The last four games between the Saints and Bears took place in Chicago. The Bears spoiled the Saints post-season aspirations more than once in that span. You could blame the NFL schedule makers for forcing New Orleans to play in Chicago four consecutive meetings or simply call it "cold feet," but for whatever reason Chicago has come out victorious no matter who has played quarterback for the Bears. They remain one of two NFL teams Drew Brees has not yet defeated, Baltimore being the other. Of the 24 times the two teams have met in the regular season, New Orleans has won 11 and Chicago has won 13. The Bears have beaten the Saints twice in the post-season. This Sunday's game will be played in New Orleans, and the tables are about to turn.
After the week one matchups between Green Bay and New Orleans, as well as Chicago and Atlanta, we have real time data to digest when predicting the outcome of Week Two. It is important to take everything into context and distinguish between problems that are correctable and problems that are not. So what did the first week of the 2011 NFL regular season teach us, and what might we expect to see on Sunday?
It is necessary to point out that in the past, New Orleans has struggled against a "Tampa 2" or "Cover 2" defense. The front seven (4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers) are typically undersized but speedy, giving them the ability to run sideline to sideline and stop everything short. The corners in a Tampa 2 are normally bigger (but somewhat slower) than the average CB, but they are asked to be more active in run support, essentially taking on the duties of more traditional safeties. The safeties try to play over the top and keep everything in front of them, allowing the fast front seven to make plays.
At the start of the Brees/Payton era in 2006, when the Saints would play a team with a good Tampa 2 defense, that speed and athletic ability of the front seven nullified the short, high percentage passing plays that helped open up the interior run and deep pass. The Saints had much trouble rushing outside the tackles as well -- the stretch play just didn't work when a player like Lance Briggs would beat the RB to the corner. All the fancy misdirection and different alignments and personnel packages did not have the desired effect because the base defense had the quickness and speed to not have to sub out and give Payton's offense the desired mismatch. Because the Saints weren't able to stretch the field horizontally, they had trouble stretching the field vertically. Because the Saints lacked that interior rushing attack, play action wasn't very effective and throwing deep took longer against a pass rush that did not respect the run.
What can remedy this is an effective and viable interior rushing attack and/or vertical seam routes. Thursday night against the Packers, the Saints were playing catch-up while trying to stop the bleeding on defense, so they did not run the ball as much as you would expect. The good news is that Jay Cutler isn't Aaron Rodgers, and the Bears wide receivers aren't nearly as good as the group in Green Bay. Couple the talent discrepancy with Mike Martz's stubborn play calling, and you'll find Jay Cutler taking long seven step drops while waiting for an inferior wideout to get open (with an sub-par offensive line providing the protection). Translation: the Saints will get more pressure on Culter and register more sacks against the Bears offensive line because they do not get the ball out quickly on a consistent basis. Chicago won't be scoring at the fast and furious pace of Green Bay, ergo the Saints will be able to dictate the pace of the game with their offense instead of trying to respond to the pace the Bears set.
This is significant for a few reasons. It gives the defense a chance to rest and it allows the Saints to become less predictable on offense. Consider this: the Saints put up 477 yards, scored 34 points and came one yard short of sending the game into overtime against the Packers vaunted defense; all the while it was no secret the Saints were going to throw the ball. I can name four players in Green Bay's secondary who can match up and cover. Can you name more than one in Chicago? As good as the Saints offense looked against the Packers, it will look better against the Bears because it will have more balance, which will only benefit Gregg Williams and the Saint's defense.
The Bears defense looked dominant against the Falcons last week. While Atlanta is trying hard as they might to copy and transition to a Saints-like offense, the difference is that their offense is still predicated on running the ball first to set up the pass. Michael Turner has surgery every year and is on the decline and the Falcons WR's don't compliment each other well. Their group of wideouts lack the diversity of a traditional X, Y, and Z. In effect, Chicago's game plan against Atlanta was very similar to what the Saints did to the Patriots in 2009. Just like New England, Atlanta lacked diversity among their wide receivers and all Chicago had to do was keep a lid on the top while swarming to everything underneath.
Unlike the Falcons, the Saints have a few possession receivers, a few "burners," and a great guy in the slot (not to mention two tight ends who can run the seam route and Sproles). Drew Brees is quite adept at throwing those seam routes (vertical "go" routes along the hash marks or sidelines) which is where a Cover 2 is the weakest. Evans, Kreutz, and Nicks will have an easier time establishing an interior run because this game will not become a shootout early. An interior rush and those seam routes will be the formula to beating the Bears defense, and this year the Saints are built to do both well.
We've devoted much time to why the Saints offense will have the upper hand against the Bears defense, meanwhile the biggest question in most of your minds is the Saints defense. First and foremost, this defense is built to play with a lead. The Saints will have one before long in this game.
Secondly, most of the mistakes the defense made against the Packers were of the correctable variety. Chicago's defense is very simple: the responsibilities don't change much from week to week or play to play, it is just a matter of execution. On the other hand, just as Sean Payton runs a very intricate offense, Gregg Williams has a variety of packages and schemes that he employs. It takes time, especially with the lack of OTA's, to get new players (and old) enough snaps to be comfortable and confident in all they do.
That said, there are two areas I look to see much improvement from the defense this week. The first is tackling. Wrap your arms around the player and drive him to the ground. Stop that diving garbage. You learn that in Pop Warner, and I imagine Gregg Williams had a few drills emphasizing the most basic element of defensive play this week. The second area of improvement we should look forward to seeing is an interior push from the defensive tackle positions.
Green Bay forced the Saints into many 3-3-5 formations with Ellis playing the majority of snaps. Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett simply won't put the same stress on the Saints defense, so look to see more 4-3 looks. The Saints defensive line was embarrassed by smaller offensive linemen last week; they've got plenty of motivation after an extra long work week to grab back their manhood on the gridiron because you can bet Gregg Williams personally challenged a few guys after rubbing their nose in it.
Matt Forte presents the only constant challenge the Saints defense has to be aware of, but he may be rendered ineffective once the Bears defense struggles to keep the Saints offense from scoring. This is a coming out party where many will be dancing the "Get Right Boogie." The Bears defense won't look nearly as dominant as they did a week ago and the Saints defense won't look nearly as poor. It will be enough of a reversal to give the Saints a two score win. Saints 35, Bears 20.
3. Saints - 34 points per game, 477 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 64% 3rd down conversion, 27:06 time of possession, -1 turnover margin
14. Bears - 30 ppg, 377 ypg, 5.9 ypp, 38% 3rd down, 33:19 TOP, +2 TOM
3. Saints - 396 ypg, 8.6 ypa, 65.3 % completion, 3 td, 0 int, (6) 20+ yard plays, 3 sacks, 112.5 qb rating
11. Bears - 289 ypg, 9.8 ypa, 68.8% completion, 2 td, 1 int, (5) 20+ yard plays, 5 sacks, 107.8 qb rating
17. Bears - 88 ypg, 3.3 yards per carry, 0 td, 0 fumbles, ( 1) 20+ yard play
20. Saints - 81 ypg, 3.9 ypc, 0 td, 0 fum, (1) 20+ yard play
22. Bears - 12 ppg, 386 ypg, 5.8 ypp, 31% 3rd down, 2 fumble recoveries
25. Saints - 42 ppg, 399 ypg, 6.2 ypp, 67% 3rd down, 0 fr
21. Bears - 276 ypg, 6.8 ypa, 66% completion, 0 tds, 1 int, (4) 20+ yard plays, 5 sacks, 76.5 qb rating
24. Saints - 296 ypg, 8.9 ypa, 77% completion, 3 tds, 0 int, (4) 20+ yard plays, 2 sacks, 132.1 qb rating
19. Saints - 103 ypg, 3.8 ypc, 2 td, 0 fr,( 0) 20+ yard plays
22. Bears - 110 ypg, 7.9 ypc, 0td, 1 fr, (1) 20+ yard plays
Overall Statistical Analysis: Looking at statistics without taking into account the situations they occurred in is very much like seeing a quote without context; you can come to the wrong conclusions very easily. I'll leave you with a few important points to ponder. Chicago's offense does not pose much of a threat to the Saints. They have a poor offensive line, a quarterback who takes too many hits and a mediocre (at best) group of pass catchers. With a two score lead, they still could not run the ball or convert well on third downs. Chicago's defense will have a more difficult time against the Saints because the Saints have a complete offense with complementary diversity in the run and pass game. Defensively, both Chicago's 7.9 yards per carry and the Saints 132.1 QB rating are anomalies.
Conclusion: The Saints have the ability to expose and exploit Chicago's defense, while the Bears offense has no such ability. It's as simple as that.