Can the Chicago Bears use the formula of defense and running the ball to have a successful rest of the season? I asked this question last week, and it is still valid. Running and hiding after scoring 2 defensive touchdowns is not generally a recipe for success in the NFL. Against a high-octane offense led by Drew Brees, I am confident that the ground-and-pound offensive attack is not going to produce a victory.
My greatest fear in this game is that the Bears get down early and are forced into becoming one-dimensional. Remember the Buccaneers and Packers games? The Bears have not performed particularly well defensively on opening drives this season. Considering the efficiency of the Saints offense, it would not shock me to see the Bears spot them a 7-point lead mere minutes into the game.
This is precisely the reason why I have been particularly hard on the game plan the Bears have had in their back-to-back wins. What if Mitchell Trubisky needs to throw the ball 50 times in a game? He hasn’t attempted 50 passes yet in his career, let alone when the defense knows exactly what is coming and he has to put the team on his back. The Bears coaching staff has mismanaged this situation and this might be the game that my fears are finally realized.
What to Watch For
On offense, it will be interesting to see what the game plan is to start the game. Do they come out and run heavily from the start or do they mix it up and go against what has become a very predictable offense? If they come out trying to pound the ball, I believe this is the game in which that plan backfires.
If they get down early, it is going to come down to the offensive line, protection calls, and the center/quarterback exchange. The Superdome can be a very hostile environment, especially for a rookie quarterback and a struggling center. Protecting Trubisky will be paramount to the Bears success on offense.
Defensively, it is going to be mainly on the defensive line to win this game. Although the secondary has played well, this Saints quick passing attack will make their lives more difficult. In that regard, the interior rush is going to have to get in the diminutive Drew Brees’ face. The interior defensive line will need to have their hands up, push the pocket, get Brees on the move, and allow Leonard Floyd to hunt him down. Most importantly, they need to stop the run and force Brees to beat them.
All is not lost for the secondary though. Brees has thrown 2 interceptions in back-to-back games. Coincidentally, the Bears defense has 2 interceptions in back-to-back games. It will be interesting to see what Vic Fangio dials up. He has had his most aggressive stretch of play-calling in the last 3 games and I would like to see that continue. Fangio dialed up a lot of pressure calls, especially against Carolina. That plan could backfire against Brees, but this team needs to be aggressive on defense right now.
Who to Watch
Cody Whitehair: This might be the single most important player on offense this week. Hear me out here. Whitehair’s snapping issues have been well-documented. My guess is that the Bears will be forced to throw, and probably earlier than later. The Bears throw from shotgun on 70% of their passing plays and that number will be even greater when chasing scores. Couple the poor shotgun snaps with the crowd noise and this could turn into a disaster if Whitehair has an especially poor game.
Tarik Cohen: Cohen’s usage in the passing game has mysteriously disappeared. In the four games with Mike Glennon at quarterback, Cohen was targeted 29 times, with 24 of those converting to catches. Since Trubisky took over, Cohen has been targeted 7 times and converting 3. I think Cohen was overused early but is being underutilized now. Dowell Loggains must find a balance and the fast track in New Orleans is a great place to get the ball in his hands.
Akiem Hicks: As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the way to disrupt Drew Brees and this Saints offense will depend on the middle of the defensive line. Not only is this the “Akiem Hicks Revenge Game” but he is the key to pushing the pocket and stopping the run. With Larry Warford out for the Saints, I expect Hicks to continue his dominant stretch of performances. He will need to continue to stop the run and collapse the pocket.
Kyle Fuller: Each game that passes, Fuller continues to play with more and more confidence. The game plan has been for opposing quarterbacks to target Fuller, so far, that has been a poor decision. I expect the secondary to play with physicality, especially with the injured and potentially undermanned Saints receiving corps. If Fuller can continue to play physically at the line of scrimmage, disrupt and mirror passing routes, he could be one of the keys to a Bears victory on Sunday.
Keys to the Game
Handing over the Keys: It is time for John Fox to acquiesce to Dowell Loggains and hand over the keys to the Ferrari (Or Porsche 944 if you are a John Hughes fan). On turf, on the road, against a good offense, the run-only offense is not going to get it done. The Saints defense is the worst of the bunch that Mitchell Trubisky has faced to date. This was the game that many pundits thought would be his first start for that very reason. The time to open up the playbook is not when you are down by two scores, it is the first play of the game.
Pushing the Pocket: I will continue to harp on this because it is the single most effective way to beat Drew Brees. Crush his running game early and get in his face consistently. Jonathan Bullard played his most snaps of the season last week, and played well. He, Eddie Goldman, and Akiem Hicks are going to be the 3 Bears to keep an eye on up-front. If they can penetrate on a consistent basis, and push the pocket when they don’t, the Bears should be able to force Brees into making mistakes.
The X-Factor: I mentioned the fast track earlier. This Bears team is faster than any we have seen in probably 5 years. The place where they aren’t particularly fast is at wide receiver. Their best option to take advantage of the excellent footing that turf provides, is Kendall Wright. He is the Bears best wide receiver right now. If he is used on shallow crossing routes and mesh play — as he should be — then the Bears can successfully gain yards after the catch. This would create short, quick passes to get Trubisky in a rhythm, and keep the offense out of 3rd and long stations.