The 12-4 New Orleans Saints host the 8-8 Chicago Bears this Sunday afternoon in the fifth of six wild-card playoff games this weekend. New Orleans, champions of the NFC South for the fourth consecutive year, is the conference's number two seed. The Bears are the NFC's 7th seed after finishing second in the North division. These two met earlier this year, with the Saints taking a 26-23 overtime victory in Chicago on November 1st.
New Orleans, typically one of the league's most prolific offensive teams, has been beaten up on that side of the ball this year. They still averaged 30 points per game, fifth highest in the league. Despite all their injuries, the offense ranked 12th in total yardage and average 376.4 yards/game. Injuries to quarterback Drew Brees and the team's wide receivers resulted in a lower passing output then we're accustomed to seeing from the Saints. A diverse rushing attack helped the team stay effective offensively.
The New Orleans running game ranked 6th in the NFL, averaging 141.6 yards per contest. Consistency on the ground helped the team's battered passing game remain effective. That balance allowed the Saints to finish 8th in 3rd down conversions and 5th in red-zone efficiency. New Orleans scored 30 touchdowns on the ground, most in the NFL, and had six outings of over 150 yards rushing this season.
They'll face an 11th ranked Chicago defense that allows 23 points and 345 yards per contest. The Bears have held seven opponents to less than 20 points this year and possess a top-10 ranking in both red-zone efficiency and 3rd down percentage. Chicago has given up over 30 points in three of their last six games and only held the lowly Jaguars and Texans under 27 points over the last third of the year.
The Bears have the NFL's 15th ranked rush defense, surrendering 113.4 yards/game on the ground. The Bears have allowed the second fewest rushing touchdowns in the league (11) and only 4.1 per carry. Chicago has allowed six backs to gain at least 80 yards against them this season.
BEARS RUN DEFENSE
The Bears have a trio of former New Orleans defensive players up front that create disruption for opposing running games. End Akiem Hicks is a Pro Bowl quality defender that has 7 tackles for loss. John Jenkins is a space eater inside who often draws multiple blockers. Mario Edwards Jr. is a versatile player that can play inside or outside effectively. Tackle Bilal Nichols and Brent Urban round out the rotation of a three-man front that’s been hit hard by injuries this year.
Edge players Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Barkevious Mingo are better known for their pass rushing skills, but all three are underrated run defenders. Tashaun Gipson and Eddie Jackson are a pair of playmaking safeties who excel near the line of scrimmage just as much as in pass coverage.
The Bears have a pair of athletic playmakers at linebacker who run down ball carriers anywhere on the field. Nine-year veteran Danny Trevathan is second on his team in tackles and has excellent play diagnosis. However, leading tackler Roquan Smith looks like he will miss this game with an elbow injury that’s caused him to miss practice all week. Without Smith, the onus will fall on backup Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Trevathan to contain one of the NFL's most dynamic running backs in the open field.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara led New Orleans in rushing with a career-high 932 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging five yards per carry. Kamara is the league's most electric runner and is coming off a record-setting six rushing touchdowns and career-best 155 yards against the Vikings on Christmas Day. He finished just short of his first 1,000-Yd rushing season because of a positive COVID test that kept him out of the season finale. Kamara's status is worth watching, but it looks like he will be cleared in time for Sunday's contest. In two career games against the Bears, Kamara has 20 carries for 95 yards and a score, adding 12 receptions for 144 yards.
Latavius Murray gives the Saints a lethal 1-2 punch at running back. A power runner between the tackles with underrated open field speed, Murray has 656 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns this season, including a 124-yard effort against the Broncos in Week 12. When Kamara missed a 2019 game at Chicago with injury, Murray responded with 119 yards and two scores in a 36-25 New Orleans win.
Taysom Hill, who has 457 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns, gives the Saints a three-headed rushing combination few teams can defend. Often used in short yardage or near the goal-line because of his excellent power, Hill also has terrific speed in space. When Kamara and Murray missed last week because of COVID-19 protocols, veteran WR/RB Ty Montgomery stepped up and had 105 rushing yards against the Panthers.
Montgomery's success not only showcased the depth the Saints have at running back, but was also a testament to the outstanding blocking their runners get up front. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead seal the edge for their backs outside, but also get downfield effectively to spring their runners for big plays.
Guard Nick Easton was placed on injured reserve this week, meaning that rookie Cesar Ruiz will slide into the starting spot at right guard. Ruiz is more advanced as a run blocker than in pass protection at this stage of his career. Center Erik McCoy and LG Andrus Peat are maulers inside, not only getting push off the line of scrimmage but also opening cutback lanes for the slashing styles of Kamara and Murray.
The New Orleans running game has had success against the rugged Chicago front in each of the last two meetings between the two. They had 151 yards on the ground in a 2019 victory at Chicago, and earlier this season they had 122 rushing yards on the road in another win. The Saints will need to have that kind of rushing success to beat the Bears in this playoff matchup.
New Orleans wide receivers Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris are expected to be available for the game after a 3 week stint on injured reserve. Even with added weapons for quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints must remain balanced to keep a fearsome Chicago pass rush at bay.
The Bears are physical up front, but their depth is thin. If the Saints can be successful on the ground early and dominate the line of scrimmage, that could wear down the Chicago defense and open up play-action opportunities later in the game. Look for the Saints to try to get Kamara on the edge and in the open field as much as possible to test the Chicago linebackers, while they pound Murray and Hill between the tackles.