The chess match between Mike Martz and Bill Belichick is the game within the game that could determine the outcome in Sunday’s clash between the Bears and Patriots at Soldier Field.
Their most memorable matchup came in Super Bowl XXXVI, when Belichick’s Patriots edged Martz’s Rams 20-17, even though the losers outgained the winners 427-267, including 365 passing yards by Martz’s triggerman, Kurt Warner.
â€œWe moved the ball exceptionally well,â€ Martz recalled. â€œ(But) we turned the ball over three times. We had a protection error, we had a wide receiver slip and fall on a slant, and we fumbled right before the half. They got 17 points off those 3 turnovers.
â€œThey were a great team, obviously. I’m not taking anything away from that. It was more about turning the ball over like we did that gave them those great opportunities that affected the outcome more than anything else.â€
The gamesmanship for the latest rematch began early in the week, with both coaches singing the praises of his opponent.
â€œHe will study everything that you’ve done,â€ Martz said. â€œHe’ll take it apart piece by piece. He’ll identify what your strengths are and he’ll try to eliminate your strengths. He will make you adjust. There is no question about it.â€
The Patriots have compiled an AFC-best 10-2 record this season despite a turnover in personnel that has several previously untested young players plugged into key roles. The defense has struggled, especially against the pass, but there have been signs of improvement.
Martz’s offense also struggled early but has shown consistent improvement as players get a better grasp on the scheme.
â€œIt seems like they’ve gotten more comfortable with Coach Martz’s offense and the execution of it as the season’s gone along,â€ Belichick said. â€œAnd they’ve been very productive running the ball in recent weeks, (converting) third downs, red zone and all the situational things.â€
If Martz is forced to make adjustments based on what Belichick’s defense tries to take away, he’s capable of adapting, according to the Patriots coach who is only the second in NFL history to lead a team to 10 straight winning seasons.
â€œWe always have trouble against Mike,â€ Belichick said. â€œHe does a great job with the formations, the personnel groupings; and his passing concepts are very difficult to defend. If you stop one, then that opens up something else.â€
One of the factors Martz has cited in the overall improvement of the offense is improved discipline and a more precise attention to detail, which is of paramount importance in his scheme.
According to Martz, Belichick has an advantage there. In 11 years as the head coach in New England he has built a rigid system that demands discipline.
â€œThis is something that we try to do on offense,â€ Martz said. â€œHe’s been there for so long that there is an aura of discipline that he demands out of those guys. That’s what we’re trying to get to. I say â€˜limit mistakes, get better every week.’ They’re that way now every week because it’s ingrained in them.
â€œYou never see them out of position. They adjust extremely well. That’s the best compliment you can give the guy, They just don’t make errors.â€
Over the past four games, Martz’s offense has averaged 322 total yards per game, which still pales in comparison to the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf.
But it’s a noticeable improvement over the previous five games, when growing pains and inconsistencies limited the Bears to an average of just 254 yards per game. The offense has benefited from its ability to utilize several different players in key roles from week to week.
â€œHe’s a hard guy to defend,â€ Belichick said. â€œHis schemes are always very creative, and they give you a lot of things to worry (about). Their plays complement each other so, if you’re stopping one thing, you’re probably not going to be able to stop the play that he has that goes with it. You never feel safe when you’re playing Mike’s offense; they’re one play away from a big, explosive play.â€
Even though Martz hasn’t been dialing up many deep passes for Jay Cutler, Bears receivers are doing a remarkable job of turning short throws into long gains by picking up big yards after the catch. And Martz vows the long ball is coming.
â€œWe’ll get to it,â€ he said. â€œWe’ve tried to throw the ball down the field a little bit. It will come more often. It’s something that will materialize, I promise.â€
Sunday would be an ideal time to make good on that promise.
Å¸ Follow Bob LeGere’s Bears reports via Twitter@BobLeGere. Check out his blog, Bear Essentials, at dailyherald.com