The last time the Bears faced off against the Saints, Mitchell Trubisky was but a wide-eyed rookie attempting to make a name for himself. (In the present, he’s a wide-eyed veteran attempting to make a name for himself) Zach Miller, reliable receiving tight end that he was, came down with a contested catch in the end zone in a tight fourth quarter battle. Unfortunately, according to officials, he actually hadn’t. The Bears not only lost an egregious officiating review that wiped away an obvious touchdown, they also lost Miller, permanently so, and fell 20-12 in a Halloweekend game that should’ve been far closer in the end than the final result indicated. The Superdome, for three hours, was a temporary House of Horrors from which the Bears had no escape.
Two years later, a budding heavyweight fight of defenses—with an already ailing quarterback on one side—awaits. In a devious twist of fate, it might be the Bears who can spook their counterparts.
And they better be prepared.
Another Bears’ defeat to the Saints this Sunday would begin the spelling of certain doom. In a deep and daunting NFC, any loss from this point forward might mean the difference between an eventual second straight playoff berth and an unrelenting off-season of questions. Any and all victories will continue to build up a growing shield against the agony of missing out on what could’ve been, what should’ve been, but what never quite happened.
The loss of Akiem Hicks for the foreseeable future not withstanding, a rested Chicago has the pieces in place to overcome a battered, bruised, and pureed Saints’ outfit. The jury is out as to whether the plan comes together. Here’s what has to transpire for the Bears to leave Soldier Field with their heads triumphantly held high on Sunday.
1. Stay a steadier course
Picking one scapegoat to figure out what’s wrong with the Bears’ offense would be ignoring necessary context. Aside from a glowing Allen Robinson, none of the sum of these parts are working well. Their failures are stacked on top of each other in a glorious flourish of ineptitude. The offensive line can’t block well. Receivers, talented and boisterous as they might be, can’t get open. And the quarterback and head coach rarely appear to be on the same page. Everyone is to blame. Everyone has a hand in an offense that has yet to get off the ground.
One of the main aspects of basic offensive football the Bears have particularly struggled with is in sustaining drives. Only the Steelers, Jets, Dolphins, Washington have created less first downs per game than the Bears. The reason the Bears struggle to get first downs is simple: most of their drives begin with little fervor. On first and 10 plays, only Washington and the Dolphins have worse explosive rush rates. Add in the fact that the Bears have been penalized on eight separate first and 10 plays and the recipe for disaster becomes clear. When you’re among the company of at least three of the verifiable worst NFL teams, there’s something off.
The mission for the Bears’ offense against the Saints can really be applied through the rest of the 2019 season. They can’t continue to shoot themselves in the foot with ill-advised penalties and minimal to no gains on first down. If the Bears don’t improve on clean first down plays, they’ll never become an offense someone could comfortably watch without putting their hand over their face. In opposition of New Orleans specifically—who has the most pass pressures of anyone in football—they’ll not only be doing themselves a disservice on latter downs if they can’t start drives with a pip in their step, they’ll be putting their returning quarterback in unnecessary harm’s way.
2. Take pole position
As actively constituted, the defensively-oriented Bears are a different team when they have the luxury of playing with a lead. Look no further for two prominent examples to both extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum.
In Week 4 against the Vikings, the Bears jumped out to a 7-0 lead on their first possession and channeled that energy. Kirk Cousins could never get a stable footing as he overthrew talented receiver after talented receiver, and the Bears eventually wound up grinding him into a fine paste of six sacks en route to a 16-6 win.
Across the pond in London the ensuing week, Oakland had the surprising jump on the Bears with a 17-0 halftime lead. The Bears would eventually come back and temporarily overtake Oakland, but not without some good fortune involved. Two of Chicago’s three touchdowns drives that afternoon came after turnovers and were less than 20 yards. If asked to carry the load on their own entirely, it’s likely the Bears would’ve faltered more than a final three-point margin in a 24-21 defeat. Chicago wasn’t built to win on the strength of its offense. This is the predicament they find themselves in until further notice.
Sunday’s match-up against the Saints has the underlying prospect of playing out horrifically for the Bears if they can’t get an early lead. Asking a struggling Trubisky and his teammates to come back against perennial All-Pro Cameron Jordan and a dynamic pass rush is asking for trouble. Making New Orleans play from behind as quickly as possible flips this situation on its head. It makes Teddy Bridgewater indirectly ask for trouble against perennial All-Pro Khalil Mack and the Bears’ similarly dynamic pass rush.
3. Zoning out
There’s a tried and true adage about how to beat less than able quarterbacks. Play zone defense if you want to put the onus on the quarterback to beat you. Play some variation of man coverage and it’s the quarterback’s play-makers who have now increased pressure on them. The reason the greats such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers continue to play and the reason they’ve carved out extended careers, is because simplistic zone defense’s don’t phase their gathered experience and awareness. To use zone against superstars who played football professionally for a decade or more is asking them to humiliate your defense. They’ll eagerly and patiently pick you apart without a second thought.
Against lesser quarterbacks, using zone is never a bad idea.
Teddy Bridgewater is arguably the NFL’s premier backup quarterback. That the Saints have only managed one defeat in his stead should be seen as admirable for a player who once had his career in doubt after a traumatic knee injury. But Bridgewater doesn’t strike fear into opposing defense’s, and he shouldn’t. He’s a limited passer with limited abilities. He’s good enough to take over for Drew Brees over an extended hiatus, but not adept enough to consistently throw lasers against any respectable defense. He’s the definition of a game manager. Someone who not only seldom takes risks, but can’t maximize any he does take either.
Playing zone against Bridgewater with the knowledge of the storm the Bears’ pass rush can unleash places a limited quarterback on thin ice. It affords Khalil Mack and Co. more time to get to Bridgewater and flummox him past the threshold of insanity. It could even lead to the Bears closing up the folds of this Bridge altogether.
Robert has a Bridge to sell you. It happens to be over a serene body of Water, making it very valuable.
Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.