Week 5 – New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears
Part 5 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season
The Chicago Bears return home after an embarrassing defeat to the Detroit Lions. Being the team’s first loss, it seemed to have stayed with them all week, and the team is looking to shake it off against the New Orleans Saints. The way the Bears play in this game will tell a lot about how the rest of their season will go. They need to respond from their loss with a statement win and show they can make the necessary adjustments week-to-week to stay successful in the NFL.
The Saints on the other hand are 4-0 and rolling. Both their offense and defense are in the top seven, and the team has been dominant. 2012 was much the opposite for the team, going 7-9 through the aftermath of the bounty-gate scandal. They added a new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, which appears to have helped tremendously so far. What makes their start all the more impressive is the number of injuries they have dealt with, having multiple starters and contributing players miss a number of games.
Saints TE Jimmy Graham versus Bears Linebackers and Safeties
Jimmy Graham is quietly having an Offensive Player of the Year-level season. Through four games he has 27 catches for 458 yards and six touchdowns. That means he is on pace for 108 catches, 1,832 yards, and 24 touchdowns this season. That would be the most dominant receiving season by any player, let alone a tight end. While it is unlikely he performs quite that well, it shows just how dominant he has been.
The Bears have been decent against tight ends this season, holding opposing tight ends to just under 40 yards per game. However, they have yet to deal with anyone as good as Graham. When these two teams faced in 2011, Graham had six catches for 79 yards, although both teams have changed since then.
What makes Graham so hard to defend is his combination of size, speed, and receiving ability. He is six-foot seven and 260 pounds, but he is also quick. He is fast enough that linebackers cannot keep up with him, but safeties are not big enough to match up with him. Defending him is a group effort, and as a result, the Saints’ other receivers will be more open. Neutralizing him will be key for the Bears’ defense if they hope to slow down the Saints’ offense.
Marques Colston is one of the more underrated receivers in the league, surpassing 1,000 yards in six of his seven seasons in the league. He stands at six-foot four and uses his size to his advantage, much like Brandon Marshall who has a nearly identical listed height and weight. Colston has had a strong start to the 2013 season, averaging 74.5 yards per game.
Despite his success, he has only been targeted one more time than the team’s runningback Darren Sproles. While that speaks more towards the value and ability of Sproles, the point remains the same. When Colston is targeted, he takes full advantage of it, catching 21 passes off of only 29 targets.
The man who is faced with covering him is Charles Tillman, who has struggled mightily this season while battling injuries. He has not been the sole reason for the Bears’ struggles in the secondary, but he was a major reason for A.J. Green’s 162-yard, two touchdown performance against he Bears week one, and Antonio Brown’s 196-yard, two touchdown performance week three. He was however able to help keep Calvin Johnson down to only four catches and 44 yards.
Keeping Colston under control is going to be very important for the Bears’ defense. Saints’ second receiver Lance Moore has been battling injuries this season, and behind him the team has rookie fifth-round pick Kenny Stills, and second-year man out of Wisconsin Nick Toon. If Moore cannot go this week, the Saints will have very little behind Colston at wide receiver.
Saints Front Seven versus Bears RB Matt Forte
The Saint’s have really struggled against the run this season, allowing a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry. Doug Martin was able to rush for 144 yards against the Saints, while Stephen Jackson rushed for 77 yards on only 11 carries in the Saints’ game against his Atlanta Falcons. Usually, when defenses struggle against the run, they also struggle against the pass, but that is not the case for New Orleans, who are a top-six defense versus the pass.
Matt Forte is on pace for his career best season in both rushing and receiving, gaining 80 and 40 yards per game respectively. He is the focal point of the Bears’ offense and he always seems to have the ball in his hands. His 4.64 yards per carry this year is in the top-ten among starters, and no team seems to have an answer for him.
Stopping Matt Forte will be paramount for the Saints’ defense. Forte keeps the Bears’ offense moving, so stopping him can slow it down immensely. If they cannot corral him, the Saints’ defense will be on their heels all game. Given the Saints’ struggles in this department, Forte may have himself a big game, which should bode well for the Bears’ offense.
Will the Bears’ defense be able to slow down the Saints’ high-flying offense?
Once again, the Saints are one of the top offenses in the league. Drew Brees is on pace for over 5,500 yards this season and the team is fourth in the league in yards this season. They are also seventh in points and ninth in first downs, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The Bears have yet to face an offense of this caliber this season, so this game could be a bit of a challenge for their defense. The Saints have a number of weapons for Brees, and it is very difficult to keep them all covered. Between Graham, Colston, Sproles, Moore, and Pierre Thomas, there are hardly enough balls to go around. A big key to slowing them is getting to Brees with a pass-rush, but how successful the Bears will be at that remains to be seen.
Will the Bears’ defensive line be able to get pressure on Drew Brees?
One of the Bears’ biggest weaknesses this season has been pass-rushing. The team’s six sacks is the second-fewest in the league, with only the New York Giants and Pittsburg Steelers being tied with fewer. As a result, opposing quarterbacks have had time to throw and the defense has struggled to stop them. This could become especially problematic when facing a passer as prolific as Brees.
Brees has already been sacked 12 times this season, ninth most in the league. Nine of the 12 sacks have been by defensive linemen, and seven of those nine have been from defensive tackles. That means the play of Stephen Paea, who is questionable with a toe injury, and Nate Collins will be critical for the Bears. Clearly, the Saints have struggled with interior pass protection at times, so with Henry Melton out for the season with a torn ACL, the Bears need improved play from their other defensive tackles.
Of course, what helps the defensive tackles greatly is pressure from the outside by the defensive ends, so pressure from every position is imperative for their defense. If they can generate pressure using only their front-four, they can drop everyone else back in coverage and make it that much harder for the Saints. In recent games, the Bears have had to blitz more to pressure the quarterback, and it has lowered the level of play of the defense. They need their defensive line to get back to their 2012 form in order to really have full defensive potency.
Will the Saints be able to run the ball effectively?
Arguably the biggest weakness of the Saints this season, and years past, has been running the football. They are 25th in total yards and 27th in yards per carry (YPC) at only 3.4. There are a number of factors that have resulted in their struggles, but they have yet to really pinpoint and solve any one specific issue.
The run blocking has been poor at times, but Sproles has been able to average 4.2 yards per carry, good for 21st in the league. What really brings down their team average is the rushing of Mark Ingram and Brees, who have rushed a combined 30 times for under two yards per carry. Take those two out of the equation and the Saints would be at a respectable four yards per rush.
Still, in their last game against the Miami Dolphins, the Saints had only 68 rushing yards as a team, for a measly 2.8 YPC. If they want to maximize their offensive potential, they need to run the ball better. Running the ball effectively forces defenses to keep more defenders in the box and focusing on the run, making play action much more effective and opening the defense up for Brees.
The Bears’ defense has been in the middle of the pack in stopping the run this season, surrendering big games to Adrian Peterson and Reggie Bush, but they have been stout at times against the Cincinnati Bengals and the inept Steelers. Given their up and down performances, it is difficult to predict how well they will perform against Sproles and company. After last week’s thrashing by Bush, however, they likely will be stepping up their game to avoid another embarrassment.
How well the Saints run the ball could have a major impact on this game. If they can move the ball on the ground effectively, they are going to be extremely difficult to stop. Conversely, if they are completely stonewalled, they will be extremely one-dimensional and predictable, and they will have a much tougher time moving the ball down the field.
The Saints have the much more prestigious passer under center, while the Bears have the much more effective running game behind theirs. Injuries give the Bears the better receiving corps, but a healthy Moore may have been able to tip the scale the Saints’ way. Tight end is definitely a New Orleans advantage, but that is not a knock on Martellus Bennett, who is having a fantastic season for the Bears.
The offensive lines draw an interesting comparison, considering Bears’ offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has now coached both team’s lines. The Bears were able to steal away left tackle Jermon Bushrod, and they seem to have the better group so far in 2013. Having Kromer may also give the Bears’ defensive line an added advantage given that he knows the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Saints’ offensive linemen.
As is often the case in a 3-4 defense, the Saints’ defensive line is not relied on as much for pass-rushing, at least not by themselves. Still, Cameron Jordan was still able to rack up three sacks, while the Bears’ defensive line has three sacks combined. At linebacker, the Bears have had fantastic play from all three starters, while the Saints group has been good, but not great.
Tillman’s injuries have made the Bears’ cornerback play suffer, while the Saints have had solid cornerback play from both Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis. For the Bears, Major Wright is having a great season at safety while Chris Conte has struggled at times. Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro is having a breakout season, and the position as a whole has been strong for the Saints.
Robbie Gould has yet to miss a field goal this season for the Bears, while Garrett Hartley of the Saints has missed two. Saints’ punter Thomas Morstead is one of the top punters in the league, averaging over 47 yards per punt, while Adam Podlesh has struggled for the Bears. In the return game, Sproles has been rather ineffective for the Saints, while Devin Hester has had some big kickoff returns for the Bears. Still, both are a thread to break one for a touchdown at all times.
This game will be one of the top matchups of the week. These two teams are very good and neither one has a clear advantage over the other. There are so many key storylines surrounding this game.
Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense are very explosive, but their lack of running game is their Achilles’ heel. The Bears’ defense is a turnover machine, but recent struggles have made them vulnerable. Jay Cutler had an awful game week four, but he has typically performed well following poor performances. The Saints’ defense has not had an answer for good runningbacks but has been able to keep opposing passing attacks fairly contained.
What will determine the winner of this game is who can minimize their weaknesses. It seems like an obvious statement, but that is what this game will be about. These teams have some distinct weaknesses and strengths, and managing them correctly is the key to this game. This game could truly go either way. Given the nature of these two teams, it may turn into a shootout, and it may come down to whoever has the ball last. Needless to say, this will be an exciting game to watch.
Game Prediction: New Orleans Saints 35 – Chicago Bears 31