A breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Saints on Sept. 18, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Saints defense
What we saw a week ago Thursday in the NFL regular season opener was a battle between two of the NFL’s best teams throwing haymakers in a prize fight. There was no defense involved; just punch and counterpunch. Unfortunately, we do not have an adequate body of work from the Saints to determine if their defense played as poorly as it seemed or if the Packers offense was just too good for any defense to stop. What we do know is that the Saints had the fourth-ranked defense a year ago under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL. Williams likely will look to attack from the outside to test the Bears’ young bookend tackles. J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi fared well against the Falcons’ combo of defensive ends, John Abraham and Ray Edwards, and this week’s battle with Turk McBride and Jeff Charleston isn’t nearly as daunting. It’s a good thing the Bears have become so adept at running screen plays because that has helped neutralize some of their pass protection woes. If a defense gets too aggressive, they might get caught coming up field and get burned by a big play from Matt Forte or Devin Hester. It’ll be a fun chess match to watch between Williams and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Receiver Roy Williams is questionable with a groin injury he suffered against the Falcons, so there’s a good chance that Johnny Knox will get significant playing time. Expect him to contribute in a big way as the Bears try to stretch the Saints defense. As is usually the case, Forte will be the center of attention and I expect him to play an integral role in the game plan as he makes his homecoming in New Orleans. The Saints gave up a 103 rushing yards to the Packers last week and, of course, who can forget how they got torched by the Seahawks in last year’s playoffs? Although the Saints had the fewest interceptions in the league in 2010 with just nine, Jay Cutler can’t afford to get careless with the ball on the road against a team with a great offense.
Bears defense vs. Saints offense
The Saints have consistently been one of the best offenses in the NFL since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006. It’s not just the potency of their offense and how many yards and points they can tally in the books that makes them dangerous. It’s how quickly they can score and the ease with which it’s done that is alarming. In 2007, the New England Patriots may have shattered records, but the Saints offense under Payton provides the greatest parallel to Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf in terms of downfield passing and precision. The system is so good that it allows otherwise normal receivers to tally huge numbers. And the depth that the Saints have at the receiver position is so plentiful that it makes injuries to Marques Colston and Lance Moore seem rather trivial. Even without those two, the Bears will have their hands full trying to defend this offense. Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem combined for 11 receptions, 170 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers — and that was with Colston in the lineup. Jimmy Graham is the next big thing at tight end in this league. An athletic guy with a big frame, Graham will probably be targeted quite a bit in this game as the Bears take away the deep routes with their Cover 2. And as if that wasn’t enough firepower at Drew Brees’ disposal, the Saints like to throw to their running backs, too. Darren Sproles, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, has taken over the role vacated by Reggie Bush. Bush was one of the best receiving backs in the league and now Sproles — albeit after one game — looks like he can replicate that success. What makes the running backs effective receivers out of the backfield is that the defense is stretched thin trying to cover the receivers down the field, yet also shadow the backs near the line of scrimmage. Fortunately, the Bears run one of the defensive schemes best suited to defend this offense, and they have the team speed on defense to keep up with the offensive firepower. The Bears need to sustain the pressure with their front four that they managed to put on Matt Ryan in Week 1 because they’ll need all of their back seven to drop into coverage. Henry Melton and Julius Peppers once again hold the keys to the success of the defense, and with Chris Harris listed as doubtful for the game, new acquisition Brandon Meriweather will be tested in his first probable start of the season at safety.
In addition to filling Bush’s shoes as the receiving back for the Saints offense, Sproles also has taken over his punt return duties. Last week against the Packers, Sproles had a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown and also brought back two kickoffs for an average of 38 yards per return. But aside from Sproles, the Saints have their issues on special teams. They allowed Packers rookie Randall Cobb to score on a 108-yard kickoff return largely due to poor tackling and angles of pursuit. Because of an injury to kicker Garrett Hartley, the Saints brought in 41-year-old John Kasay, a reliable kicker at his age but clearly lacking the leg strength he once had. After one week, Saints punter Thomas Morstead is 14th in the league with a 36.5 net punting average whereas the Bears’ Adam Podlesh is third with a 46.3 total. And although Sproles is good, he’s no Devin Hester.
I’ve made it this far without talking about Brian Urlacher and I feel I have to at least mention the heavy heart with which he’ll be playing — assuming he does. People respond to personal tragedy differently and we’ll see how Urlacher does with his late mother weighing on his conscience. I’m not going to begin to presume that his teammates will rally around him and fight for him any more than they would during a normal week. But I feel Urlacher will play well and help this defense play a respectable game against one of the top offenses in the league. The Saints have a lot going for them this week. It’s their season opener and they’ll be playing on a surface that’s conducive to the success of their offensive system. The Bears offense could have trouble with the crowd noise and that could lead to penalties for the young offensive line. As line coach Mike Tice succinctly put it: “The bottom line is you’re not going to be able to hear [crap].” The crowd surely will be revved up as many Saints fans still hold anger at Chicago fans for the derogatory and insensitive signs that Bears fans brought to the NFC championship game in 2006 regarding Hurricane Katrina and making light of the damage done there. It’s a little silly to be holding on to that five years later, but the New Orleans media is fanning the flames. More than anything, the Saints have their backs against the wall with an 0-1 record and do not want to fall to 0-2, where statistics say that most teams fail to make the playoffs after starting the season with such a mark. Although I feel the Bears have the opportunity — and the talent — to win this game, I just think the deck is stacked against them.
Final Score: New Orleans 27, Chicago 23