By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (5-8) host the Saints (5-8) on Thursday night at Soldier Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Run it
It may be asking a lot to get the Bears’ running game cranked up, but the Saints are vulnerable right now. They failed to defend Cam Newton’s read-option last time out, being shredded for 271 yards, 200 before contact, and 11 rushing first downs. Dallas, San Francisco, and Baltimore combined for 32 rushing first downs, and in the last five contests, Rob Ryan’s defense has permitted 183 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry.
The Bears should be able to run it on the Saints by recommitting to Matt Forte, who has a combined 18 rushes and 31 yards in the last two games, both losses. A year ago, the Saints were second in passing yards allowed and fourth in sacks. This season, they’ve permitted 398 yards per game and 8.0 yards per pass attempt, among the five worst in the league. Ryan will dial up exotic pressures and blitzes out of his 3-4 base attack. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette combined for 27 sacks in 18 games last season. This season, they’ve combined for 13. Linebacker Curtis Lofton is nasty, will smack you and will pile up the tackles.
Defense: Get after it
The Bears were gouged pretty good in the running game last week by the Cowboys, who piled up 194 yards on 35. It was the first big game allowed since Week 1, when the Bills managed 193 yards on 33 carries.
In between, the Bears have allowed an average of 97 yards rushing per game. New Orleans can run it, averaging 4.7 yards per carry with 10 games of more than 100 yards. Mark Ingram has four 100-yard games this season, including a 172-yard showing against the Packers. Pierre Thomas is a third-down back who excels in the screen game and has 38 receptions.
Saints coach Sean Payton puts together the offense with multiple formations, some no-huddle and a lot of shifts and motion. The 35-year old Drew Brees is on the verge of his ninth consecutive 4,000-yard season and remains an accurate passer at 69.3 percent for the season. He’s thrown 12 interceptions and has only four games without one. He’s coming off his worst quarterback rating of the season in Carolina at 69.7 after his best in Pittsburgh a week earlier, when he threw five touchdowns and a 140.0 rating. His top target is tight end Jimmy Graham, who has been thrown to 99 times for 68 receptions, nine for touchdowns.
Special team: Clean it up
After having an extra point and punt blocked by Dallas, Chicago has to clean up the kicking game. The Saints have a pedestrian return game, but against the Panthers, Jalen Saunders had a 32-yard punt return. It was one of only 14 returns that the Saints have had this season, as they’ve gone 10 games with one or fewer punt returns and have made 21 fair catches. In addition, the Saints have only 17 kick returns, including nine games with one or fewer kick returns. Thomas Morstead pins teams deep with limited return yards, allowing only 63 for the season. Shayne Graham has missed only two of his 20 field goal attempts, but his only 50-yard attempt of the season came in the opener at Atlanta.
Intangibles: Bouncing back
Both teams are 5-8, but the Saints are still in a division title race in the weary NFC South. For some reason, the Saints have dropped four straight at home after a 20-game Superdome winning streak in games coached by Payton. San Francisco snapped it on Nov. 9, and since then the Saints have lost four of five.
New Orleans also lost its first four road games this season before back-to-back wins against Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Saints are coming off what they have called an “embarrassing” loss to the Panthers.
How they respond to that will be their storyline, much like it will be for a Bears team eliminated from playoff conversation. This has the potential to be a high-scoring game. The Bears have given up the most points in the NFC (378), while the Saints have allowed the second-most (359).
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.