The New Orleans Saints, winners of 4 straight games and now leading the NFC South Division after 7 weeks in to the 2017 NFL regular season schedule, return home this upcoming Sunday to face the Chicago Bears.
New Orleans (4-2) has opened as an early 8 and a ½ point favorite to win their 5th straight game in that contest, according to the odds-makers in Las Vegas; in what is considered a very winnable game against a (3-4) Bears team that just came off of a 'mild upset' win over the previous leaders of the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers.
However, the Saints had better beware: this Bears team has some bite — at least on defense anyway.
In what will no doubt be a major story-line for next Sunday's game at the Superdome for the rest of this week: the Bears have won their past 2 games in a row after a rough 1-4 start, with essentially ZERO passing offense.
As a result of their non-existent passing attack (or lack thereof), the Bears instead have had to rely on their opportunistic defense to win games; and yesterday against the Panthers in Chicago, that was clearly the case.
The Bears are led on defense by defensive end and former Saints 2012 3rd Round draft pick Akiem Hicks, who has emerged as an early 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
After failed stints with the Saints and then with New England, where the Saints traded him to at the beginnig of the 2015 season, Hicks signed with the Bears in 2016 NFL Free Agency last year and has blossomed into a full All-Pro caliber defensive end, as the Saints had envisioned he would back when they drafted him.
#Bears DL Akiem Hicks on his former team: "I don't really want to talk about Drew Brees. Nothing to say about the Saints."
— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) October 23, 2017
Hicks is backed up by a play-making defense that Sports Illustrated NFL analyst Andy Benoit says is a zone-based unit that often shows two deep safeties before the snap.
This allows for subtle, effective coverage disguises, as the safeties are in perfect position to rotate after the snap. It also allows all defenders to keep eyes on the ball, as opposed to strictly on their man.
And as Benoit notes: it’s a perfect recipe for creating turnovers.
Seven games into this season, Chicago has forced 9 turnovers, including 6 in their last two games. Yesterday in the 17-3 win over the Panthers, it was Bears rookie safety Eddie Jackson who made the big plays — as he became the first player in League history to score multiple 75-plus-yard defensive touchdowns in one single game.
Unfortunately, the Bears are essentially FORCED to rely on the defense thanks to their passing offense which is so conservative under head coach John Fox, that it also borders on being historically bad record-wise.
The Bears offense is led by rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky, the former University of North Carolina star who was the 2nd overall pick of this past April's 2017 NFL Draft.
Sadly for Chicago fans, Trubisky hasn't been able to do very much so far.
Not because Trubisky isn't talented, but because the Bears are slowly trying to "break him in" and have no true weapons on offense to speak of at the moment in the passing game, to help him fully develop while he learns on the job.
As a result: Fox has opted to gear the offense towards the running game.
As in, A LOT.
2 weeks ago, Trubisky lead the Bears to another 'mild upset' over the Baltimore Ravens, after he handed off the football 50 times as the Bears rolled up 199 rushing yards.
And then there was yesterday: Trubisky only threw the ball a meager 7 TIMES in the entire game — completing 4 of them.
But yet thanks to the defense, they still managed to beat Cam Newton and the Panthers.
However, now Trubisky will be getting his first taste of action inside what should be a wild and crazy atmosphere inside of a sold-out Superdome; as Saints fans will get to see their heroes in action for the first time since they've taken over the division lead in the NFC South.
You can expect that the Bears will continue to feature the running game when they face the Saints, since the Saints secondary figures to not have much trouble "locking down" Chicago’s current starting wideouts.
The Bears starting WR's are 3rd-year pro and former back-up Tre McBride, who’s been mostly used as a blocker; and undrafted rookie Tanner Gentry — who had zero targets yesterday vs. Carolina, and had only 1 target the week before that against Baltimore.
The Bears will likely attack the Saints defense as they did the Panthers; featuring a mixture of primary RB Jordan Howard, as well as dynamic weapon and 4th-round rookie back Tarik Cohen; whom you could say is the Bears' own version of Saints dual-threat RB Alvin Kamara.
Yesterday against the Panthers, Benoit reported that Cohen’s damage for the Bears offense came as a wide receiver, both in the slot and from a tight split at wideout on his 70-yard bomb against Panthers cornerback Kevon Seymour (the Bears ended up settling for a field goal on the drive).
Cohen has become Trubisky's "security blanket", and it will be up to the Saints and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to keep the former North Carolina A&T star Cohen in check (or at least limit any damage that he does).
The bottom line is that the Bears will need to lean heavily on Howard and Cohen as well as their defense to win this game, because it's very unlikely that Trubisky would find much success throwing the ball against a Saints defense that has limited opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 55.43 over the last four weeks.
Opposing quarterbacks have posted a combined passer rating of 55.43 against the Saints over the last four weeks.
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) October 23, 2017
It's the very same Saints defense that allowed just 65 total net yards in the second half during their win vs. the Packers yesterday, after giving up 195 in the first half.
When you consider all of these factors, it's easy to see why the Saints are an 8 and a ½ home favorite, after they just covered the spread as a 6 point road favorite at Green Bay.
Again: this is a very winnable game for the Saints, and it's easy to envision them winning their 5th straight game.
But this is also still the NFL; where any team can beat another on "any given Sunday". The Saints had better beware of these Bears — because they damn sure can still can bite..........