Game Preview: New Orleans Saints (4-0) at Chicago Bears (3-1)

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The Bears will face a second consecutive tough challenge against a team with a great passing offense and a solid defense when the undefeated New Orleans Saints come to town.

In many ways, the Saints are much like the Lions, whom the Bears lost to last week in Detroit. They are a pass-heavy offense that usually is at the top of the league at season’s end. In fact, last year, the Saints and Lions were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in passing yards.

Quarterback Drew Brees is second to only Denver’s Peyton Manning in passing yards through four weeks. Brees does not fit the typical mold of an NFL quarterback. He’s under six feet tall and is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. But he has great football instincts and intelligence, and he uses every inch of his smaller frame with a high release point. In head coach Sean Payton’s offense, Brees has mastered the timing of hitting his receivers in open space. In accordance with his throws, his receivers have always had a knack for knowing where they need to be and getting there for him. In short, it’s been a well-oiled machine almost always clicking on all cylinders since Payton and Brees were teamed up in 2006 — when the Super Bowl-bound Bears knocked them off in the NFC Conference Championship.

Also like the Lions, the Saints have a talented, shifty running back in Darren Sproles, who is a great receiver out of the backfield and a tough matchup for opposing defenses. However, unlike Detroit’s Reggie Bush (who used to be in New Orleans before Sproles replaced him), Sproles is not at all a good between-the-tackles runner. Then again, we thought the same thing about Bush before he gashed the Bears’ poor run defense last week to the tune of 139 yards rushing. Whereas Sproles is tied with the Bears’ Matt Forte and the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles for most receptions by a running back this year (23), he has just 93 rushing yards on 22 carries for the season. That’s like one game for a good running back in the NFL.

Part of the reason for the low rushing total, though, is that he splits the workload with a pair of other running backs. Pierre Thomas has 101 yards on 29 carries and Mark Ingram (who is out with a toe injury) has 31 yards on 17 carries. As a whole offense, the Saints rank just 25th in rushing, averaging 81.2 yards per game. While I’m not willing to completely rule it out, I’d be shocked if the Saints had anywhere near as much success running the ball as Bush and the Lions did last week.

A third similarity between the Lions’ and Saints’ offenses is that the two teams have a freakish athlete catching passes (besides Bush and Sproles) who is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. The Lions have wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the Saints have tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham, a former college basketball player, leads the team with 27 receptions for 458 yards and six touchdowns. Graham’s receptions rank him 8th in the league — tied with the Bears’ Brandon Marshall — his yards rank him second, and his touchdown catches have him tied for the league lead with the Broncos’ Wes Welker. In short, he’s going to be a tough matchup this week.

Defensively, the Saints have improved since last year under the leadership of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. They’re currently ranked sixth, yielding only 304.5 yards per game. They’re also ranked fifth in points allowed with just 13.8 per game. When you pair their improved defense with their potent offense that averages 27.0 points per game, it’s easy to see why they are undefeated.

The Saints defense ranks 12th in the NFL with 12 sacks through four weeks. Defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the team, and is ranked 7th in the NFL with four sacks. The defense is also ranked third in the NFL with seven interceptions (the Bears are ranked sixth in that category). The impressive thing about their seven interceptions is that they were nabbed by seven different players. No one player is doing all the work, rather, it’s a team effort and they’re all buying into Ryan’s system. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro are two players worth keeping an eye on, as both not only have interceptions but are active in run support. Vaccaro leads the team in tackles and Jenkins is fourth.

Where the Saints have defensive liabilities is on the ground. And after analyzing matchups in this game, perhaps the Bears’ best chance in this one is to use Matt Forte until the wheels come off. New Orleans’ run defense is 22nd in the league and the Bears can not only find some success by running the ball but they can keep the ball out of the hands of Brees and the Saints offense. The Bears have the offensive ability to win games in shootouts this season — and that’s if they take care of the football and not turn it over — but with as few points as the Saints defense has given up this year, and with as potent as their offense is, I’m not sure that’s the route they want to go.

Last week, I predicted a high-scoring affair that would end with the better team on top. And while the overall better team (the Bears) did not win the game, the team that was better that day (the Lions) won. This week, I’m seeing something similar, only with the roles reversed. The Saints are the better team right now, but that doesn’t mean the Bears can’t win the game. They don’t have a lot of advantages in many areas, but sometimes all you need is a few lucky bounces to go your way and you can win any game. Just ask the Lions.

But I’m not so sure I can make predictions with assurances that the Bears will get those lucky bounces. I’m sure the Bears’ defense will tackle better than last week. I’m sure Jay Cutler will take care of the ball better and not have four turnovers. And I’m sure the Bears will play a better overall game at home. But I’m not so sure they can outscore the Saints offense without their best combined offensive and defensive effort of the season.

Prediction: New Orleans 34, Chicago 30

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