The first week of the postseason, and another week of our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, Jeff Berckes of Windy City Gridiron answers 5 quick questions before our wild card showdown: the New Orleans Saints hosting the Chicago Bears.
How does this team look personnel-wise compared to the team that played the Saints back in Week 8?
The main differences are the offensive line and the quarterback. In Week 8, the Bears were still trotting out Rashaad Coward in place of the injured James Daniels. Cody Whitehair, the Center to begin the year, has been restored to his more natural position at LG. Sam Mustipher, who made his first start against New Orleans, has held that position down since Week 12. His former college teammate, Alex Bars, has held down the RG spot. Germain Ifedi, the RG in Week 1, has kicked out to RT to fill in for the Bobby Massie, who was injured in Week 8 against the Saints. This starting combination has really helped stabilize the line since the Daniels injury and has brought an edge to the running game for David Montgomery. Whitehair is simply a better guard than he is at center, which has helped the underappreciated Charles Leno Jr. to create an actual running game off the left side of the line. Keep in mind we’re talking about two UDFAs in Bars and Mustipher and a reclamation project in Ifedi to go along with Whitehair and Leno, but it has been functional.
Trubisky retook the job from Foles after his early season benching with one important change – Bill Lazor would also take over play calling duties for the Bears. This has drastically changed the look and feel of this offense. The call sheet is now built out of boots, play action, and outside zone runs. That allows Trubisky to make one or two reads on half the field, out of the pocket, and put pressure on the defense to respect his running ability. That has certainly lifted the floor of this offense, leading to a string of games with scores in the 30s that the Bears have not had since Gale Sayers’s rookie season in 1965. Yes, those games were against bottom feeding defenses, but it is still good to see it happen. The offense struggled to put the ball in the end zone against an average unit in Green Bay so it will be a real test to see what it can do against a juggernaut like the Saints defense.
Are there any key injuries on the Bears you expect to impact this game?
Yes. The most impactful injury situation involves Roquan Smith, the ascending Inside Linebacker. He dislocated his elbow last week and it would be a surprise if he suited up. Rookie standout and Tulane star Darnell Mooney is dealing with an ankle injury after posting career highs with 11 catches and 93 yards last week. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, the other standout rookie, is trending in the right direction to return from a shoulder issue that caused him to miss the last three games. Finally, Buster Skine, the starting slot CB, has been dealing with concussion issues.
Who is one under-the-radar player on both sides of the ball that you believe can change the outcome of the game?
Well, it’s Wildcard Weekend, I’m not sure what an under-the-radar player is at this point, particularly since Saints fans saw this Bears team two months ago. Rookie TE Cole Kmet had one catch on one target for two yards in the first meeting against the Saints. At that time, Kmet had 6 grabs on 8 targets for 79 yards. In the final 5 games of the year, Kmet has turned 30 targets into 20 catches for 149 yards and a score. No, that’s still not exactly impressive, but he’s more of a factor than he was in November and could impact this game.
On the other side, DT Bilal Nicols has had a really nice season. He’s been pushing the pocket and getting pressure on the QB and even got his mitts on the ball for an interception. He’s got 5 sacks and 13 QB hits to go along with 7 tackles for loss. He’s probably a name no one really knows but combined with Akiem Hicks, the interior defensive line can cause some issues.
If you were Sean Payton, how would you try to attack this Chicago defense?
If Roquan Smith is out, I think this becomes another classic Alvin Kamara game. I don’t know that the Bears have anyone that can neutralize Kamara like Roquan may have been able to without fundamentally changing their defense. They may have to commit someone like Eddie Jackson, who has tackling issues, to the task or put a linebacker that lacks the speed to really stay with him. Even if the Bears did have Roquan, it’s worth remembering that Kamara had 9 grabs for 93 yards and another 67 yards on the ground the first meeting.
The Bears have been a good, solid, vanilla defense for most of the year. Not a lot of sacks, not a lot of turnovers, but they stiffen in the red zone and force FGs. Aaron Rodgers has burned them to the ground twice but, no offense to the inner-circle Hall of Famer, I don’t think Brees will stand in the pocket and burn the secondary deep at this point in his career. You can slog your way down the field with runs (preferably away from Mack) and a short passing game. The Bears are also susceptible to gash runs, among the league’s worst in explosive runs allowed.
What is your prediction for the game? Who wins? Final score?
Chris… c’mon, man! I thought we were friends.
The Bears opened at 8.5 point underdogs and the betting line has moved up to 10. That feels right. The Bears are going to have to approach this game like they’re 10 point underdogs if they want to win. They did not do that last week against Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers, kicking field goals of 20, 27, and 30 yards. They have to play with a level of urgency that they simply haven’t had this year. If they do that, make some plays on defense that have eluded them (the dropped interception against Brees by Roquan in overtime comes to mind), they have a shot to pull the upset. If not, I don’t see a clear path to victory.
Let me just say this – if the Saints hold serve and move on to eventually meet the Packers in the NFC Championship game, you’ll have every Bears fan yelling “Who Dat?” at their TVs.
Thank-you, Jeff, for taking the time to answer our questions. Saints fans, make sure you follow Jeff on Twitter @gridironborn, Windy City Gridiron @WCGridiron, and of course you can follow me @ChrisDunnells.