NFC South: Chicago Bears
The Bears go into the matchup without kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) and free safety Chris Conte (back), along with cornerback Terrance Mitchell, offensive lineman Michael Ola, defensive end Trevor Scott, defensive tackle Brandon Dunn and quarterback David Fales.
Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and left tackle Terron Armstead are both active after being listed as questionable, and both are big assets for New Orleans. Galette, who suffered a knee injury last week, is the Saints’ best pass-rusher.
The biggest surprise among the Saints’ inactives is cornerback Corey White, who has been a starter for most of the season. The Saints are expected to shuffle up their secondary, with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro likely shifting back into the nickel role where he thrived last year. Cornerback Terrence Frederick and safety Jamarca Sanford could see elevated roles.
Chicago defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff returns to the starting lineup for the first time since the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s been active the last two games due to a knee injury.
Conte, meanwhile, will miss his first outing since Chicago’s loss on Oct. 19 to the Miami Dolphins.
Conte suffered his back injury during the third quarter Dec. 4 in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Prior to that, Conte left the club’s loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving because of an eye injury. Conte has been diagnosed with two concussions this season, in addition to missing time with sprains of both shoulders.
Rookie Brock Vereen will start at free safety in Conte’s place.
The Saints activated veteran Robert Meachem as their fourth receiver after releasing Joe Morgan earlier this week. Recently-promoted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones is inactive.
Also inactive for the Saints: cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Ronald Powell and Moise Fokou, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil and offensive tackle Nick Becton.
Call it the Disappointment Cup, Underachievers Bowl, The Battle of We’re-Not-What-We-Thought-We-Were teams. But any way you bill it, Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints (5-8) and Chicago Bears (5-8) at Soldier Field makes for an intriguing matchup, even if Bears receiver Brandon Marshall believes ESPN should take the teams off "Monday Night Football."
Despite New Orleans’ dismal record, there’s still plenty of incentive to win, considering the Saints remain alive in the playoff hunt. The same can’t be said of Chicago, but how this club finishes should go a long way toward determining the extent of upcoming changes this offseason, whether in personnel, the front office or the coaching staff.
ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:
Wright: Team leaders have called the Saints' effort in the loss to the Carolina Panthers unprofessional, which frankly is odd considering the Saints are still playing for a postseason berth. How is the team handling the situation moving forward because it has the easiest remaining schedule in the league based on average DVOA of opponent?
Triplett: First of all, the Saints’ remaining schedule is pretty meaningless considering the opponent hasn’t mattered much this year. When the Saints have shown up, they’ve beaten the Green Bay Packers by 21 points at home and played great in a win at Pittsburgh, among others. When they haven’t, they’ve been blown out at home by Carolina and Cincinnati, among others. And that’s the point the leaders were getting at when they talked about professionalism. As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief put it, you can’t just show up and expect to win. They have to treat every game with the same season-on-the-line intensity that they showed in those good games.
Clearly they still have a high ceiling, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The loss to Carolina this past week was extremely disturbing, and it led to a major roster shake-up. There’s clearly no excuse for a lack of urgency at this point.
I obviously haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve seen from the Bears in their recent national TV appearances. And I know how much they’ll miss Marshall. But I still see a lot of talented playmakers on that offense and think they could cause big problems for a Saints defense that is struggling in all areas. Am I wrong?
Wright: No, you’re correct. But it all comes down to execution, and we haven’t seen any evidence the Bears can do that on a consistent basis, which has been the group’s main problem all year. Even without Marshall in the lineup, there are still plenty of weapons in running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. My expectation is the Bears will lean on Forte early and try to use him to set up play-action so the Bears can go deep to Jeffery or hit Bennett down the seam or on intermediate crossing routes. Forte is the key here, and one of the main issues we’ve seen with this offense is the Bears never truly commit to establish the rushing attack, which eventually forces them to be one-dimensional, thus much easier to defend.
New Orleans and Chicago play similar offenses, which should make for an intriguing matchup. What has gone wrong with the Saints, offensively?
Triplett: The Saints’ offense has been good at times, especially since they now have a consistent run game to balance their prolific passing offense. The two problems that have crept up most are turnovers and the disappearance of the downfield passing game.
Drew Brees has been sharp at times. He’s on pace for another 4,900 passing yards and he’s leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.3. But he has turned the ball over way too many times in big spots (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles). A big part of the problem is that he’s pressing too much to do it all by himself with the Saints’ defense struggling so badly. Their other star, tight end Jimmy Graham, has also been too up-and-down.
And defenses have done a great job of taking away deep passes and forcing the Saints to patiently work their way down the field. The Saints are decent at that; they lead the NFL in third-down efficiency. But that also increases the opportunity for mistakes.
When I look back on past Saints-Bears matchups, I think of the Cover 2 defense that forced the Saints to patiently work their way down the field (something they finally did successfully last year). Is that still the case -- on their good days, at least?
Wright: Mike, I don’t think so. They’ve moved away from playing Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 style of defense and become more of a traditional under 4-3 that plays a variety of coverages on the back end based on that week’s game plan. Against a quarterback such as Brees, the Bears would probably play more Cover 2 early on to force him to slowly move the ball down the field. But if the Bears can’t generate consistent pressure with the front four, they’ll try to manufacture pressure via the blitz. Chicago fares well against average quarterbacks protected by average to below average offensive lines. But when this team comes up against the top quarterbacks and good offensive lines, they struggle tremendously, and the main reason for that is the inability to consistently generate pressure with just the front four. When Chicago can’t do that, it dials up the blitz. But if the rushers can’t get home -- which is often the case -- it puts this team’s horrid secondary in coverage situations it can’t handle.
How “real” is this rift between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, and how do you think the situation will affect how the Saints perform the rest of the way?
Triplett: Both guys went to great lengths to downplay it and insist they have a ton of respect for each other. And I haven’t heard otherwise from sources I’ve talked to. So I think that story was overblown at least a little bit. And the sideline shouting matches are typical of Payton, as he has explained, so I also don’t read much into that.
But there’s no question that Ryan must be sitting on an extremely hot seat with a defense that is by far the worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s efficiency rating. This defense was supposed to be a great strength after they finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’ve totally imploded with everything from a lack of a pass rush, a lack of turnovers, a woeful run defense, missed tackles and assignment breakdowns in the secondary. That doesn’t all fall on Ryan, but the results are unacceptable.
That offensive line has become New Orleans North. Was sorry to see Brian de la Puente wind up on injured reserve. How are Jermon Bushrod and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer faring?
Wright: I guess the answer to that question depends on perspective with regard to Bushrod. New Orleans didn’t mind letting Bushrod walk for a reason, in my opinion. The Bears overpaid Bushrod to anchor that offensive line, but the truth is he has struggled, especially during the second half of the season. Going into the team’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Bushrod produced four consecutive games with negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, and that registers among the worst in the league. As for Kromer, it’s difficult to determine how he’s faring because nobody really knows how much input he has in what’s going on offensively. Even though Kromer holds the title of offensive coordinator, head coach Marc Trestman actually calls all the plays. The truth is it would be nice if Trestman relinquished those duties over the team’s final three games to see what Kromer can do. Just based on interviews with Kromer, it seems his philosophies differ a little from Trestman’s. I definitely sense Kromer is more committed to establishing the run than Trestman is.
When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Soldier Field, Chicago TV: Fox
The records scrub away some of the shine for Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears, but the storylines involved remain interesting for what should be a competitive contest.
First off, there's the obvious with Lovie Smith coming to town to coach against his former team, which is led by former Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown. But even with the Bucs owning a 2-8 record, they're just two games out of first place in the NFC South.
The Bears, meanwhile, are looking to win back-to-back contests for the first time this season since Weeks 2 and 3.
Remember, the Bears fired Smith after a 2012 season in which he led the team to a 10-6 record. The club hasn't recorded a double-digit win season since, and doesn't appear to be on the way to doing it this year, either.
Bears reporter Michael C. Wright takes a look at the matchup with Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinkas:
Wright: Pat, the Buccaneers are coming off a big road win at Washington, and I've long thought they were a much more talented team than the record indicated. Obviously, it's probably too late to save the season. But how's the atmosphere out there coming off this win, and what's the next step for the Bucs?
Yasinkas: The atmosphere is a lot better than you would expect from a 2-8 team. That's mainly due to the fact the Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South. And, you're right, this is a talented team. If the Bucs can put that talent together down the stretch, they could end up being a playoff team. It may sound crazy, but they're not far off the pace in the NFC South.
I thought last year's strong finish by Chicago would carry over into this season. But it hasn't. What's gone wrong for the Bears?
Wright: Where do I start? I think people put too much faith in the offense, expecting it to perform at the same level or better than it did in 2013. But what folks don't understand is the Bears sort of caught teams by surprise last season because opponents didn't know exactly what to expect out of a Marc Trestman offense. Opponents adjusted in 2014 to what the Bears put on film in 2013, and they've had trouble coming up with a sufficient counterpunch. On the other side of the ball, the Bears revamped the front four, but haven't received the production commensurate with the investment. The Bears miscalculated what the staff would be able to get out of the linebacking corps, which has struggled, not to mention the secondary.
Surely, there's quite a bit of disappointment about Tampa Bay's record, especially when considering how the Bucs have squandered fourth-quarter leads five times this season. Why haven't the Bucs been able to hold leads, and overall, what's the thought out there regarding the job done so far by former Bears coach Lovie Smith?
Yasinkas: The Bucs have had their share of disappointing losses. They've blown five fourth-quarter leads and the reasons for that are collapses by the defense and an inability by the offense to protect a lead. That has been very disappointing and you can make a strong case that the Bucs should have a much better record than they do. Fans aren't very pleased with what Lovie Smith has done so far. He has been stubborn, sticking to a Tampa 2 defense that may be antiquated and an offense that's conservative. But the Washington game was a good example of what "Lovie Ball" can be when it works properly. Smith's record isn't very good, but he's not on the hot seat. Ownership believes he can show some promise down the stretch and turn things around with another offseason.
There has been a lot of talk about Jay Cutler's future in Chicago. Does he have one?
Wright: Boy, that's a good question that I'm not sure I can answer at this point. Obviously with the contract, Cutler is sort of handcuffed to the team for the next couple of seasons. But if Cutler doesn't improve down the stretch, I could see the Bears looking for ways to cut ties (a trade perhaps?). The Bears gave Cutler a $126.7 million contract, and he certainly hasn't produced at the level you'd expect a player making that type of money. So if the arrow isn't pointing up for Cutler at the conclusion of the season, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if the Bears entered 2015 with an open competition at the position or looked to trade him in the offseason.
Speaking of quarterbacks, when Josh McCown left Chicago to sign with the Buccaneers, it seemed like an ideal match, especially when considering how he performed in 2013 as the fill-in for Cutler. Can you give me a rundown as to why has McCown struggled this season?
Yasinkas: McCown admitted recently that he was pressing too much in the first three games. He was trying to make something happen out of nothing and that led to some mistakes. But McCown got five games to sit back and watch while he dealt with a thumb injury. In the past two games, he has been much more efficient. The Washington game was similar to what he did in Chicago last year. If he can continue to do that the rest of the season, the Bucs will be very happy.
I know it's only Year 2, but this league doesn't have much patience anymore. Is Marc Trestman on the hot seat?
Wright: Similar to Cutler's situation, I think it all depends on how the team performs down the stretch. At this point, I don't think general manager Phil Emery is inclined to fire Trestman in part because of the investment in Cutler. Prior to Trestman's arrival, Cutler had played for three different offensive coordinators in three different systems over four seasons. So for Emery, gaining some level of stability for Cutler was important, which is what the GM believed he did in bringing aboard Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Remember, the Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year contract, and Emery doesn't want his quarterback playing in yet another system for another coach. So unless the Bears totally nose dive over the last six games, Trestman's job is safe. Certainly, there will be scapegoats let go at the conclusion of the season regardless of what happens. But I don't think Trestman is on the hot seat. He'll get another season unless things go totally awry.
At the end of a Monday news conference to discuss the firing of coach Raheem Morris and how the search for a new coach will proceed, team co-chairman Joel Glazer said London no longer is in the team’s plans.
Glazer said the Bucs recently informed the NFL that they “wouldn’t want to be participating (in London games) in the foreseeable future’’.
The Bucs played in London in 2009 and this past season. The Glazer family also owns the Manchester United soccer team.
Tampa Bay’s 10-game losing streak started with a loss to the Chicago Bears in London in October. But Glazer said that’s not necessarily the reason the team has decided to pull out of consideration for future London games.
He cited a desire to work toward other goals in Tampa.
The Sunday night game between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts will be televised nationally on NBC.
But it’s kind of interesting this week to look at the map on the506.com and see where the games between the Buccaneers and Bears, Falcons and Lions, and the Panthers and Redskins will air.
The Bucs and Bears are playing in London — the most exposure Tampa Bay will have had this season, other than its “Monday Night Football’’ game with the Colts. For a change, the Bucs are playing a “home’’ game that will not be blacked out locally.
Tampa Bay’s game will be shown throughout all of Florida and through most of the Midwest. The game will also be picked up throughout New Mexico, Arizona and part of California. Curiously, the Philadelphia market will also get the Tampa Bay-Chicago game.
Atlanta also will be getting good exposure. Its game with the Lions will be shown through most of the South, the parts of the Midwest that aren’t getting the Bucs and Bears, large chunks of Nevada and California and a portion of New England.
The game between the Panthers will air throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland. It also will be picked up in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas (I guess that’s so Dallas fans can root against Washington). The entire state of Utah (Steve Smith and Jordan Gross are big deals there) also will be getting the Carolina game.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Gaines Adams during this sad day," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said. “It is a tragedy to lose someone at such a young age and our entire organization is deeply saddened by this news."
"Gaines was a part of the Buccaneer family and this is a tragic loss," general manager Mark Dominik said. “Everyone who met Gaines came away knowing what a great young man that he was."
Adams, who never quite reached his potential as a player, was frequently challenged and criticized by coach Raheem Morris before the trade. But Morris had strong praise for Adams.
"Gaines will be missed by all of us, especially by his teammates in our locker room," Morris said. “He was a true team player and a positive influence to everyone he met. My prayers go out to his family."
Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber might have had the strongest words of all.
“Gaines was a quiet, humble kid and is far too young to be gone," Barber said. “He had so much potential that had yet to be achieved and I am very sad that the full extent of his life won’t be realized.”
All right, I’m back after writing the story for our news side on the Bucs trading defensive end Gaines Adams to Chicago for a second-round pick in 2010.
Time to analyze the deal: Can’t say I’m surprised, because Adams hasn’t been all that productive. He has just one sack and 10 tackles this season, but I thought Tampa Bay’s new regime would give a little more time to a player who was the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft.
New coach Raheem Morris and defensive coordinator Jim Bates spent a lot of the offseason talking about how they thought this would be the year Adams would start playing up to his potential. Bates spent much of the offseason working on pass-rush moves with Adams because he had relied solely on speed in his first two seasons.
But the Bucs apparently decided that Adams hadn’t progressed from all that work and wasn’t going to develop any more. They’ll likely fall back on Stylez G. White, who has been a starter before, to take Adams’ place in the lineup. Tim Crowder also is likely to be in the rotation.
The Bucs also have rookie Kyle Moore, but he’s been sidelined by a knee injury. Moore returned to practice this week. The original plan was to have him make his debut next week, but this deal could move his timetable up.
I just finished a 30-minute stint over on ESPN Chicago where they're having a long and lively chat about Sunday's game between the Bears and Falcons.
You can see the transcript here and you also still can jump in and talk with the ESPN Chicago folks this afternoon. Also, the regular hour-long NFC South chat will be held Friday at 1 p.m. ET.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Just a quick reminder that I’ll be taking part in a chat on ESPN Chicago about Sunday’s game between the Falcons and the Bears on Thursday at noon ET.
My segment will run for 30 minutes. Here’s the link.
This one will be limited to Falcons and Bears. The regular NFC South hour-long chat will be held Friday at 1 p.m. and we’ll talk about all the teams in the division then.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Say what you want about Warren Sapp, but one thing that’s always been admirable about him is he never has been afraid to speak his mind.
That happened again when Sapp was a guest on WSCR (670 AM) in Chicago. He was asked about his former teammate Derrick Brooks, who despite some rumblings that he would join the Chicago Bears, has not.
“If you’re telling me Derrick Brooks can’t play football, then you really don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ Sapp said.Sapp knows Brooks as well as anyone -- they were teammates for years in Tampa Bay and Brooks was the best man in Sapp’s wedding.
Part of the reason Brooks’ name came up after Brian Urlacher’s injury was because Chicago coach Lovie Smith, assistant Rod Marinelli and general manager Jerry Angelo also are very familiar with Brooks. All three were with him in Tampa Bay.
“No one knows that system better than Derrick and it was Lovie who was sitting there with him when they implemented the numbering, the counting and where we sent him and different stuff. It was Rod and Lovie who put that system together, the front seven and Derrick was an intricate pat of that.’’
TAMPA, Fla. -- There could be even another element to the quarterback situation for the Buccaneers.
The team could be looking to trade one of its quarterbacks for a draft pick. Coach Raheem Morris wouldn't confirm an NFL.com report that the Bucs are shopping three of their quarterbacks for a trade, but he didn't deny it either.
"Oh, man, they're Nostradamus," Morris said when asked about the report. "Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time start calling front offices. I can't control who calls us. Everybody's interested in everybody's roster and everybody's looking to nit-pick off everybody's roster. Everybody has talent and you're trying to accumulate the best talent on your football team. That's just all that talk is what that is."
But it makes total sense for the Bucs to at least try to find out what the market value might be for Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or Josh Johnson. They're not about to let go of rookie Josh Freeman, who they call their franchise quarterback.
But that's likely in the future. For now, it appears the Bucs will open the season with either Leftwich or McCown as their starter. They're about even at this point and a potential trade could play into Morris' decision, although the Bucs likely would be able to get only a late-round pick (at best) for any of their quarterbacks.
Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, probably has more trade value because of his experience. McCown has only seven starts. Johnson, a second-year pro, has yet to play in an NFL game and probably wouldn't bring much in a trade.
TAMPA, Fla. -- In a strange way, the Bucs might have won the Jay Cutler war after all.
The Bucs weren't able to pull off a trade for Cutler (as part of a three-way deal) back in February. The Broncos weren't able to keep Cutler and finally had to trade him.
In the end, Denver has Kyle Orton as its quarterback. In the end, Tampa Bay has Josh Freeman, the quarterback the Bucs were convinced Denver would have taken. The Broncos were sitting at No. 18 and the Bucs at No. 19.
Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik told me the Bucs decided to swap into the 17th pick that was held by Cleveland to make sure they got Freeman. The cost was a sixth-round pick.
The cost of Cutler to the Bears and the Broncos was significant. In the end, the cost of jumping into the Cutler situation in the first place was nothing for the Bucs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
If you think Sunday's big performance by running back Pierre Thomas or the cold weather will prompt coach Sean Payton to cut back on the passing game against the Bears, you're probably wrong.
Payton's been riding quarterback Drew Brees all season and a forecast of 25 degrees (with a wind chill of 13) won't impact the quarterback, if his history means anything. Brees has been productive in his last two trips to Chicago and both games were played in cold weather.
Although the Saints lost both games, Brees put up good numbers. Brees threw for 354 yards in the 2006 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. He also threw for 320 yards in a Week 17 game there last season.
With the Bears ranked No. 28 in pass defense, Payton isn't likely to suddenly change his whole philosophy. Brees is the only reason the Saints are clinging to playoff hope.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
If you're fan of statistics or just a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, you'll enjoy this. Our research department just sent me a fascinating e-mail that puts the crazy ending to Atlanta's victory over Chicago into historical perspective. Here it is:
The Falcons' 22-20 win over the Bears on Sunday is the third game since the merger (1970) in which a team won despite the fact their opponent took the lead with fewer than 15 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter... the amazing thing is that each of the three teams that lost took the lead with exactly 11 seconds remaining.
November 8, 1970: Saints 19, Lions 17
The Saints get their final win of a 2-11-1 year in Week 8. The Lions kicked a FG with 11 seconds left to take a 17-16 lead at Tulane Stadium. The Saints received the ensuing kick and stepped out of bounds immediately and then completed a pass to set up a 63-yard FG attempt by Tom Dempsey. Dempsey would kick the walk-off FG (setting the NFL record for longest FG ever made) and the Saints win 19-17.
September 15, 2003: Cowboys 35, Giants 32 (OT)
The Giants, on Monday Night Football at the Meadowlands, got a 30-yard FG with 11 seconds remaining out of Matt Bryant to take a 32-29 lead. Then Bryant booted the kickoff out of bounds, and Quincy Carter hit Antonio Bryant for a 26-yard gain with 4 seconds left. Billy Cundiff then forced overtime with a 52-yard FG for the Cowboys. Cundiff would then hit the game-winning 26-yarder in OT to give the Cowboys the 35-32 win.
October 12, 2008: Falcons 22, Bears 20
The Bears, with 11 seconds remaining, take a 20-19 lead at the Georgia Dome with a 17-yard TD pass from Kyle Orton to Rashied Davis. The ensuing kickoff is a short one, and returned to the Falcons 44-yard line. Much like Quincy Carter-Antonio Bryant, Matt Ryan hooks up with Michael Jenkins for a 26-yard gain to set up a potential game-winning FG. Jason Elam (who in 1998 tied Tom Dempsey's record with a 63-yard FG of his own), connects from 48 yards away to give the Falcons the walk-off win.