The NFC South leading New Orleans Saints complete their journey through the NFC North division this Sunday, when they host the 3-4 Chicago Bears. It is the Saints third straight game against the division, and 4th in the season's first half. The Bears are coming off of a 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers a week ago, and the Saints, winners of 4 straight, come back home after a 26-17 road victory at Green Bay.
Today, Canal Street Chronicles will look at some of the key matchups to watch when the New Orleans defense takes the field across from Chicago's offense.
Saints pass defense vs. Bears pass offense
On paper, there should be nothing to worry about here if you're a Saints fan. Sure, New Orleans is ranked just 21st in pass yards allowed, surrendering 236 yards per game, but they've given up an average of just 145 through the air in 3 of their last 4 games. The Saints have a blitz heavy scheme that brings extra rushers on over 50% of their defensive snaps, and 14 of their 17 sacks have come during the current four-game winning streak. Defensive ends Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor lead the way, with 8 combined sacks. Okafor has forced 3 fumbles as well, one leading to a defensive touchdown, and Jordan has added a defensive score of his own, with an athletic interception return against Detroit.
The aggressive defensive approach by coordinator Dennis Allen could not be successful without solid pass coverage, and an improved New Orleans secondary has provided exactly that. Rookie first round pick Marshon Lattimore is already playing at a Pro Bowl level, and has yet to give up a touchdown reception, while second year Ken Crawley has vastly improved from rookie year inconsistencies. Both players have displayed impressive man to man abilities, and have aggressively locked down on shorter routes, allowing the Saints pass rush more time to reach their target. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro leads the team with 3 of the team's 8 interceptions, and heads a versatile safety group with Vonn Bell and rookie Marcus Williams that will also move into man coverage on slot receivers.
The Chicago passing attack ranks 31st in the league, producing only 158 yards per game, and averaging just 116 yards since rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky took over starting duties 3 games ago. Trubisky, the 2nd overall pick in this spring's draft, has thrown just 48 passes in Chicago's conservative offense, but only has a 50% completion percentage with 2 touchdowns and an interception. Despite limited pass attempts, the Bears have a difficult time protecting the quarterback, giving up 17 sacks, with Trunisky going down nine times.
Chicago's leading receiver is rookie running back Tarik Cohen, a dynamic 4th round draft pick from North Carolina A&T who has 27 receptions for 233 yards and a touchdown. He will be a challenge for Saints linebackers Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein, who have played well in coverage in recent weeks after early season struggles. The leading Bears wideout is Kendall Wright, with 20 catches for 233 yards, but still has the ability to make plays down the field, and veteran tight end Zach Miller could be a factor in the middle of the field against the New Orleans safeties and linebackers.
Saints run defense vs. Bears run offense
Chicago has one of the most underrated running backs in the league with Jordan Howard. The 2nd year back ran for over 1,300 yards last year, and is well on his way to another Pro Bowl type of season with 560 yards and 4 touchdowns. Cohen provides a solid backfield compliment, adding 226 yards rushing in addition to his pass catching abilities.
The Saints rank 20th in run defense, and had their struggles against the run in the first half last week against Green Bay. Generally speaking however, they have played solid rush defense, allowing just two backs to break the 100-yard barrier. Ends Jordan and Okafor are two of the better run defenders in the league, and Saints defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata have continued to tie up blockers at the line of scrimmage well enough for linebackers Klein and Robertson, along with safeties Vaccaro and Bell to make tackles for shorter gains.
What to Look For
Bears coach John Fox has always preferred to have a heavily run oriented attack. The New Orleans front seven will need to control the line of scrimmage and their linebackers and safeties must shoot the gaps to prevent Jordan Howard from having a big day. The Bears will likely rely heavily on their two talented running backs Howard and Cohen as pass receivers as well, providing a big challenge to the linebackers and safeties. Rookie quarterback Trubisky and the passing game looks to provide very little threat, particularly if Chicago is unable to sustain any success in the running game.
The young Saints defense is playing with a ton of confidence, and is getting more formidable on a weekly basis. Look for them to again blitz very heavily, expecting to force the young Trubisky into mistakes. Cornerbacks Lattimore and Crawley, along with the rest of the New Orleans secondary, has held pro bowl calibur talents like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarvis Landry in check in recent weeks, and should have the capability to shut down Chicago's less talented targets.
Which Saints duo do you think hold the key in shutting down the Bear's offense?
This poll is closed
Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor
Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata
Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein
Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley
Kenny Vaccaro and Marcus Williams