By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, next stop: New Orleans.
(CBS) It will be a battle in the bayou when the Bears go marching into Dixieland for a Week 2 tilt against the New Orleans Saints. Creating pre-snap confusion on both sides of the ball is the name of the game for the Saints, so with a raucous Super Dome crowd looming, the Bears first 2011 road trip will be a huge test. Let’s take a look at the Saints’ schemes, strengths, weaknesses, and key match-ups in what should be the NFC game of the week.
Judging by the Saints’ off-season moves, the 2010 playoff memory of Marshawn “Beast Quake” Lynch making every wannabe Saints’ tackler look like a jockey falling off a horse lingered in the mind of general manager Mickey Loomis. Loomis went out and bought the Saints 700 pounds of rump roast, in the form of defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rodgers, and plopped it in the middle of the defensive line with hopes of fortifying the run defense.
Additionally, Loomis dedicated five of six draft picks to strengthen the front seven on defense, but it was the lone pick on the offensive side of the football that raised my eyebrow. Loomis mortgaged a 2012 first-round draft pick and a 2011 second-round pick for the opportunity to select Alabama running back Mark Ingram.
Adding a talent like Ingram to a seemingly crowded backfield seemed like an odd move to me, but having won the Super Bowl in 2009, Loomis got the benefit of the doubt from most NFL observers. Perhaps Loomis thought Pierre Thomas is unreliable for the long haul, or Reggie Bush didn’t live up to expectations? Maybe. I think the departure from the Super Bowl formula in 2010 is what really prompted the move.
In 2009, the Saints were the one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL, ranking fourth in passing and sixth in rushing; whereas in 2010, they became more reliant on the passing game and plummeted to 28th in rushing offense. On paper, Ingram upgrades the Saints’ rushing attack, but make no mistake about it, this team will go as far as the right arm of quarterback Drew Brees takes them.
Brees makes up for any perceived physical shortcomings with poise, nimble feet that allow him to find passing lanes, pinpoint accuracy, and a complete mastery of head coach Sean Payton’s offense. Payton’s playbook keeps opposing defenses guessing by running a variety of personnel groupings in which he utilizes all five eligible receivers in chaotic route combinations that put pressure on opposing secondaries.
Brees has never had a superstar wide receiver at his disposal, yet he still puts up eye popping numbers. For Brees, the sum has always been greater than the parts. This week the Bears catch a break as Brees’ security blanket, Marques Colston, will be sidelined with a broken collarbone, and there’s no word on the progress of wide receiver Lance Moore’s groin injury which kept him out of week one.
New toy and Reggie Bush-replacement Darren Sproles was quite a weapon for the Saints in week one against the Packers. Sproles affected the game with both his pass catching abilities and explosive returns on special teams. Payton deployed a package of screens and quick passes to get Sproles the ball in open space to maximize his dynamic play-making skills.
It will be strength on strength when the Saints have the ball, so this game will come down to what the Bears offense is able to do against an opportunistic Saints defense.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive defensive philosophy is a great compliment to Payton’s offense. Williams employs a blitz-happy scheme designed to disrupt the timing of an offense and generate turnovers. Williams’ defense was thoroughly dismantled in the 2011 opener against the Packers, but given the extraordinary offensive talent in Green Bay, that game is not indicative of how the Saints will perform for the rest of the season.
The new additions on the defensive line were brought in not only to bolster the run defense, but also to keep blockers off of talented linebacker Jonathan Vilma and allow him to make plays sideline-to-sideline. The Saints have an envious set of young safeties in Roman Harper and Malcom Jenkins. Harper is a prototypical in-the-box strong safety and the most effective blitzer on the Saints defense, whose versatility allows Williams to scheme blitz packages from different angles and fronts.
The Bears catch a break on offense as well, as Saints defensive end Will Smith is serving a two game suspension related to the positive test for the diuretic StarCaps, which is a big blow to pass rush. The lack of a pass rush off the edge against Green Bay forced Williams to blitz more, and Aaron Rodgers made the Saints pay dearly, continually finding open receivers down-field, typically picking on young cornerback Patrick Robinson. With ten days to prepare, expect a high volume of blitzes this Sunday that will test the communication of a young Bears’ offensive line in a hostile environment.
What to watch when the Bears have the ball:
Bears offensive guards (Chris Spencer & Chris Williams) versus Saints defensive tackles and blitz packages: If the Bears offensive guards are unable to get to the second level of the defense, Vilma will be able to key on running back Matt Forte, and Williams will be able to send extra pressure up the middle.
Bears WR’s versus Patrick Robinson: Aaron Rodgers continually targeted Robinson in week one, and I would expect Cutler to look his way in three wide receiver sets. Robinson struggled to locate the football and played with his back to the line of scrimmage, which makes for some easy completions.
What to watch when the Saints have the ball:
Henry Melton vs. Saints offensive guards (Jahri Evans & Carl Nicks): Melton was flat out dominant against Atlanta, but will be playing against much better offensive guards this weekend. If he can occupy two blockers, the Saints will be forced to keep in a tight end and/or RB to help with Peppers.
Major Wright vs. Saints receivers: Even with Colston and (potentially) Moore on the sidelines, the Saints will look to test Wright in coverage on deep seam and vertical routes. If Wright is unable to meet the challenge, don’t be surprised if this is the week Brandon Merriweather becomes the starting free safety for the rest of the season.