The NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (12-4) host the NFC North runner-up Chicago Bears (8-8) in the fifth of six wild-card playoff games this weekend. The game is on Sunday at 3:40 PM CST and is a rematch of a November 1st contest between these teams. That game was played in Chicago, with New Orleans pulling out a 26-23 overtime victory.
The Saints have been one of the NFL's best teams, in part, because of a dominant defensive unit. They rank 4th in total defense, allowing only 311 yards and 21.1 points per contest. New Orleans also has a top-five ranking in rush yards, average per rush, rushing touchdowns allowed, turnovers forced, passing yards allowed, interceptions, and sacks. While the team's run defense has been near the top of the league for three years, the performance of the pass defense this season has vaulted this unit to the elite level.
New Orleans has allowed an average of 217 passing yards per game this year, ranking 5th in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 59.8% of their attempts against the Saints, who have not allowed a 300-Yd passer this season. Their 18 interceptions are the most in the NFL, 14 of which have come in the last nine games.
Coming into the Superdome will be a Chicago offense that ranks 26th in the NFL. The Bears average 331.4 yards and 23.3 points per contest. Their running game has been on a roll lately, but still ranks just 25th in the NFL, and the team has an abysmal 31st ranking on 3rd down conversions. Even with those lowly offensive numbers, most of Chicago's offensive questions surround the quarterback position and its passing attack.
The Bears average 228.4 yards/game through the air, ranking 22nd in the league and lowest among playoff teams. New Orleans will face a different quarterback than they played in that Week 8 meeting. Mitchell Trubisky started the year, only to be replaced by Nick Foles in Week 4. The Bears went back to Trubisky in Week 12 and averaged 382 yards of offense over the final six ballgames.
BEARS PASS OFFENSE
Trubisky, the 2nd overall pick of the 2017 draft, has completed 67% of his throws for an average of 228 yards/game with 16 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in nine starts. He has excellent mobility, but inconsistent accuracy and a penchant for making mistakes under heavy pressure. In two career starts against the Saints, both losses, Trubisky completed 55% of his passes for 415 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception while being sacked 4 times.
Protecting their quarterback will be vital for the Bears. Chicago quarterbacks have been sacked 36 times this season. The offensive line has performed better down the stretch, but is built more for running the ball than pass protection. Right tackle Bobby Massie, who has missed the last seven games, could be back in the lineup after being activated from injured reserve.
Trubisky has one of the league's most underrated wideouts in Allen Robinson, a physical receiver who leads the team with 102 receptions for 1,255 yards and 6 touchdowns. Robinson has 16 catches for 174 yards and 2 scores in the last two meetings between these teams. Their second-leading receiver, rookie wideout Darnell Mooney, looks doubtful for Sunday with an ankle injury.
Wide receiver Anthony Miller, who has 49 receptions for 485 yards and 2 touchdowns, leads a group of complementary wideouts capable of big plays. Cordarrelle Patterson, a Pro Bowl kick returner, has dangerous open-field running ability. Riley Ridley and Javon Wims have only ten combined receptions, but both are deep threats able to take the top off the defense.
The Chicago tight ends have become the most important part of their passing game outside of Robinson. Former Saint TE Jimmy Graham has caught 50 passes for 456 yards and a team-high 8 scores. Rookie 2nd round pick Cole Kmet has 28 receptions for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 20 of those catches coming in the last five games. Trubisky also has an effective check-down option in leading rusher David Montgomery, who has 54 catches for 438 yards and 2 scores.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans has eliminated the big pass plays that plagued them early in the year to become one of the league's better secondaries. It starts with lockdown cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, who have taken some of the NFL's best wideouts out of opposing game plans. Jenkins, who is tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions and Lattimore (2 interceptions), combine to allow just a 55.8% completion percentage when targeted.
Second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the team’s top slot coverage option and a versatile playmaking defender and should be back in the lineup after missing last week because of COVID-19 protocols. Patrick Robinson and CB/S P.J. Williams have provided capable depth at cornerback. Even practice squad corners Grant Haley and Ken Crawley both had an interception when pressed into duty last week against Carolina.
Safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins, who each have 3 interceptions, have been terrific in eliminating the deep pass on the back end. Williams, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, should be ready to go after being back at practice this week. He has an outstanding range as a free safety and has made better instinctive decisions. Jenkins is a veteran leader that has not only helped in deep support but been valuable as a blitzer along with Gardner-Johnson.
The New Orleans linebacking corps took a hit when athletic veteran Kwon Alexander was lost for the year with an Achilles injury, but still has Alex Anzalone and All-Pro Demario Davis at the position. Anzalone has good instincts in zone coverage and the athleticism to stay with opposing tight ends. Davis, who has 4 sacks, 16 pressures, and 5 passes broken up, is one of the NFL's best all-around defensive players. He has the speed to cover tight ends man-to-man, track down running backs in the open field, and is a devastating blitzer.
The Saints will blitz an opponent in any situation but can generate heavy pressure from their deep and talented defensive line. New Orleans has 45 sacks and 112 QB hits this year, both among the league's best. Their defensive ends have accounted for 26 of those sacks, led by a career-high 13.5 and 32 pressures from DE Trey Hendrickson. While Hendrickson has had a breakout campaign, Cameron Jordan continues to play at a Pro Bowl level in his tenth season. Jordan has 7.5 sacks and 26 pressures, playing at an elite level to end the year after a slow start.
Hendrickson suffered a neck injury that has caused him to miss practice time this week and has his status for Sunday in doubt. However, defensive ends Marcus Davenport and Carl Granderson have provided outstanding pass rush when they're in the lineup. Davenport, a first-round draft choice in 2018, has just 1.5 sacks but 17 pressures in 11 games. Granderson is in his second year with the team after going undrafted in 2019 and has 5 sacks in limited action this year.
The team's defensive tackles have supplied consistent disruption, often forcing double teams inside to leave single blocking on their edge rushers. Tackle David Onyemata leads the interior assault and has a career-high 6.5 sacks and 23 pressures. Sheldon Rankins is one of the league's most respected defensive tackles, and Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and Malcolm Roach have provided good pass rush up the middle.
New Orleans sacked Nick Foles 5 times and intercepted once when these teams met in Week 8, but allowed 272 yards passing and two scores. They’ll need that same pressure when facing Trubisky on Sunday, who typically makes big mistakes when rushed. The Saints have had problems against mobile quarterbacks and will need to contain the athletic Trubisky outside the pocket. Allen Robinson, Jimmy Graham, and Cole Kmet have been a big part of Chicago's passing success and will need to be contained through the intermediate zones.
The Saints dominated future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and his talented corps of receivers twice this year. They also contained perennial Pro Bowlers Matt Ryan (twice) and Patrick Mahomes, along with their dangerous weapons. Now, to win their first playoff game, they must have that same level of play against Mitchell Trubisky and the passing attack of the Chicago Bears.