Fact: Lovie Smith has never lost to Sean Payton. It is also a fact, however, that each of those three wins has come at Soldier Field. It's been a while since we had the pleasure of beating the Saints, and since that 2008 win, there have been two major upgrades at assistant coach - the Saints trading Gary Gibbs for Gregg Williams and the Bears trading Ron Turner for Mike Martz. The key match-up between Lovie's D and Payton's O remains the same, however, and Urlacher's gotten the best of Brees every time. Let's look back at that near disaster of a win from 2008, in which special teams, Devin Hester's skill at drawing pass interference, and a timely defensive play or two eked out a victory against the always potent Saints offense.
As always, the Bears came out looking to stop the run early. Against Pierre Thomas, however, that was no easy task. He managed to rack up 87 yards on the ground and another 59 through the air, including a big run in from 43 yards out in the third quarter. In the first half, however, the Bears D followed its "bend, don't break" approach with great results. After Alex Brown had a sack called back because of defensive holding, Mike Brown swooped in on the next play to get his fourth interception of the season. Corey Graham got in on the action on the Saints' next drive with a near-pick, with his pass defense stopping another Saints drive on the edge of field goal range. The D did allow the Saints to score after an Orton fumble gave them the ball at the 1, but other than that understandable touchdown, it was all bark and no bite from the Saints in the first half. While the run defense was occasionally suspect, the pass defense struggled even more, especially after halftime. Between Pierre Thomas' big run, a long drive capped off by a Pierre Thomas touchdown reception, and a late touchdown grab by Marques Colston (6 for 84 yds.), they gave away a lot in the second half. There were bright spots in the second half, including a crazy Olawale Ogunleye interception off of Brees, and they came up just big enough to save the win. Hate to see the Bears get burned, but Brees was going to get some points on the board no matter what. Still, with a strong pass rush keeping Brees' deep game at bay, the Saints were forced to dink and dunk all game and never looked as crisp as they normally do.
Play of the Game:
With the Bears still leading the game 24-21 and only 5:30 left in the game, the Saints faced third and inches on the Bears 38. Enter fullback Mike Karney, who was met before the line of scrimmage by both Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher for a small loss. The Saints, going for it on fourth down, decided to try out the right side of the defense after their straight-ahead dive didn't turn out so well. With the entire house bearing down on Drew Brees, he flipped the ball out to Pierre Thomas, who ran into Nick Roach (followed by the rest of the house) three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Bears take over on downs and should have walked away with the game from there, but such is life when Kyle Orton wants to throw late picks.
Tough call here, as no Bear was above and beyond the rest, so I'll have to go with Mike Brown for his early interception that set the tone for the first half. He took a bit of a bad angle on Pierre Thomas' touchdown trot, but he was otherwise his usual brilliant self in the secondary, working hard against both tight ends and crossing receivers in the middle. He was a step off from his glory days, but he was as solid as ever and contained his zone quite well.
Just like we saw against the Falcons last week, nothing drives a big-play offense crazy like a well-run Tampa 2. Drew Brees will be without his biggest downfield threat, Marques Colston, and Lance Moore's status is still up in the air as well. Can Devery Henderson be the guy? He didn't look good in this game when he tried to go between the numbers. I don't think the Saints will get much out of the run game, Mark Ingram or no, but I'm sure they will be taking the yards we will certainly be offering them on dump passes and swing routes. The real match-up, however, will be between a limping receiving corp versus the Bears secondary. Assuming we can apply pressure on Brees without bringing the blitz - and we all know just how well their center can block - we should be able to contain the Saints a bit better than the Packers, who seemed a little too eager to blitz and leave Brees' receivers in single coverage. Advantage Bears, if only because Brees has yet to prove he can crack the Bears defense and pull out a win. Heck, he couldn't even win against a John Shoop-coached Bears in 2003, when then-Charger Brees was benched in favor of a 41 year old Doug Flutie in the fourth quarter. Like I said, advantage Bears.
This game was a tale of two halves on offense as well as defense. After getting spotted seven points on a Danieal Manning runback to start the game, Orton was set up to do what he did best: hand off the ball. Unfortunately, rookie Matt Forte came up with a bad toe after his first carry, and while he came back after x-rays turned up negative, Adrian Peterson saw a lot of action in relief. The offense was slow to start and put its first points on the wrong side of the board, with Olin Kreutz snapping the ball too early with the Bears trapped on their own 1, giving New Orleans an easy touchdown after they recovered the fumble. Thankfully, Devin Hester was able to "make" the first of his two big catches of the game, drawing an obvious pass interference call on the New Orleans 1 on the Bears' next drive, setting up Matt Forte to walk in two plays later. After a lot of punting back and forth, Orton was able to close out the final scoring drive of the first half with a great piece of improv on third and goal, faking an option play and running the ball in himself to give the Bears a two touchdown lead at the half. Everything that went right in the first half, however, went wrong in the second. Forte and Peterson couldn't get it going on the ground and left Orton holding the bag as New Orleans started to stage a comeback. True to style, Orton threw two interceptions, one of which hit Rasheid Davis on the hands before it was picked off, the other of which was completely on Orton and almost lost the game for the Bears, coming right after the D made a huge stop to hold the lead with 5:20 left in the game. But while there was nothing doing on offense in the second half, they did what they needed to in overtime, quickly moving the ball far enough down the field to set up an easy Robbie Gould game-winner. Ugly, but just enough to get the job done.
Play of the Game:
We'll call this the drive of the game instead. With time winding down and the Saints holding their first lead of the game, Orton had 3:22 to get at least three points on the board. While the drive started with a deflected pass that was nearly picked off, Devin Hester grabbed a twenty yarder on the next play, then converted the next third down with a great grab on a low-thrown ball. With the ball now at the Saints 36 - near the edge of Gould's range - the Bears ground out some clock time with consecutive passes to Greg Olsen followed by a huge grab by Brandon Lloyd to convert another first down. After Olsen was able to move the ball just inside the ten and stop the clock with 19 ticks left, it was time to think win instead of tie. Unfortunately, the win was taken away from the Bears by a horrible missed call: Greg Olsen had all kinds of position on the Saints defender, but the refs held on to their flags as the offending Saint held Olsen without even pretending to turn his head around. Horrible no call, but thankfully this should-have-been-play-of-the-game was made right when Devin Hester got a pass interference call in overtime to set up the game-winner.
Player of the Game:
Matt Forte gets the prize for coming back despite being in obvious pain, but Devin Hester was the real man of the hour as far as production. His two breakaway runs down the field set up the Bears in scoring position when they needed it, and while he might not have made those catches if he was given the chance, pass interference is worth just as many yards as receptions. Way to be fast enough to make every DB have to hold you, Devin.
While Orton resembled Bad Jay in this game, I don't think we'll be seeing Cutler suddenly go back to throwing picks left and right in this one. The Bears will definitely want to try and establish the ground game, if only to try and keep Brees off his home field, but as we all saw last Thursday, the Saints secondary leaves a little something to be desired. Knowing Martz, we'll be seeing deep routes all day to keep the Saints on their heels and open up the middle for Forte and company. If the story on the other side of the ball is that Lovie has Payton's number, I think Martz and Gregg Williams will be a more interesting matchup overall. While Williams might be an expect at the "confusion" Payton loves so much, Martz will have just as much trickery up his sleeve. If the offensive line can hold up well in pass protection, this one could get pretty lopsided by the end.
Opening kickoff returned for a touchdown? Game-tying and overtime winning field goals? Great field position all day? I'll take that kind of performance any day. Danieal Manning had a beastly game on kickoff returns, averaging over 35 yards a return, and aside from a classic "Why are you running the wrong way, Devin Hester?" moment, it was a great game. There was one questionable play, a fake punt from the 48 that had Brad Maynard throwing a pass to Adrian Peterson, but that play was broken up at the last second by return man Lance Moore and was a solid call. The Bears caught a bit of a break when Reggie Bush got dinged up and taken off of punt returns, but the coverage was just as solid against him as it was against replacement Lance Moore. Special teams won this game, hands down.
Play and Player of the Game:
Danieal Manning, unquestionably. Putting 7 on the board in the first ten seconds will get you that honor every time. He even got to lay the wood on Reggie Bush playing punt coverage, icing on the cake that was his game.
Special teams experience high player turnover, and Darren Sproles proved in Week 1 that he is a major threat as a returner. That said, we showed that our preseason woes on special teams were ironed out last week and should be able to contain him better than the Packers did. Also, the Saints managed to give up a 109 yarder last week, and while I'm sure they have been working on improving their coverage in practice after that doozie, look for us to bring out the ball as often as possible. And Gould in a dome? No problems there.
My final prediction:
We've been lucky to have only played Sean Payton's Saints here in Chicago, but does home field advantage against two fairly well-matched teams make the Saints a seven point favorite? I say no. We gave them a beating in the NFC playoffs in 2007, but other than that 25-point win, the games have been decided by three twice and one score (eight points) the other time. I don't think we'll whip New Orleans around like we did Atlanta, but with their biggest weapon at wide receiver sitting on the sideline, a Bears pass-rush that rivals the '06 squad, and a real quarterback taking snaps for the Bears, it could be Bears by seven or more instead of the opposite. A homer's prediction, to be sure, but until Brees and Payton can prove otherwise, we have this matchup well in hand.
As always, thanks for reading, and see you here next week, where we will look back at the best win over the Packers in franchise history.