By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The parallels between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears extend far beyond the 5-8 records they bring to the field for Monday’s matchup at Soldier Field. Disappointment runs deep in both cities, where unmet promises have been outweighed by poor play.
The same issues have plagued both teams – missed assignments, mental errors, dropped passes, imbalanced play-calling and an overall inability to overcome in-game adversity.
Where the comparisons end is that the Saints are still in the playoff hunt — thanks to the atrocious NFC South they play in – and their coach, Sean Payton, has taken a more aggressive approach to holding his team accountable for their inexcusable level of play.
Not only has the level of play been inexcusable, it’s been maddeningly inconsistent. The Saints have beaten the likes of the Packers and Steelers but have also thrown up clunkers like they did last week in their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, which was their fourth straight loss at home.
Clearly, the Carolina loss sent shockwaves throughout the organization. In the locker room after the game, veteran players spoke of a need for a higher level of professionalism and a full commitment to preparation.
Payton promised change both in his postgame presser and the day after, and he proved to be a man of his word.
In the wake of the fallout, accountability has taken many forms this week in New Orleans, from wide receiver Joe Morgan being released to benching strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (the team’s 2013 first-round draft pick) to a series of one-on-one meetings between team leaders and Payton.
Will these moves resonate within the locker room and be enough to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive?
Taking a step back, there’s somewhat of an explanation for the discord in the locker room. This past offseason, general manager Mickey Loomis had to make a series of cap-related decisions.
There’s a price associated with an offense that has ranked in the top six in yardage every year since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. This season, the Saints spent more than any other team on their starting offense, and the lion’s share is tied up in a handful of players – $42.5 million guaranteed has been spent on Brees, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, wide receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham.
In total, 12 players were let go this past offseason. The one piece the offense seems to be missing most is running back Darren Sproles, who ate up underneath zones as teams sat back in split-safety looks in fear of being beaten deep. He’s in Philadelphia now.
Without Sproles in the backfield, the Saints have become more of an 11 (three-wide receiver) personnel team and are more predictable with their run game from 12 personnel when Mark Ingram enters the game. Pierre Thomas remains an essential component to their screen and third-down passing attack.
Payton has been masterful at deploying a variety of personnel groupings and formations to scheme advantageous matchups that target one particular player or one particular area of opposing defenses. The Saints throw the ball 62.25 percent of the time, the sixth-highest percentage in the league.
Skewed play-calling, Graham’s health (shoulder issues), shoddy offensive line play and a lack of perimeter weapons who can get vertical and occupy safeties has limited Payton’s ability to attack the middle of the field, which is the cornerstone of the Saints’ scheme.
While Brees has only been sacked 20 times, he’s been under frequent pressure, particularly up the middle. Aside from his elite ability to read and diagnose defenses, what’s allowed Brees to excel despite not having ideal height is his ability to step up in the pocket to create throwing lanes and keep his eyes down the field.
Brees doesn’t have elite arm strength. Rather, he throws with great anticipation and accuracy. When pressured, he’s forced to reset, re-scan and throw from different arm angles, which cuts into his velocity.
Defensively, the Saints have been victimized by poor tackling and missed assignments, but they’re also missing consistent pressure off the edge to truly allow coordinator Rob Ryan’s hybrid (4-3 base) scheme to flourish.
Ryan is a week-to-week game planner who tailors his attack for each specific opponent. This requires strict attention to detail and precise execution on the field. The Saints are getting neither.
Outside of Junior Galette, the Saints aren’t getting enough push off the edge. Cameron Jordan had a strong season in 2013, totaling 12.5 sacks, but he has only six so far this season. Without the push up front and boasting an inconsistent coverage in the secondary, the Saints’ rush and coverage rarely works in tandem, and they’ve sunk near the bottom of the league (29th) in both pass and run defense.
With three winnable games remaining (Chicago, Atlanta and Tampa Bay), New Orleans is in control of its playoff destiny. However, unlike years past, this Saints team doesn’t put fear into opponents and would likely face an early playoff exit.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.