Our best guess for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears:
G Chris Barker: Promoted from the practice squad last week to add a layer of depth with three offensive linemen injured, he is No. 10 on the 10-man offensive line depth chart.
CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots are six deep at the position, and with Butler a developmental prospect in the No. 6 spot, he gets edged out on game day.
OL Jordan Devey: He filled in at left guard with starter Dan Connolly concussed, but with Connolly appearing set to return, it could lead him to be inactive.
WR Aaron Dobson: With the top three on the depth chart locked in (Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola), and Brian Tyms representing a deep threat who has shown a knack for going up and getting the ball in 50-50 situations, Dobson would be No. 5 on the depth chart. Couple that with a lack of special-teams contributions and the feeling is that it costs him a roster spot on game day.
DE Chandler Jones: Top pass-rusher has already been ruled out with a hip injury.
G Josh Kline: Has held the fort at right guard the last two weeks while the Patriots managed injuries to others, but with center Bryan Stork returning, it creates flexibility to kick Ryan Wendell back to right guard.
RB James White: This could change if Shane Vereen's illness lingers, but there was no indication late in the week that would be the case.
Accountability check: A 6-for-7 effort, with the lone miss projecting Dominique Easley (shoulder) as inactive instead of White.
One example came this week when Garoppolo, who grew up in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was asked his favorite team growing up as part of the weekly “football journey” series.
“Is this a setup?” a smiling Garoppolo asked in the days leading up to Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.
No setup, Jimmy, just a standard question as part of the “football journey.”
And with that Garoppolo laughed and talked about his love for the Bears growing up, how he admired the hard-charging running of Anthony “A-Train” Thomas and experienced heartbreak when Chicago lost to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
“Devin Hester returning that opening kickoff [was a top memory], and then it was all downhill from there,” he recalled. “That was a heck of a year to be a [Bears] fan.”
But at the same time, Garoppolo wanted to make something clear -- his allegiances have fully shifted to his current team.
And with that, he shares his “football journey” as part of our weekly feature:
First positions: “A little bit of everything really. I was linebacker, tight end, receiver, running back. When I was younger, I was mainly running back and tight end.”
Favorite players growing up: “It sounds weird but I always liked Brett Favre, even though he was on the Packers.”
Role models growing up: “My parents [Tony and Denise] definitely. Seeing what they went through, having four kids, always busy running from game to game. Then my two older brothers obviously. Just being number three of four, you look up to them and want to do what they did.”
Top football memories at Rolling Meadows High: “Definitely winning conference. Sophomore year, I got moved up and we were No. 1 in the state and everything. Senior year we won conference again. It’s just being with all your friends; I think that’s the coolest thing about high school. You grew up with all these guys since you were little and you play with them.”
Why he chose to attend Eastern Illinois: “Eastern, Illinois State and Montana State all gave me scholarships. Bigger schools wanted me to walk on but I didn’t want to do that. I went with Eastern, which was a great opportunity to play because their quarterback had just graduated. I went on a visit and fell in love with it.”
Top memories at Eastern Illinois: “The whole last two years were just unbelievable. Freshman and sophomore year were fun. We struggled on the field, but those last two years we really became a team. Those were some great memories.”
One game that stands out: “When we beat Illinois State my senior year, it was a pretty good whipping (57-24). They were our in-state rival and we don’t like each other very much.”
When he knew the NFL might be possible: “Probably around sophomore year. My quarterback coach at the time, Coach [Roy] Wittke, was getting it in my head. I had progressed a lot from freshman to sophomore year, and he gave me the idea. He told me if I kept progressing the way I was, good things would happen.”
Reaction to being selected by the Patriots in the 2014 second round (62nd overall): “Stunned. That is how it would have been anywhere, but to come to such a good organization, looking up to a great guy in front of me right now, it’s picture perfect.”
Life as a Patriot: “Busy, especially as a rookie. There is not much off time. But this is what you love to do and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t want to work a job or anything; this doesn’t feel like work to me. I go out and enjoy it every day.”
What he prides himself on as a football player: “Just being the hardest-working guy. I want to go out there and bust my butt every day and get after it. You don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the day.”
What he loves about the game of football: “Everything. Being with the guys and building these relationships that you’ll have forever. It’s a very unique job, not many people get to do it, so you might as well enjoy it while you’re doing it.”
Highs and lows in football: “Hopefully the highest point hasn’t come yet. Lowest point? I don’t know if there was one. We had a couple rough years at Eastern the first two years. Other than that, it’s football. You get to go out there and work hard, grind with the guys, and enjoy every second of it.”
Summing up his football journey: “Unbelievable. If you told me in fifth grade that all of this was going to happen, I don’t know if I would have believed you. I was a baseball kid growing up, I thought that was what I was going to do. Things worked out and I became a quarterback junior year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Easley on the edge: With starting right defensive end Chandler Jones ruled out with a hip injury, the likely replacement is first-round draft pick Dominique Easley. When Jones was replaced late in the Sept. 29 loss to the Kansas Chiefs, it was Easley who came on in his place. When Jones was limited Oct. 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals with a right shoulder injury, Easley once again stepped in. While rushing the quarterback is obviously a big part of playing defensive end, equally as important is the ability to set the edge in the running game and force plays back inside. Easley has flashed the ability to do this in spot duty (against Chiefs, 2:47 remaining in the third quarter), but can he string those plays together consistently? The Patriots are counting on him in a tough matchup against running back Matt Forte.
Revis as a matchup option: Darrelle Revis and Brandon Marshall know each other well from their tussles when Revis was with the Jets (2007-12) and Marshall was with the Dolphins (2010-11). So that background could be viewed as an asset to match Revis exclusively on Marshall. Then again, a case could be made that Alshon Jeffery represents the bigger threat down the field and perhaps Revis should be matched again him. Either way, Revis and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner have a challenging task ahead of them with two of the game's bigger receivers in Marshall (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and Jeffery (6-3, 216). Maybe they simply play sides. Maybe they match up. The Patriots' intentions with Revis are an intriguing "game within the game."
Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, injuries forced a shuffle in each of the last three games as Stork has missed the last two games with a concussion, while Connolly left the Oct. 12 win over the Bills with a concussion and then missed the Oct. 16 victory over the Jets. Stork and Connolly look primed for a return, which gives the Patriots a chance to have their top group together again, which is good timing because the strength of the Bears' defense is on the line.
Stopping the run with a lighter box: With Bill Belichick referring to tight end Martellus Bennett as a big receiver, that could be a tip-off that the Patriots plan to play mostly a sub defense in this game. If that's the way it unfolds, stopping the run with a lighter box will be imperative, which the Patriots didn't do well against the Jets. Can a six-man box of ends Rob Ninkovich and Dominque Easley, tackles Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones/Casey Walker, and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, answer the challenge?
Turnovers tell the story: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made the point that the team is 5-0 in games in which it hasn't committed a turnover this season. Meanwhile, since quarterback Jay Cutler joined Chicago, the team is 21-5 in games in which he starts and does not throw an interception. When he throws multiple interceptions (as he has done three times this season), the Bears are 4-18. This is something that could be brought up any week, but the numbers are especially notable with the two teams involved.
Amendola the kickoff returner: The Patriots received a bit of a spark from receiver Danny Amendola as their primary kickoff returner. With his snaps on offense at a moderate level because the Patriots haven't been playing as many three-receiver packages (20, 24, 23 in each of the last three games), Amendola is being given a chance to show what he can do in this area. It could be a valuable niche.
Meanwhile, running back Shane Vereen's absence from practice Friday was because of an illness and he is one of seven players listed as questionable. At this point, it would be a surprise if Vereen does not play.
Offensive linemen Dan Connolly (concussion), Cameron Fleming (finger) and Bryan Stork (concussion) are also questionable, as their returns would give the Patriots a chance to have their most effective offensive line this season active for the game. That offensive line would be comprised of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Connolly, center Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Davis was waived Thursday so the Patriots could make room for linebacker Akeem Ayers, who was acquired in a trade from Tennessee.
The 22-year-old Krause, who played at Vanderbilt, was originally signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent. Krause (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) totaled 42 receptions for 714 yards and three touchdowns at Vanderbilt in 2013. He returned two punts for touchdowns as a junior in 2012.
Patriots practice squad
DT Ben Bass
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
LB Ja'Gared Davis
LB Darius Fleming
OL Caylin Hauptmann
WR Jonathan Krause
DT Kona Schwenke
CB Daxton Swanson
DT Joe Vellano
Browner feels difference from last week. Veteran cornerback Brandon Browner held court with reporters and said he feels more game-ready this week after four straight practices. Browner played 41 of 87 defensive snaps last week and said afterwards that he felt winded. On Friday, Browner explained that there is a difference between general conditioning and football conditioning. "Practice makes perfect. My [football] conditioning is getting a little better," he said.
Ninkovich on Forte. The Patriots will have to find a way to contain the Bears’ Matt Forte, the NFL’s reception leader who also happens to be a running back. “He is a smooth guy,” Rob Ninkovich said. “I feel like he is a smooth runner and he has good vision, so it comes down to fundamentally being solid and everybody being tight on responsibilities.” Ninkovich said one way to bump Forte around is through the pass-rush. “As a defensive end when you are on your way to the quarterback, if the running back is there, it would be smart of you to hit him,” Ninkovich said.
Ninkovich’s favorite team. He’s obviously a Patriots guy now, but as a kid from Illinois, Ninkovich’s favorite team growing up wasn’t the Bears. “Cowboys. '90s. Baller. Bears, not so much in the 90s,” he said.
Vereen update. Running back Shane Vereen missed practice on Friday and his chair was folded up, which seemed like he wasn’t at the team’s facilities. The Boston Herald reported Vereen missed practice due to an illness. Running back James White said that he made use of the increased reps and that he and Brandon Bolden are the next guys up if Vereen cannot play on Sunday.
Extra points. Defensive tackle Chris Jones was not fined for his low hit on Jets quarterback Geno Smith. And offensive lineman Jordan Devey was not fined for his unnecessary roughness penalty.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Bears 28
ACCOUNTABILITY CHECK (what we said last week): Basing a prediction on a weather forecast is always risky business, but I think the heavy projected rainfall evens things up and is a nice break for the Jets. To win in the elements, the running game is critical and I have doubts that the Patriots will be able to get it going against a solid Jets front that has contributed to a No. 6 ranking in average yards per carry allowed (3.5). But in the end, I keep coming back to the one contrast duly noted between the teams on the stat sheet: The Patriots are tied for first in turnover differential (plus-9, 14 takeaways, 5 giveaways), while the Jets are tied for last in the NFL (minus-9, 3 takeaways, 12 giveaways). I expect a close one, with a spirited effort from the Jets, but that discrepancy is just too big to ignore. Patriots 17, Jets 13.
Vereen has not been listed on the team’s injury report, so it was unclear why he was missing from practice. He was in attendance for the three other practices held this week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Vereen had dealt with a shoulder injury earlier in the season that had him listed as questionable for the team’s Week 3 game against Oakland.
Defensive end Chandler Jones missed his fourth practice of the week with a hip injury and is unlikely to play this Sunday against the Bears. Jones is reportedly out for one month while he recovers.
While there was a sighting of defensive tackle Alan Branch in the locker room on Thursday, Branch was not seen at Friday’s practice. The team has not officially announced the signing of the 6-foot-6, 325 pound Branch.
The Patriots were wearing sweats and shells at practice.
Rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley, the team’s first pick in the 2014 draft, has battled injuries this season, but his versatility along the line will likely put him in a bigger role.
“Well, Easley has really played all those spots across the board from college and even back from the spring and when he was able to practice in training camp, he’s worked all the way from outside the tight end to on the center’s nose,” Belichick said. “He’s been at every spot.
“That is unusual," Belichick acknowledged. "He has a unique set of skills that allow him to do that. Quick enough to play outside and enough playing strength to play inside to a degree. Good instinctiveness in terms of recognizing blocking schemes. He knows there are a lot of different things that can happen when you are in there between a guard and a center or a guard and a tackle, compared to when you are outside with a tight end.”
Belichick also explained that Easley, whose natural position is defensive tackle, is impressive in that he can move from the inside to the outside of the line.
“The game from the inside-out as opposed to the outside-in is different,” Belichick said. “So, there’s not a lot of guys that that comes real easy to. There’s a few, but not a lot.”
Belichick compared Easley to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and even linebacker Dont'a Hightower in their versatility.
“I would say Vince is like that,” Belichick said. “He’s very instinctive -- not that he is going to play in a 9-technique, but center, guard, tackle and playing on the tight end -- he instinctively does things well there. Same thing with the linebacker position with a guy like Hightower that can play end of the line, that can play tackle bubble, guard bubble, that can play as a middle linebacker over the center.
“It’s hard to find those guys that have that kind of instinctiveness that can see the game I don’t want to say equally well, but pretty equally well at those different spots.
“It’s a lot different looking at the game outside-in vs. inside-out and to be able to flip back and forth and do that -- not everybody can do that by a long stretch. It takes physical talent but it also takes a mental and instinctive skill to be able to handle that transition, too.”
On Tuesday, it was reported in multiple outlets -- first by the Boston Globe and then by ESPN and others -- that the Patriots were expected to sign free-agent defensive tackle Alan Branch.
On Thursday, Branch had walked through the team’s locker room and cordially engaged reporters, saying he’d talk when given clearance from the club. Branch also stopped at one locker that appeared to have some of his belongings in it.
So what’s going on?
Here’s what I think is happening:
The Patriots had hoped to have Branch in the fold for this week’s game against the Bears. They brought him to town mid-week with the intention of signing him, assuming everything checked out medically and with his workout.
Something obviously happened between the workout and the team’s next practice.
That could have been specifically with Branch, who was first spotted by reporters Thursday coming out of the athletic training room. It wouldn’t be out of the question that perhaps Branch tweaked something in the workout, affecting his availability.
Or it simply could have been that ever-evolving needs on other areas of the roster trumped the urgency to sign Branch immediately. For example, perhaps the idea of carrying an extra offensive lineman until there is more clarity on the injury status of concussed Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork takes precedence.
Asked about Branch on Friday, Bill Belichick said: “We work out a lot of players around here over the course of the season. Some we bring on the roster and sign and we work with. Some we don’t and are there if we decide to do it.”
Branch’s presence at the team facility Thursday had the feeling of a type of “I’m going to be around here” situation. Most players the team works out don’t hang around and chat with reporters unless they’re going to stick around.
So in this case, Branch is still on standby.
No one would be surprised if a signing happens today. But if the team doesn’t think he would be ready to help Sunday -- and without practicing this week that might be asking a lot -- perhaps an official signing is still a few days away.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Making his first public comments since cornerback Darrelle Revis was kept out of practice for tardiness, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was characteristically deflective when asked several questions about the absence.
Several reports had conflicting details about whether Revis was sent home from the facility or was told to stay home before he showed up. Belichick did not shed any light on the situation.
Here's a back-and-forth between Belichick and reporters from Friday's news conference:
Reporter: "Bill, what is your version of what happened with Darrelle Revis on Tuesday?"
Belichick: "Anything between me and a player is between myself and the players."
Reporter: "You sent him home, is that correct?"
Belichick: "I didn't say that."
Reporter: "But, he was here and ... "
Belichick: "I'm ready to talk about the Bears. Anything else is between myself and the players."
Reporter: "Will his playing time on Sunday be impacted in any way based on that?"
Belichick: "The Bears are really a good team. I think they are going to be a tough matchup for us. We are going to do the best we can to match up against them."
Has it really been eight years already?
The last time the Chicago Bears visited the New England Patriots, on Nov. 26, 2006, quarterback Tom Brady was juking linebacker Brian Urlacher on an unforgettable 11-yard run en route to a hard-fought, 17-13 win.
The Patriots had ripped up their natural-grass field the week before and installed FieldTurf on a permanent basis.
"It goes fast," Brady said of the eight years. "Before that game, we played the Jets in a rainstorm, and the field really started off crappy that year. The start of the year, it was like a sandpit."
The Bears' return to New England for the first time since that game, and ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Michael C. Wright (Bears) break down the matchup:
Reiss: Give us a feel for the state of the Bears team from a locker room solidarity standpoint. Any sense of how receiver Brandon Marshall's remarks were received?
Wright: Well, you're talking about a locker room with 53 players, meaning 53 individuals who all view things differently. On one hand, you've got players who saw Marshall's remarks as something that needed to be said. On the other, you've got guys who believe he needed to keep those sharp criticisms in house. Ultimately, all of these guys have to continue to play together and unite to reach the goal, which obviously is to defeat the Patriots. Bears general manager Phil Emery recently took part in a chat on the team's official website and likened the situation to a family. There will be disagreements and different points of view, but ultimately, it's all love. So I think the Bears will quickly forget about Sunday's drama once they get into the thick of preparation for the Patriots.
The Patriots looked like a tired team during their 27-25 win over the New York Jets, especially on defense. How much of a change can we expect from this team with plenty of rest and 10 days to prepare for the Bears?
Reiss: If it doesn't change, Mike, then I think they are in trouble. I probably gave them a little more leeway on that performance than others because it was their fourth game in 18 days (three in prime time), and they had no full-speed practices to adjust to the season-ending loss of signal-caller Jerod Mayo five days earlier. I thought they looked tired, and some players said as much after the game. The tackling was sloppy, and there was just no snap in their performance. Looking ahead, the concerns are in the front seven, where they are thin and still banged up. They are pretty deep in the secondary, especially at cornerback. I'd expect a better performance Sunday than we saw Oct. 16.
Patriots followers had been hoping the team might make a run at defensive end Jared Allen in the offseason. How would you characterize his impact on the Bears defense?
Wright: Very minimal at this point, Mike, and I don't quite understand exactly why. I think a combination of factors have limited Allen's ability to make a real impact on the defense. During the preseason, Allen missed time to attend the birth of his daughter. Then, the team held him out of the third preseason game due to a bruised shoulder. Two days after the team's Sept. 22 win over the Jets, Allen was diagnosed with pneumonia, which caused him to lose 15 pounds and forced him to break a streak of 113 consecutive starts.
Meanwhile, Allen's backup, Willie Young, is putting together a career year (seven sacks). The Bears originally brought in Young to be a starter at defensive end, but when Allen became available in free agency, the club pounced and made Young the backup. But while Allen was missing time dealing with injuries and illness, Young stepped up and earned significant snaps. Now, it appears Allen has been relegated to a lesser role. Allen contributed half a sack in last week's win over the Miami Dolphins but didn't receive much playing time. Reporters asked Allen about that after the game, and all he could say was we'd have to ask the coach.
What I find a little odd is the Patriots rank fairly high in terms of points allowed, and they're also doing pretty well in terms of takeaways (tied for most in the NFL), yet there's the perception that New England's defense isn't very good. I know they've struggled against the run, but why is that the case, and where -- in terms of the defense's strengths -- do you think New England matches up best against Chicago's struggling offensive attack?
Reiss: They've had three really bad games against the run, giving up 191 to the Dolphins in the season opener, 207 to the Kansas City Chiefs and then 218 to the Jets. Like most things in football, it's never really one thing. I thought the game plan against Miami was a bit flawed because they played Chandler Jones as a 5-technique defensive end in the 3-4 and, overall, they were hurt by the inside zone runs. Against Kansas City, Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis are no slouches, and that was just a beatdown in a frenzied environment in which the Patriots didn't enter the boxing ring with the emotion needed to win. Then, the Jets game had those dynamics in play where they were without Mayo for the first time, had others banged up and were fatigued quickly. As for where the Patriots match up best with the Bears, I'd relay what Darrelle Revis said Wednesday -- the unit is at its best producing turnovers. What Revis didn't say, but you can probably confirm best, is that Chicago has been generous in that area.
With Matt Forte, Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Jay Cutler, that's a pretty high-powered offensive package of five key players. What are some of the reasons they haven't been more explosive?
Wright: The No. 1 reason is turnovers, and Cutler has committed more of them than anyone else (10) on the team, with opponents scoring 37 points off the quarterback's generosity. In each of the four losses, Cutler turned the ball over multiple times, yet in each of the victories, the quarterback didn't commit a single turnover. Headed into the game against the Dolphins, Bears coach Marc Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and even Cutler himself pointed to turnovers being the common denominator in each of the losses. Yet for whatever reason, the Bears haven't been able to fix the problem. I think Trestman, as a play-caller, shares in some of the responsibility because he probably needs to lean more on the rushing attack. Forte is averaging 4 yards per carry this season, yet in the first half last week, the Bears handed off to him just twice. Yes, the Bears ran just 18 plays in the first half. But the team needs to make Forte a more focal part of the game plan, which would enable Cutler to utilize play-action more effectively. Also, I believe there might be a problem brewing at right tackle with Jordan Mills. In each of the past two games, the Bears have had to give Mills help in protection, which obviously reduces the number of targets you can send out on routes.
Let's look at the other side of the ball. It's sort of rare to hold possession for 19:06, be outgained by 100 yards and have 12 fewer first downs than the Jets, yet still come out victorious. I know the offensive line has struggled, but can you give me an overview of some of the issues on offense?
Reiss: It starts on the offensive line. Our good friends at ESPN's Stats & Information passed along these numbers that reflect some of the instability: The Patriots have had nine different offensive linemen play at least 100 snaps, tied for the most in the league. Furthermore, New England is the only team to play six different players for at least 100 snaps at the three interior offensive line positions. Part of that has been injury-based, while part of it has been performance-based. They opened the season with tackle Marcus Cannon at left guard despite never playing him there in the preseason. He lost the job after three weeks, as did first-year right guard Jordan Devey. Things have stabilized a bit in recent weeks, and, not surprisingly, the offense has looked better in the process. It has helped that tight end Rob Gronkowski is just about back to 100 percent after being eased back into the mix coming off his torn right ACL. What a difference-maker.
Along those lines, here were a few takeaways from the "Thursday Night Football" game between the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos:
Instant replay on kickoff return was turning point: When Broncos kick returner Andre Caldwell lost a late second-quarter fumble following a Chargers touchdown that made it 7-7, it set San Diego up with great field position and the chance for a "double score" as they would get the ball to open the third quarter. But instant replay reversed the call as NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino explained on Twitter:
On the fumble that was reversed the forearm was down before ball came loose. Forearm down before elbow.— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) October 24, 2014
Anything other than hand or wrist puts player down." That was a close one and a good reminder to all returners when it comes to what constitutes a player being ruled down.
Importance of disguising defensive intentions: Not that the Patriots really need any reminder of this based on their history playing Peyton Manning, but the veteran quarterback is a master at the line of scrimmage with his hard snap count, which often leads to the defense declaring its intentions early. One of the primary examples of this came with 11:45 remaining in the third quarter, with Manning's hard count baiting the Chargers into showing their intended blitz. That led Manning to change things around and hit running back Ronnie Hillman in the right flat for a 16-yard gain. Two plays later, it was a touchdown. This highlights the importance of winning the pre-snap chess match against Manning.
'Best team in football': The Broncos were impressive on offense and defense and with extra time to prepare for their Nov. 2 game at New England, they will likely be a favorite. As CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz said, "We've had a chance to see, in person, Denver three times. We've seen everybody from Seattle to New England. This is the best team in football." CBS analyst Phil Simms then said, "Right now there is no doubt in my mind they are the best team in football. So many weapons on offense. Peyton Manning the quarterback. Fast. They can do everything on the defensive side. Like I said earlier in the game, they match up and they attack [on both sides of the ball]."