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Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints: Key players to watch on Saints offense

The key to a Wild Card victory for the New Orleans Saints over the Chicago Bears lies with the offense — it just might not be at the hands of Michael Thomas nor Alvin Kamara.

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Perhaps no Wild Card game has as many implications as a New Orleans Saints victory over the Chicago Bears. Despite being touted as 10-point favorites, the Saints have something to prove this weekend.

To compare this year’s run to past playoff woes is a bit apples to oranges, but nonetheless inevitable. The Minnesota Miracle, the No-Call, the (???) in 2019. New Orleans has incurred the narrative of being unable to finish the drill. Each recent heartbreak transpired in its own way, but the end result is ultimately the same.

Last year painted a slightly different picture. While a 43-yd deep ball to Adam Thielen ultimately set up the game-ending touchdown to Kyle Rudolph, unlike past years, this loss didn’t fall on the Saints defense.

There was no blown explosive play in the final moments. No egregious missed penalty. The Saints were their biggest enemies in the loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Not only did they underestimate the opponent, but the offense was flat and ineffective, injuries aside.

Sean Payton coined the slogan, ‘Prove Them Right’, in response to the Minnesota Miracle. All things considered, that message has been effectively received by the defense. The playoff struggles that have since ensued, however, land more on the offense.

Should the Saints hope to shake off remaining doubters in the Wild Card round, an electric offensive performance is crucial. With this offense, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s why New Orleans continues to persevere past adversity and injury – be it Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Emmanuel Sanders, or Tre’Quan Smith. It’s not just about depth; the holistic, methodical approach helps ensure the house of cards won’t fall with the loss of a key player.

Speaking of key players, the return of Michael Thomas and Kamara has dominated headlines — as it should. However, time and time again, we’ve seen opponents effectively shut down both players. The issue for the Saints, thereafter, has been the inability to adapt and answer on offense.

It would be shortsighted to hedge bets for a victory against Chicago on the return of these obvious star players. Likely, these two won’t be the reason New Orleans wins – or loses. Past Thomas and Kamara, these players will prove crucial to a Wild Card victory.


Emmanuel Sanders

The impact of Michael Thomas’ return cannot be overstated. That said, I’d urge tempered expectations for his production in the Wild Card round; New Orleans will be smart to ease him back into the game plan.

Likely, the Saints offense will look similar to what we saw in Week 9 in the 38-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – a decisive victory that barely featured Thomas, as intended. Nonetheless, his presence on the field is impactful by virtue of drawing attention alone.

If we don’t see much of Thomas’ typical electricity, it’s likely the game plan. It will, however, illustrate how this offense fares in the playoffs past the star receiver – not too dissimilar to what oftentimes happens in games where he’s swarmed.

In last year’s Wild Card loss, Minnesota effectively shut down Thomas in just minutes, and the Brees-led offense couldn’t successfully pivot. The inability to open up the offense past Thomas has been a common problem for years. There was never a believable WR2 that posed a plausible threat.

Emmanuel Sanders is the first receiver to offer a perfect exploitation of Thomas in tandem. When Thomas was healthy and playing, for the most part, Sanders was still getting up to speed with the playbook; we never had a true opportunity to see the two receivers play off one another. With Thomas simply present on the field, and a locked-in Sanders fully in sync with Brees, this matchup gives us the first glimpse of what this tandem threat could look like.

This only works if Sanders puts on a petrifying performance that instills deep-seeded fear in future opponents (acutely, Tampa Bay). While the return of Thomas is the more enticing key to victory, the production on the part of Sanders will prove much more illuminating for the potential of this offense through the postseason.


Andrus Peat & Cesar Ruiz

Speaking of reasons for last year’s Wild Card defeat, enter the Saints offensive line. In the 26-20 loss to Minnesota last season, Drew Brees was sacked three times, hit 7 times, and was unable to find any rhythm or footing in the pocket. The offensive line literally collapsed under pressure.

The player who has overwhelmingly received flak for that meltdown is Andrus Peat. Perhaps one of the most polarizing names on this year’s roster, Peat is certainly not known for his consistency. Cesar Ruiz, for the most part, has performed quite well, and has been lent some understanding for rookie stumbles – save for the damning Week 10 sack that took out Brees.

Chicago doesn’t have too many lethal areas of concern, but what it has is a formidable pass rush. Specifically, Akiem Hicks, who has a penchant for attacking Drew Brees; he’ll have some elite assistance from Khalil Mack in the pass rush. I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate the importance of Brees’ health. An upright Brees is paramount, both to the immediate win, and the longevity of New Orleans playoff hopes.

The loss of Nick Easton, however, shouldn’t have that much impact on the success of this line against the Bears front seven; Easton was on IR during the Week 8 matchup. In his place, rookie tackle Cesar Ruiz played all 74 offensive snaps – as did Andrus Peat, respectively. This line held up just enough to keep Brees out of harm’s way. He was sacked just once.

As we saw last year, a crumbling o-line under pressure is an easy way to lose a football game. Moreover, if Brees has similar difficulties finding a rhythm with a collapsing pocket, the return of Thomas — and the evaluation of Sanders, for that matter — is all for naught.

More than any other position unit, the performance of the offensive line will be most telling. If the receiving corp has a bad day, they can lean on the run game; if the secondary isn’t up to the task, our pass rush is more than adept. Nothing solves a poor o-line performance, nor can it be made up for by other units. Should the Saints barely edge out a win, if the o-line is the reason for any struggles, this will be a troubling takeaway.


Latavius Murray

The offensive line isn’t just key to the pass offense; our running game was less successful in the earlier season matchup. While Chicago did a commendable job of protecting Brees, and ultimately opening up the offense, the same can’t be said for open lanes in the run game. As we’ve seen in Dallas (or, really, haven’t seen), a solid offensive line can be the make-or-break for the running game.

Whatever the reason may have been, the Saints certainly did not win the Week 8 matchup in the trenches. Unfortunately, Latavius Murray was collateral damage in the diminished running game. In the overtime win earlier this season, Murray ran for just 17 yards on 8 carries, while Kamara shouldered the majority of the run game with 12 carries for 67 yards.

As we know by now, Kamara’s best usage is certainly not as an up-the-middle back. Typically, Payton has a propensity to utilize Kamara more heavily in the passing game early on, working in more carries as the game transpires. That role is much more suited to criminally-underrated Murray; Kamara and Taysom Hill simply found more success early on in Week 8.

Just as Kamara stepped up for Teddy Bridgewater last year, Murray was a cornerstone in the Taysom Hill-led offense that went 3-1. Frankly, his involuntary absence from the regular season finale may have been a blessing in disguise. A strong running game out the bat is crucial; any hopes of fending off Chicago’s pass rush, or implementing play action to bail out undrafted receivers, fall swiftly with a flat start in the run game.

Having to rely on Kamara outright to establish the run limits the scope of his use – which is entirely more diverse than an every-down back. Not only does a strong game from Murray ensure the success of the game plan, but it frees Kamara from being pigeonholed – as we somewhat saw in Week 8.

Ultimately, this win should be an easy one; controlling the tempo and clock through a dominant run game allows the Saints to breeze through the pesky Wild Card round. We don’t want to see New Orleans best game plan today. Not to underestimate the opponent (I know better), but the Bears are a team the Saints should beat.

Read: New Orleans Super Bowl offense shouldn’t ever be sighted on the field. This win shouldn’t be anything but entirely boring – which only happens in the trenches.


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