If there even was the possibility of this being a game in which the New Orleans Saints (4-2) might catch the Chicago Bears (5-2) the slightest bit off guard Sunday at Soldier Field, that possibility evaporated when the Bears were smothered, 24-10, by the Rams on Monday night.
Chicago will be in a foul mood.
But the Saints are on a three-game winning streak, and have all the necessary ingredients to make it four straight. Here are a few of them:
- PREVENT BIG BITES: New Orleans has had a problem limiting "chunk" plays defensively. Too many 20-plus yard plays – nine completions of at least 31 yards, and a league-leading 11 pass interference penalties – mean opposing offenses would be derelict if they didn't test New Orleans deep. The Saints haven't been ravaged in terms of passing yards surrendered (238.7 per game, a respectable 17th in the league, and just 225.3 per game over the last three), but visions of open receivers catching passes and running for touchdowns, and a league-leading 2.8 touchdown passes allowed per game, skews the picture. It's unacceptable, and unsettling. New Orleans can't give up the cheap ones, especially against a Bears offense that's not known for its big-play ability. Keep them in front, tackle them, make them work for what they get. And, as always, get some pressure on Bears quarterback Nick Foles.
- STAY TRUE TO FORM: The Saints (89.7 rushing yards per game allowed, fourth fewest in the league) stop the run. The Bears (84.1 rushing yards per game, last in the league) don't run – at least, not very well. Still, Chicago will run because it needs balance. Figure on the Saints making the Bears one-dimensional, so the first key – preventing the chunk plays – becomes all the more critical.
- BE OPPORTUNISTIC: Chicago, again, is good defensively this season. The Bears allow 222 yards per game (eighth fewest in the league) and have given up six touchdown passes (fewest). And the Saints will be without receiver Emmanuel Sanders for the second straight game, Michael Thomas for the sixth straight and rookie Marquez Callaway for the first time. That's a ton of production, and Tre'Quan Smith will have to show up big in their absences, as well as Austin Carr, Juwan Johnson and Deonte Harris. A heavy load already has been carried by running back Alvin Kamara, who leads New Orleans in receptions (46), receiving yards (460), rushing attempts (75) and rushing yards (364), and this could be a 25-touch day for the star back. But, also, keep this in mind: Last year, when the Saints battered the Bears 36-25 in Chicago (after taking a 36-10 lead), Latavius Murray hammered Chicago for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. The Bears are allowing 119.9 rushing yards per game, and the Saints have been an outstanding running team (132.3 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry) during their three-game winning streak. If that's what New Orleans needs to do to win this game on this day - and it certainly appears to be leaning that way, with windy conditions and a depleted receiving corps - then that's what it'll lean toward.
- THREES, PLEASE: This isn't a revelation, but it bears saying anyway: New Orleans needs some defensive success in the red zone. It doesn't have to be forced turnovers; simply, force Chicago to settle for field goals. So far, opponents have scored touchdowns on 19 of 22 possessions in the red zone. Needless to say, the conversion rate going forward needs to have a wider gap.
- BE SPECIAL: It's Chicago, it'll be cold, it'll be windy. Those are givens. So the Saints will need the usual "A" games from punter Thomas Morstead and kicker Wil Lutz. Also, in last year's victory, the Saints blocked one punt and deflected another, and Deonte Harris had a good showing in the return game. Few teams have special teams units as good as New Orleans', which is something that needs to show up for the Saints against Chicago.
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