- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Who’s most improved? The Bears offensive line and Saints defensive front are two of the leading candidates for the unofficial title of most improved unit in the NFL. The Bears revamped their pass protection by invading the Saints – hiring former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as their new offensive coordinator and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency. So far, so good. The Bears have allowed only six sacks, tied for third best in the NFL.
The Saints’ defensive line, meanwhile, has thrived with up-and-coming young players under the direction of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have three sacks each, and the team has a total of 12.
“Their whole line is actually quite surprisingly holding up well,” Galette said. “I guess Kromer’s doing a great job over there with the turnaround that they’ve had. They look real solid, and it’s one of those games where we’re just going to have to keep getting after it and stay consistent and work together as a team, back end and the front seven.
“[Bears quarterback Jay Cutler] is getting hit, but he’s getting rid of the ball. He’s not holding on to the ball as he used to. He still tries to make those plays and he has a rocket for an arm, but he’s not holding the ball as much as he used to. I think Kromer’s doing a great job over there. That whole line just looks completely different than they did in past years.”
Road ready? The Saints passing offenses is about as locked in right now as it’s ever been, with quarterback Drew Brees and top targets Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston all in peak form. They looked unstoppable in Monday night’s 38-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But now we’ll see if they can take that same show on the road against the Chicago Bears.
There’s a chance of rain in Chicago on Sunday. The track will be a bit slower on the grass inside Soldier Field. The crowd noise will be playing against them. And the Bears defense, while vulnerable at times this year, is the best in the NFL at taking the ball away. So the Saints will have some elements to deal with. They do have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (22-11), but they barely squeaked out their one road game so far this year, 16-14 at Tampa Bay in Week 2.
3D weapon: Sproles took center stage as a dual threat on Monday night, with more than 100 receiving yards and two total touchdowns. But the Bears have a dual threat of their own in running back Matt Forte, who barely leaves the field. Forte is tied with Sproles and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles for the most catches by a running back in the NFL this year (23). He has 320 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus 160 receiving yards. He’ll test a Saints defense that has been just decent against the run this year.
Although Forte has been doing the same things for years, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “Man, he looks as good as he’s been in his career.”
Added Saints coach Sean Payton: “He has good balance, good vision. He’s a versatile player in that he does a lot of things very well, catches the ball well, good protector when they’re throwing it. He’s smart, so he’s not a one-dimensional player. He’s a 3D player. He can block, run and catch.”
Still special: Bears return man Devin Hester is 30 years old now, but he remains one of the game’s biggest threats. He’s averaging 32.4 yards per kickoff return this year, with a long return of 80 yards. He has only four punt returns for 18 yards this year. But the Saints haven’t forgotten the way he burned them with a long punt return TD and a long receiving TD in Soldier Field in 2007. Hester has a total of 17 return TDs in his standout career.
“He’s arguably the most decorated returner in our leagues history and that’s just a fact, both kickoff and punt returns,” Payton said. “That’s a big deal in this game. That’s field position and that is something that he’s been exceptionally well at. We’ve been on the long end of a punt return there. He’s outstanding.”
8mEric D. Williams