The 5-2 Chicago Bears host the 4-2 New Orleans Saints this Sunday in a battle of NFC playoff contenders. New Orleans will be without wide receivers, Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Marquez Callaway for the game. Injuries may also sideline Chicago All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack and star wideout Allen Robinson, who will be game-time decisions.
This game features a showdown between the efficient New Orleans offense against a powerful Chicago defense. However, there are matchups on both sides of the ball that will be key to the outcome of this battle. Here are a few of those battles to watch closest.
SAINTS SECONDARY vs. CHICAGO RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The New Orleans defensive backs have allowed opposing passers to complete 66% of their throws and a league-high 17 touchdown passes this season. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins have each proven capable of shutting down the league's top wideouts.
However, Lattimore has been inconsistent and reserves Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams have been targeted often with outstanding success. Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins have been an even bigger liability at safety, where communication problems, poor angles in coverage, and bad tackling have put the team in shootouts.
Chicago's 25th ranked passing attack hasn't broken many defenses, but Nick Foles has proven to be a dangerous quarterback if he gets into a rhythm. Allen Robinson, if he plays, is also one of the NFL's most underrated wideouts. Even if Robinson is out, the Bears still have some receivers capable of making plays against this slumping secondary.
Wideouts Anthony Miller and Darnell Mooney are sharp route runners, while Javon Wims and Ted Ginn Jr. are dangerous down the field. The Bears also have a pair of productive tight ends in Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet, a position that has been extremely effective against the Saints this season.
Simply stated, if the Saints are going to be a viable contender, their secondary must finally step up and play to the level of their talent.
RBs ALVIN KAMARA/LATAVIUS MURRAY vs. LBs ROQUAN SMITH/DANNY TREVATHAN
The Bears have been vulnerable to the run at times this season, allowing three opponents over 135 yards on the ground and 4.3 yards per carry. Chicago has a physical defensive line. Tackles John Jenkins and Bilal Nichols clog the middle, while Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris are disruptive defenders who get consistent penetration into the backfield. Linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan have good size and are terrific tacklers, but have been beaten by athletic backs on cutbacks and in the open field.
The Saints are averaging 119 yards per game on the ground, 4.2 per attempt, and their 9 rushing touchdowns are third in the NFL. Alvin Kamara leads the league with 864 yards from scrimmage and 7 total touchdowns, including 364 rushing with 4 scores.
Kamara missed last season’s contest against the Bears with an injury, but Latavius Murray stepped up to rush for 112 yards in the game. Murray has 265 yards and two scores on the ground for the Saints this season, providing an effective complement to the dynamic Kamara.
New Orleans must establish their running game to be effective offensively against this formidable Bears defense, especially with an injury-depleted receiving corps. Expect Kamara and Murray to also be big parts of the passing attack. Kamara leads the team with 46 receptions for 460 yards, catching three touchdowns.
Kamara is the league's most versatile offensive weapon, and will not only be used out of the backfield but also used out wide because of his receiving skills. Both backs will be used on screen passes to not only offset the Chicago pass rush but also to take advantage of their athletic advantage over the Chicago linebackers in the open field.
DE CAM JORDAN vs. OT BOBBY MASSIE
Chicago quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times this season. Center Cody Whitehair will also miss the game with injury, leaving the Bears shorthanded inside against a powerful rotation of New Orleans’ defensive tackles. While getting interior pressure on quarterback Nick Foles is crucial, most of Chicago's protection issues are on the outside with tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie.
The Saints have 14 quarterback sacks in six games, eight of them from the defensive end position. Trey Hendrickson leads the team with 4.5 takedowns, and Marcus Davenport has added one along with several pressures from both players. The difference maker for New Orleans up front, however, is DE Cameron Jordan.
The 31-Yr old Jordan, who’s made four of the last five Pro Bowls, has 1.5 sacks and 7 pressures this year after a slow start. He has 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits in his last two games against the Bears, including two sacks matched up against Massie last season.
The New Orleans sack totals would be even higher if not for the fact that opposing quarterbacks have escaped pressure several times this season. Especially with their struggles in the secondary, it is crucial that the Saints not only pressure Foles but finish plays and get him to the ground.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. BEARS DEFENSIVE LINE
The Saints have fortified some early season issues they had along the interior of their offensive line. Drew Brees has been sacked just 8 times this season and been under less pressure in recent weeks. Rookie G Cesar Ruiz is playing better with each game since replacing the injured Nick Easton, and second-year C Erik McCoy is having an outstanding campaign. Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the best pair of offensive tackles in the league, but Ramczyk has shown some recent vulnerability and Armstead is banged up with an elbow injury.
Chicago's disruptive front has collected 16 sacks this season, along with 40 QB hits and 39 tackles for loss. Edge rusher Khalil Mack, who is nursing an ankle injury, leads the Bears with 5.5 sacks and 16 pressures and is a one-man wrecking crew for opposing offenses. Former Saint Akiem Hicks has added 3.5 takedowns and 16 pressures as a lethal complement to Mack. The Bears bring waves of pressure with edge rushers, Robert Quinn, Barkevious Mingo, and Robertson-Harris.
Protecting the 41-Yr old Brees is critical for any chance of a New Orleans victory. He must have time to find the open receiver against an opportunistic Chicago secondary, even with the quick rhythm passing attack I expect the Saints to use. New Orleans must also establish control of the line of scrimmage for an effective rushing attack, not only to get push at the point of attack but also to open up cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray.
PLAYER TO WATCH: JARED COOK
Chicago has been vulnerable against tight ends down the middle and near the goal line this year. Pro Bowl TE Jared Cook has 14 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns in five games of action, and leads the Saints with 14.1 yards per catch. With Thomas, Sanders, and Callaway sidelined, the Saints will line up Deonte Harris, Tre'Quan Smith, Austin Carr, and Ty Montgomery at wideout. They may take a deep shot to Harris or Smith, but I expect the Saints to attack Chicago with quick throws to the wideouts and running backs. Their deep threat will be Cook, whose athleticism will draw safeties Eddie Jackson or Deon Bush in coverage, opening up room underneath for the other New Orleans weapons.