- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Great protection: This was probably the best performance to date by the Saints' offensive line in pass protection. Quarterback Drew Brees was sacked twice, but one of those came on a miscommunication with the snap. The other came when defensive tackle Nate Collins broke through between guard Jahri Evans and center Brian De La Puente in the first quarter. Brees took one more big hit later on a completed throw (when end David Bass beat right tackle Zach Strief). And he was hurried on a couple throws. But for the most part, he had tons of time to stand in the pocket and make his decisions.
Usually, that resulted in a check-down because of the Bears' zone coverage. Twenty-five of Brees' 29 completions Sunday traveled 10 yards or less in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Brees did have time to take a few shots deep down the field.
Evans healing: Evans specifically had his best game since he began dealing with a hamstring injury in Week 2. He had two negative plays on the opening drive -- first getting spun around to blow up a screen pass, then the Collins sack. But after that, Evans looked much closer to his usual self. He looked especially spry getting down the field on Pierre Thomas' 25-yard screen pass touchdown before halftime, springing Thomas with a block on Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
Guard Ben Grubbs also had a great block on that screen pass and an impressive performance overall after he struggled in the run game a week earlier.
Running stronger: Watching the tape, I was surprised the Saints wound up with only 66 rushing yards on 28 carries (a 2.4-yard average). In general, they were vastly improved over weeks past, starting with several nice-sized gains in the first quarter. They also converted a handful of runs on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1.
The total average was hurt by four more negative runs, including a loss of six yards by Thomas late in the first quarter. But almost all of those were the result of great individual efforts by Briggs. He found holes to slip through unblocked on both the 6-yard loss and a later 2-yard stuff. Briggs also beat fullback Jed Collins on two other big-time run stuffs. There weren't many instances of offensive line breakdowns like we've seen in previous weeks.
Thomas steps up: Thomas had several outstanding highlights on the day. His touchdown on the screen pass was obvious (the play was well-designed and well-timed, but Thomas made a nifty cutback to the inside). Thomas also delivered a great stiff-arm against linebacker D.J. Williams to score on a 2-yard swing pass in the second quarter. But his best play might have come when he made Williams whiff on a fourth-and-1 conversion late in the second quarter. Williams broke through the line unblocked and had a beat on Thomas three yards behind the line of scrimmage. But Thomas dipped and made him miss before running through traffic to convert.
Brees not bad, either: Brees was pretty outstanding himself -- but that was obvious even before breaking down the play by play. His 38-yard throw deep to tight end Jimmy Graham down the left sideline in the second quarter was particularly gorgeous, dropped right in between safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte. A deep incomplete pass to receiver Robert Meachem in the end zone in the second quarter was also perfectly placed. But Conte got a hold of the back of Meachem's jersey, which may have been enough to disrupt his route. Not blatant pass interference, but it could have been called.
Unsung hero: One more player who shined even more on the tape was Collins, who became more valuable than usual because of the Saints' ball-control game plan. Collins had a career-high three carries for 11 yards and a career-high four receptions for 17 yards. Fox analyst Troy Aikman joked, "He's not overlooked today. He's gotten more coverage in this broadcast than probably his entire career. So way to go Jed Collins, you're a rock star."
Burning Briggs: As good as Briggs was against the run, the Saints burned him twice. They got him to jump offsides on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter (confirming later that they were never going to snap the ball). They also got him to bite on a double fake in the second quarter, allowing Graham to gain 29 yards down the middle. Brees faked a quick pass to his left, then faked a handoff to Thomas, which got Briggs running toward the line of scrimmage while Graham slipped behind him.
Slipping up: The Saints survived despite several costly slips on the thick, soft grass at Soldier Field. Thomas slipped and fell on a potential touchdown run in the first quarter, forcing the Saints to settle for a field goal. And receiver Marques Colston slipped one yard short of the first-down marker on a third-down reception later in the first quarter. Sproles also slipped twice early, once on a run and once trying to get open when Brees was looking his way on a passs route.
Lucky bounce: The Saints were proud of themselves for avoiding turnovers after preaching all week about how good the Bears are at taking the ball away -- especially cornerback Charles Tillman. But Tillman actually did force a fumble that wasn't immediately recognized on the stat sheet. He punched the ball out of Thomas' hands after a screen pass in the second quarter. Fortunately for the Saints the ball bounced right back up to Thomas. ... Brees was also lucky to hang on to a shotgun snap he wasn't expecting in the second quarter. As Brees said after the game, the ball has been bouncing the Saints' way more this year than last year.