Chicago Bears’ not-so-special teams major culprit in loss to Patriots
Ben Braunecker looked like someone had stolen his favorite Bunsen burner or he had received an A-minus on a test.
The Bears’ brainiac special teams player/backup tight end might have looked sadder than any Bears fan on Sunday after New England’s 38-31 win. Braunecker gauged his words, dropping his eyes occasionally and wiping his brow, as he spoke candidly about a momentum-changing play that ended with him laying horizontal on Soldier Field’s grass.
With the score tied 24-24 in the third quarter and the Bears in punt formation from their own 45, the Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower burst through the middle. He ran over Braunecker, who was positioned inside, and blocked Pat O’Donnell’s punt. Kyle Van Noy scooped up the ball at the Bears 29 and sped into the end zone.
“Really, it’s unacceptable,” a dejected Braunecker said. “And, frankly, I’m really embarrassed about it.”
New England never relinquished the lead.
“We knew that based on the look that they were going to rush hard,” Braunecker said. “So our splits were condensed. I went through my normal routine, kicked-back twice. I think, as we saw on the tablet afterward, the guy inside of me (a guard) was anchoring in, blocking a big D-lineman, and my legs just got taken out from under me. Before I knew it, I was flat on my back.”
Hightower, a 2016 Pro Bowl linebacker and two-time Super Bowl champ with the Patriots, simply overpowered the tripped-up Braunecker.
“I’m a power guy, not a finesse guy,” Hightower said.
While Hightower called his special-teams block his first since college days at Alabama, it might have been Braunecker’s worst moment in his limited three years in the NFL.
“I can’t imagine a worse feeling on the football field,” Braunecker said, “knowing that you’re responsible for something like that.”
For maybe one of the few times in his life, the molecular and cellular biology major from Harvard University had no answer.
“I honestly gave it my best (on the punt block),” Braunecker said. “I don’t know what I could have done to have prevented that.”
The Bears’ not-so-special special-teams day didn’t feature only Braunecker.
On the ensuing kickoff after Jordan Howard’s 2-yard touchdown run put the Bears up 17-7 early in the second quarter, Cordarrelle Patterson raced 95 yards for a TD, redeeming himself for an earlier fumble on a kickoff. It was the first kick a Bears opponent had returned for a score this season.
Bears kicker Cody Parkey entered the game with 26 touchbacks in 30 kickoffs, but his TD-yielding boot to Patterson was into a south wind.
“Obviously we take a lot of pride in what we do,” said Bears’ special teamer DeAndre Houston-Carson, who snatched Patterson’s first-quarter fumble out of midair after Nick Kwiatkoski popped the ball loose. “We got to watch the film, correct it and get ready to make some plays coming up.”
A week after missing a 53-yard field goal try in overtime at Miami, Parkey stood on the sideline as Bears coach Matt Nagy chose not to attempt a 57-yarder into the south end zone at the end of the first half. The Bears had second-and-5 from the New England 40 with 1 second on a stopped game clock.
“The wind was strong,” Nagy said. “It was kicking into our face pretty good there.”
So Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky dumped a short pass to Tarik Cohen for a 20-yard gain with no time left.
“I just listen to Coach,” said Parkey, whose career long is a 54-yarder. “If he tells me to kick, I kick it. If not, I don’t. You got 20 mile-per-hour winds out there. I’m sure that was a factor.”
And Parkey, who earlier connected from 46 yards at the opposite end of the field, never lobbied Nagy to give the field goal a shot. It’s not his style.
“It’s above my pay grade, I guess you would say,” Parkey said. “I just go out there when I’m told.”
Sunday told the story of a second-straight loss for the Bears.