From Justin Smith and Aldon Smith harassing Drew Brees all day, to Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman shutting down the running game and Dashon Goldson making punishing hits and key plays from the secondary, the defense is the biggest reason for the resurgence in San Francisco. That resurgence has the 49ers (14-3) back in the NFC championship for the first time since the 1997 season.
Before the Seattle Seahawks defense drove Sean Payton pistachios in 2013, so much so that he became enamored with their scheme and tried to copy it, the one team defense that gave Drew Brees and company fits was none other than the Vic Fangio coordinated 49ers defense.
Fangio’s defenses usually consisted of a strong front 7 and pass rush (which he has in Chicago) that employ match-zone concepts in the secondary. What is a match zone you ask? It’s a zone coverage that gives the perception of man coverage by “matching” the route of the receiver that enters your area instead of releasing him like you would in traditional zone. If the QB thinks he’s looking at zone and throws to a spot and it’s really man it could end in a disaster. Below are stats from Drew Brees’ 3 games vs. the 49ers.
- 2011 – 40-63, 462 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 93.5 rating
- 2012 - 26-41, 267 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 86.1 rating
- 2013 – 30-43, 305 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 87.8 rating
First off, 8 TDs to 5 INTs isn’t great, and his average QB rating in those games was 89.1. To give you some perspective, since joining New Orleans, Brees has an average QB rating of 99.4. His worst year in New Orleans was 2007 with an 89.4 rating. In other words, Fangio’s scheme is a sort of kryptonite to Brees. When Fangio builds his game plan, he will see the same historical data I‘m seeing and will likely look to attack Brees in similar ways to what he’s previously done.
It’s for the above reasons that I fear this game could present unique problems that could stop the Saints from making use of their advantages. This will be no cakewalk game, and while the Saints should win, the Bears do have a chance. Let’s take a look at this week’s Keys to Success.
Strike Quickly on Offense
New Orleans should look to get a two-score (10-14) lead quickly this week (1st Quarter) to eliminate Jordan Howard and force the game into rookie Mitch Trubisky’s hands. The good news is that the last time the Saints did this was Week 5 against the Lions (17-7). The bad news is dating back to last year, two-score leads in the 1st have been a rarity.
In the last 22 games, the Saints have been up by 10 or more in the 1st Quarter three times. The Bears are giving up only 4.0 yards/carry (T-14th) and are 7th best at eliminating 20+ yard runs. They matchup well vs. the Saints’ strength 4.6 YPC (6th) and 8th best at creating 20+ yard runs. This suggests that they will have to find a way to generate big plays through the air, and if Michael Thomas is out, it’s going to be that much tougher. Did I mention that Chicago is ranked 6th in sacks with 21 and they run a 3-4 defense which the Saints struggle with at times?
Eliminate the Chunk Plays in Run Defense
Chicago is averaging 4.2 YPC (14th) and 14th best at creating 20+ yard runs, but 4th best at creating 40+ yard runs. The Saints defense? Well, Dennis Allen’s unit is allowing 4.9 YPC (T-30th) because they’re terrible at eliminating 20+ yard runs (T-27th). The Saints are much better ranked against 40+ yard runs, and yet we haven’t seen a back the caliber of Jordan Howard since Dalvin Cook exposed their issues in Week 1 with a 22 carries for 127 yards (5.8 YPC). Box scores don’t show it, but I’m sure he broke at least two runs for 20+, as he had a long of 33.
Sure, the Saints have superior pass coverage vs. their pass offense, but if they don’t have to pass the ball much because the game is close, then how much of an advantage is it? If the offense can’t strike quickly, the Saints will need to see an improvement in this area of the defense, or it will be a long day in the Dome.
The Saints have forced 9 fumbles and only recovered two. It’s about time the ball starts to bounce our way and like a Circa 90’s McDonald’s commercial “It could happen” this week vs. Chicago. You see, the Bears lead the league in fumbles with 5 lost, and if I were Saints coaches, I’d make the defense aware that ball security is a legitimate weakness.
While tackling will be important in this game - gang tackling followed by a player ripping at the ball should be strongly emphasized as this will be a way to counter what is otherwise a strength for them. If John Fox has his way, Trubisky won’t be throwing very many balls. So, the chances to pick him off may be scarce, but the opportunities to force fumbles in the run game should be plenty. On the reverse hand, if Trubisky is forced to attempt more than 10 passes, he’s prone to taking sacks and ripe for the strip.
Player to Watch : Senio Kelemete
Before I point out why Senio Kelemete is my player to watch, let me first make it known that he received high praise from PFF last week for his pass protection after filling in for Larry Warford at right guard. With Warford likely out this week, Kelemete will be going against Akiem Hicks at times, and I don’t particularly like the matchup. Hicks is pretty much playing at a Pro Bowl level - heck arguably All-Pro.
He’s got size (6-foot-5, 320-lbs) and length (35-inch arms) to cause problems wherever he lines up on the front, but particularly against the over matched Kelemete. If he starts collapsing the pocket and/or getting his hands up to obscure Brees’ passing lanes, it could lead to batted balls and turnovers that could stall an offense that needs to come out and put points on the board at home.
Random Thought I: Does anyone really think this isn’t a grudge match for Akiem Hicks?
Random Thought II: Wonder if Sterling Moore was just a numbers victim and will be brought back after this game?
Listen, the Saints should win this game handily, and yet the Bears present unique challenges that can make this a close game. The best comparison I can make is that they are like playing the Vikings‘ little brother, except they have a much better offensive line (especially along the interior w/Long-Whitehair-Sitton) + RB Tandem. The longer this game stays close, the more it tilts in the Bears favor. So, it will be imperative to force Trubisky to be a savior as quickly as possible to cruise to a win. Will also be interesting to see if Payton gets creative to manufacture some big plays. Drop your comments below!