The New Orleans Saints (12-4) and Chicago Bears (8-8) clash this Sunday in the fifth of six playoff games over the NFL's 2021 Super Wild Card weekend. The Saints will host the game as the NFC's 2nd seed and NFC South Champions. New Orleans defeated the Bears on Nov. 1st earlier this season, claiming a 26-23 overtime victory.
The Saints come into the game with the NFL's 12th ranked offense and one of the most balanced attacks in the game. They've averaged 376.4 yards per contest and 30.1 points per game, fifth highest in the league.
An outstanding offensive balance has allowed them to have a Top-10 ranking in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, average per rush, 3rd down conversions, and red-zone efficiency.
Injuries have ravaged the Saints receiving corps all season, and broken ribs forced QB Drew Brees to the sideline for four games. Backup Taysom Hill performed reasonably well even with a shorthanded crew of pass-catchers, but the team's passing attack slipped to 19th in the rankings, averaging 235 yards through the air on the year. Brees has shaken off the rust after three games back in the lineup, and the Saints will get All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and WR/KR Deonte Harris back from injured reserve this week.
The Saints get healthier just in time to take on an 11th ranked Chicago defense that allows 345 yards and 23 points per game. The Bears have had some uncharacteristic defensive lapses this season, but still have playmakers at all three levels that can swing the momentum of a game.
They rank around the middle of the pack in most yardage categories, but they're a physical unit that has allowed the second-fewest rushing touchdowns and hold a top-10 ranking in red-zone defense and 3rd down efficiency. Chicago has the personnel to create havoc on an opposing passing attack, particularly if they make an opponent one-dimensional by stopping the run.
BEARS PASS DEFENSE
The Bears have allowed 231.6 yards/game through the air, ranking 12th in the league. Opposing passers have completed 64% of their attempts with 28 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions against Chicago this year. They've allowed only two 300-Yd passers this season.
The Bears have forced an unusually low amount of turnovers compared to what they're accustomed to creating. Their playmakers in the secondary may have had a quiet season but can turn a game around with big plays. Tashaun Gipson and Eddie Jackson might be the NFL's most dangerous tandem of safeties.
Gipson has 2 interceptions, tied for the team lead, and is effective as a blitzer and athletic in coverage. Jackson doesn't have an interception this season, but in the previous three years had 10 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries, and 6 defensive touchdowns.
The Chicago secondary has allowed ten receivers to have at least 70 yards receiving against them in 2020 and have been vulnerable to big plays over the second half of the year. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson has had a nice year and leads the team with 15 passes broken up, but is questionable with a shoulder injury that has caused him to miss the last three games. Veteran CB Buster Skrine has missed the last four contests with concussion issues and is doubtful for Sunday's clash.
The team's best cover corner is veteran Kyle Fuller, who has an interception and allows just a 55.4% completion percentage when targeted. Rookie CB Kindle Vildor has played a more prominent role over the last four games with the injuries to Johnson and Skrine. Vildor has allowed a 70.6% completion rate and two touchdowns over the last four contests. Safeties Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson, along with veteran CB Artie Burns, have been used in nickel and dime packages.
Chicago has two outstanding cover linebackers in Roquan Smith, who has 2 interceptions and 4 sacks, and Danny Trevathan. They are the top two tacklers on the team and have broken up and combined 13 passes. Smith looks doubtful to play in this game because of an elbow injury suffered last week. Without him, their linebacking corps will be shorthanded against the Saints Alvin Kamara, the best receiving back in the NFL.
Chicago's normally formidable pass rush has been absent the last several weeks, leaving a beaten up secondary vulnerable. The Bears have 36 sacks and 88 QB hits this season, but have registered multiple sacks in a game just twice in the last ten weeks. They still have one of the league's best pass rushers in OLB Khalil Mack, who can wreck an offense by himself. Mack leads the team with 9 sacks and 30 pressures, earning his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl berth.
Former Saint Akiem Hicks, who has just 3.5 sacks but 27 pressures, can apply terrific pressure from anywhere along the line. Mack is complemented along the edge by Robert Quinn and Barkevious Mingo, who have combined for just 4.5 sacks and 21 pressures. Bilal Nichols, Brent Urban, and former Saint Mario Edwards Jr. make up the rest of a potentially disruptive Chicago front that has been quiet against the league's better offensive lines.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
Drew Brees has completed 70.5% of his throws and averaged 260 yards/game with 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in his 11 full games. He’s had six outings of over 280 yards and has averaged 302 yards with 17 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in eight career games against the Bears. The Saints have several offensive weapons, but Brees will have his record-setting All-Pro wideout for just their fourth game together this season.
Michael Thomas, who led the NFL with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions last year, has missed the last three contests and been limited to just seven games this season. Thomas has 40 receptions for 438 yards and two 100-Yd outings in those seven games, despite being hobbled by a lingering ankle injury suffered in the season opener. He is the league's most unstoppable weapon through the intermediate zones when healthy. Thomas missed the game against Chicago earlier this year but has 16 catches for 208 yards in two career meetings against the Bears.
Alvin Kamara led New Orleans, and all NFL running backs, with 83 receptions for 756 yards. Kamara has caught at least 5 passes in nine games this season, with six games of over 65 yards receiving and one 100-Yd outing. Few teams have linebackers with the athleticism to stay with Kamara, who has 12 catches for 144 yards in two career games against Chicago.
Veteran Emmanuel Sanders has been the team's top option at wideout with Thomas out, catching 61 passes for 726 yards and five scores with one 100-Yd game. Undrafted rookie WR Marquez Callaway has been one of the team’s biggest surprises this year, hauling in 21 receptions for 213 yards and quickly earning the trust of his quarterback and coaches. All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris, who has 20 catches for 186 yards and a score in nine games, should also be back on Sunday after missing six games with a neck injury.
Tight end Jared Cook has had a quiet season by his standards, but has 37 catches for 504 yards and a team-high 7 touchdowns, with 15 of those receptions coming in the last five games. Cook has been the team's most consistent deep threat, and rookie TE Adam Trautman has been more consistently involved in the offense in recent weeks.
Brees is protected by one of the NFL's best offensive lines, getting sacked just 13 times this season. Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, the league's best pair of tackles, consistently shut down top pass rushers on the edge. Erik McCoy has developed into a top-flight center, taking on the best interior rushers or masterfully sliding to help on double-teams.
Left guard Andrus Peat has had some protection issues inside. Right guard Nick Easton was placed on injured reserve this week, so rookie first-round choice Cesar Ruiz will get the start there. Ruiz has been a solid run blocker but has also had some protection issues. Peat, McCoy, and Ruiz will have to provide Brees a clean interior pocket against Hicks, Powell, Urban, and Chicago's inside pass rush.
The Saints will have nearly their full complement of offensive weapons for the first time since the opening game. Incredibly, Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara have been on the field together for only 10 quarters this season. The offensive line must stand up against a disruptive Chicago pass rush to give Brees time to find his targets against a Bear defense that's been vulnerable down the stretch. Look for the Saints to be aggressive with Kamara and Thomas early to put pressure on a limited Chicago offense to keep pace.