Friday, October 4, 2013
Double Coverage: Saints at Bears
By Michael C. Wright and Mike Triplett
This matchup represents a barometer for how the Chicago Bears handle adversity coming off their first loss of the season with new head coach Marc Trestman, while the New Orleans Saints try to remain arguably the hottest team in the NFL.
In this series, the home team came out victorious in five of the last six games overall, with Chicago taking a 20-17 win at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., in 2005 as the lone road-victory triumph in that span. But we get the feeling none of the history matters in this one.
Interestingly, Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer have worked in the past with New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, while Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod played for the Saints from 2007-12.
ESPN.com’s Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett take a look at the matchup.
Michael C. Wright: Mike, with the way the Saints are playing after a rough go in 2012, you can’t ignore the impact Payton’s presence makes on this team. How much of a difference has it made to have him back?
Mike Triplett: Obviously, it’s been huge. I’m not sure that Payton alone equals four wins in four weeks. (The Saints started 0-4 last year, 4-0 this year.) But that’s more than just coincidence.
For starters, I think Payton is the best offensive schemer in the NFL today, and I’m not alone. Darren Sproles, who was frustrated by a heavy dose of bracket coverage last year, said the reason he and others are having more success this year is because Payton knows what he’s seeing on the field and what to exploit. “He’s a genius,” Sproles said. Others credit Payton for his strength as a motivator and his ability to put the focus on what matters most in each game. More than anything, I think it’s clear they’ve regained their confidence, that they know Payton will put them in a position to win, whether they’re jumping to early leads or coming from behind late.
Payton’s not the reason for New Orleans’ defensive turnaround, which has been huge. But he did recognize a change was needed, firing former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo just days after he returned from suspension and bringing in Rob Ryan.
I see the Bears are right back on top of the NFL in takeaways again this year, but they’ve still been giving up some yards on defense. Do you think they’re equipped to slow down the Saints’ passing offense right now?
Wright: Honestly, no. The whole rush-and-cover concept tells the story. The Bears continue to struggle rushing the passer, which puts the secondary in a bind where the group is running with receivers way too long. Compounding matters is the loss of franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton. Before Melton suffered a torn ACL, the Bears were already struggling to rush the passer. Now they have to find a way to do it with Stephen Paea and Nate Collins at defensive tackle and ends Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton. The Bears sacked Detroit’s Matthew Stafford only once, and the week before against Ben Roethlisberger -- who typically holds onto the ball too long -- the club managed three sacks by blitzing linebackers. Drew Brees gets rid of the ball so quickly that I don’t see the Bears getting to him. Chicago’s defense won’t stop New Orleans’ passing game. The Bears will have to try to keep the Saints off the field by playing ball-control offense.
Brees said after Monday’s win over the Dolphins that the Saints haven’t yet played their best football. That’s a scary proposition. What does he mean?
Triplett: I actually believe Brees when he says that. The Saints have an extremely high standard when it comes to their passing offense. And when you see the level that Brees, Jimmy Graham, Sproles and Marques Colston were playing at Monday night, 38 points probably felt like the minimum for them. The Saints haven’t been perfect on offense this year; the run game has been practically nonexistent. But those top weapons are in peak form. I’m curious to see how hot they’ll stay on the road after a short week.
Everyone here in New Orleans is very familiar with the Bears’ efforts to improve their offensive line, since they snagged former Saints offensive line coach Kromer and left tackle Bushrod. How is that working out so far?
Wright: It’s working out well. Kromer brought in the same blocking concepts utilized by the Saints, and that’s made a world of difference. Several of the veterans talk now about how much Kromer has changed the way they view the position. Through four games last season, Cutler took 13 sacks. So far, he’s been sacked just six times. Obviously, Bushrod is a big part of that, as well as better-than-expected play from rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, who man the right side guard and tackle positions, respectively.
Let’s talk about New Orleans’ offense. With the team’s struggles running the ball, how can it still be able to do so much damage in the passing game when it’s playing a somewhat one-dimensional game?
Triplett: The key to the Saints' success is that even when they throw the ball on every down, they’re still far from “one-dimensional.” They’re great with screen passes and swing passes and check-downs to Sproles and Pierre Thomas that serve the same purpose. And when they get into four- and five-wide sets, they’re tough to match up with one-on-one. Their best runs are draw plays out of those same passing sets (like the one Sproles scored on last week). In other words, they’re hard to defend even without a traditional power-run game. But it is something they’re eager to improve, especially when they need it on short-yardage downs and late in games.
How about Marc Trestman? His approach is obviously reminiscent of Payton's -- trying to out-scheme opposing defenses. Is it working? And most importantly, does it suit Jay Cutler?
Wright: Early on, there was concern as to whether Cutler would take to Trestman’s coaching because of his propensity to try to do things his way. But Cutler has definitely taken to Trestman’s tutelage, and he believes strongly in what the coach wants to do offensively. So the pairing has been good, not only for Cutler, but all of the team’s skill-position players. Instead of being told simply what to do, they’re learning why they have to do things a certain way to make the plays work. That approach has increased the players’ desire to learn because they see that the concepts work. My guess is Payton got the guys in New Orleans to buy in the same way.
Speaking of Payton, how much does he miss receiver Lance Moore? What do the Saints miss with Moore out of the mix, and when will he be back?
Triplett: Moore must be the best No. 4 option in the NFL. He had a 1,000-yard season last year. Yet the passing offense didn’t miss a beat without him on Monday. That’s been true of most the Saints’ weapons over the years, though. They’re deep enough to absorb the loss of any one of them, even Graham and Colston. Moore is a small, shifty receiver with great hands who works the middle of the field in a similar way to Wes Welker (without the volume of targets, obviously). The Saints definitely want him back soon, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be back Sunday. Rookie receiver Kenny Stills (a similarly shifty option), deep threat Robert Meachem, physical receiver Nick Toon and veteran tight end Benjamin Watson are other guys they could lean on. Like I said, they have a deep arsenal.
It’s still early in the season, but this game has the feel of two NFC playoff teams jockeying for position. Do you see the Bears staying in that playoff picture all season?
Wright: I do, but only if the defense improves. The offense is doing its part, and the Bears are averaging 31.8 points per game. Before the loss to the Lions, the Bears owned a 12-0 record the past two years when they had scored 18 points or more in a game. Throw in the loss at Detroit, and the Bears are 29-4 over the past four years when they score 18 or more. But that winning mark in those circumstances is consistently attainable only when the defense is playing up to standard. When the Bears surrender 18 points or more, they are 17-13 since 2010, and through the first four games they haven’t held an opponent to fewer than 21.
How are the Saints different defensively now as opposed to in the past with Ryan as the defensive coordinator?
Triplett: Night and day from last season under Steve Spagnuolo. But a lot of Ryan’s approach feels familiar around here because it’s reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ approach, which was very successful from 2009-11. Ryan loves to mix up his formations and looks, some 4-3, some 3-4, a ton of nickel and dime, sometimes all 11 guys will stand up. He does a good job of putting individual players in roles that suit them best (something players have clearly appreciated). The corners (the underrated veteran duo of Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis) play a lot of man-to-man, which seems to suit them much better. And players say Ryan makes things “fun.”
But by far the biggest difference on the field is that the Saints have been generating a consistent pass rush with just their front four -- without needing to blitz much. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as pass-rushers, and several young defensive tackles have been stepping up. Any coordinator will look like a genius if he can get this kind of production from the front four.
If the Bears are able to win this game, how do you see it playing out? Who would be their MVP?
Wright: Mike, I don’t have a ton of faith in Chicago’s defense at this point, and I don’t see the Bears scoring off New Orleans turnovers. So the Bears will need to win this game playing ball-control offense to keep Brees off the field. That means the Bears need to give the Saints a heavy dose of Matt Forte and Michael Bush to have a legitimate shot. New Orleans is allowing 5.5 yards per rush so far. But its opponents haven’t really been able to exploit that because the Saints jump out to leads so fast they put teams in passing mode as they play catch-up. So if the Bears win this game, they’ll do it with the rushing attack, and Forte will have to be the MVP.