” that early on.
“Those guys have done a lot of things together,” Helfrich said.
In his only game against the Patriots, Robinson made four catches for 68 yards in the Jaguars’ 52-17 loss on Sept. 27. 2015. But it’s a bad example. The Jaguars were overmatched, falling behind 10-0, 20-3, 30-3 and so on.
Tight end trouble?
Tight end Trey Burton is the Bears’ fourth-leading receiver with 15 catches for 199 yards and three scores, but the film shows that Burton is one or two missed plays away from having a breakout game.
On first-and-10 from the Dolphins’ 18 in the second quarter, Trubisky threw an incomplete pass to running back Jordan Howard on a check-down.
Trubisky was under pressure, but Helfrich said that if he settled his feet and held strong for one more moment Burton was open over the middle for a touchdown.
“Just a slight movement, an 18-inch reset with your eyes up, you’re going to bang it to Trey for a touchdown and everybody is going, ‘Here we go,’ ” Helfrich said. “And the difference in that is subtle, whether it’s your eyes coming down or your movement being too much, that can happen.”
The Patriots limited Chiefs Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce to five catches for 61 yards in their 43-40 victory last week. In three games against the Patriots, Kelce has 18 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown.
But tight ends can have big games against the Patriots. The Colts’ Eric Ebron had nine catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns against them in Week 5.
The speed demons
The most obvious advantage the Bears have is the speed of Gabriel and running back Tarik Cohen against the Patriots’ veteran linebackers and safeties.
Cohen’s versatility, in particular, should concern the Patriots. He’s not quite what Tyreek Hill is as a receiver for the Chiefs or what Kareem Hunt is as a running back, but he’s a formidable blend of them.
In two games against the Patriots, Hill and Hunt have been unstoppable for the Chiefs. Hill has 14 catches for 275 yards and four touchdowns (three last week). Hunt’s production is even more impressive: 27 carries for 228 yards and a touchdown and 10 receptions for 203 yards and three scores (all on routes out of the backfield).
The Bears might lean on Howard at times against the Patriots, but he can’t be expected to replicate Hunt’s production. Cohen is the Bears’ best receiver out of the backfield. Trubisky called him a “very reliable playmaker.”
“Me and him continue to build chemistry in his route running and timing,” Trubisky said. “So he brings a lot of different talents, and he’s just very hard to account for. He creates a big mismatch problem for defenses, so we’ve just got to continue to utilize that, as well as creating opportunities for the rest of our playmakers on offense.”
One of them is Gabriel, a fleet-footed threat on jet sweeps, shovel passes, deep balls and more. The Bears create even more mismatches when Gabriel and Cohen are on the field together.
“All the playmakers on our offense, we’re starting to see what all these guys can do [with] their different talents that they bring to this offense,” Trubisky said.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky built off his breakout game against the Buccaneers with arguably an even better performance on the road against a better Dolphins defense — and it began with criticism.
“After the Tampa Bay game, it’s not like we sat back and kicked our feet up and chilled for the week,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “We’re hyper-critical of all those things that we could have done better in a statistically healing game.”
In other words, Trubisky’s coaches, at some point, stopped patting him on the back for his six touchdown passes in the blowout of the Bucs.
Helfrich also called Trubisky’s outing against the Dolphins, which did include an interception in the end zone, a “mixed bag.”
“He’s done a great job of just focusing on improvement, literally play to play in practice,” Helfrich said. “Minute by minute, he is a routine-oriented guy. He loves the process of preparing for a game — and that’s big.”
Kicker Cody Parkey didn’t say much when special teams coordinator Chris Tabor approached him after the Bears’ overtime loss against the Dolphins, which included a miss from Parkey from 53 yards that would have won the game.
“He said, ‘Coach, I missed it. I’m good,’ ” Tabor said. “I said, ‘I know you are. I’m not even worried about you.’ He’s very mentally strong, and that’s why he’s a good player.”
Finding a replacement for Robbie Gould — can it be a curse if he’s still playing? — has been difficult since former coach John Fox and special teams Jeff Rodgers decided they wanted a major change in 2016.
Connor Barth, Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent had their struggles before Parkey, who received a four-year, $15 million contract this past offseason. The weather in Chicago soon will be a test, too.
“I know he’s champing at the bit — and so am I for him — to have the next opportunity,” Tabor said. “Just like he did in Arizona when it was time to hit the field goal to go ahead and he drilled it, I know he’ll get it done.”
Q: Which side will we be amazed by at the end of the year, the defense or the offense?
A: I fully expect the Bears’ defense will finish in the top 10 in several statistical categories. It should be in the top five for some, too. But the offense is starting to produce because quarterback Mitch Trubisky is getting better. He won’t finish with passer ratings over 100 every week, but it’s apparent that Matt Nagy’s offense is starting to click for him. He also has plenty of weapons around him. Over the last two games, Trubisky has totaled 770 yards of total offense for a 143.3 passer rating. Jay Cutler never did anything like that. But to answer your question: Bears fans know what a good defense looks like; they should want to be amazed by a good offense.
Q: Will Nagy ever get on the Jordan Howard train? There’s plenty of offense to go around, but running the ball also rests your defense. Jordan needs to work up a lather. He gets stronger in the fourth quarter.
A: I think everyone needs to jump off the Howard train. He’s a good player, but his production the last seasons is deceiving. He was the best player on two bland offenses. Especially last season, Howard had to produce or the Bears were done. The Bears are multi-dimensional now under Nagy. They’re also fast. In their last two games, they have scored 10 touchdowns and totaled 950 yards. They also have 11 pass plays of 25-plus yards. The Bears will need Howard to grind teams down late in games. The Patriots aren’t great against the run.
Q: Gut feeling when [James] Daniels takes over [left guard] for good? — @Lundy1970
A: Soon. For the second game in a row, the Bears used a rotation at left guard with Daniels and veteran Eric Kush against the Dolphins. But this time, Daniels played more, getting 39 snaps to Kush’s 31. Certain factors affected their playing time. But it’s obvious that Daniels has earned the team’s confidence. He was on the field, not Kush, in overtime against the Dolphins.