By Philip Cantin
Cold, Hard Football Facts Saints beat writer
After a tough 42-34 loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the New Orleans Saints will play an NFC North opponent for the second week in a row.
But this time, they won't have to travel too far north. In fact, they can pretty much stay home.
For Sunday's game on September 18th will be the Saints home opener against the Chicago Bears, who, during Week 1, soundly beat New Orleans' NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons.
We go into in-depth CHFF analysis as we break down the key areas for each team:
Since Jay Cutler injured his knee and left the game in the third quarter of the 2010 NFC Championship game against the Packers, he has been widely criticized for his toughness. That criticism has been pretty much forgotten after Week 1 of the 2011 NFL season. Despite throwing one interception, he did complete 68.75% of his passes, and threw for 312 yards and 2 TDs as the Bears defeated the Falcons 30-12 at Soldier Field. Meanwhile, Drew Brees had a stronger performance (65.31% pass completion percentage, 419 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) in a 42-34 loss to Green Bay.
Now, some people may balk at comparisons between Drew Brees and Jay Cutler, claiming that Drew Brees has won a Super Bowl while Cutler has fewer rings than can be found on the planet Mars. That may have been true last year, when New Orleans ranked 10th in Passing Yards Per Attempt
(6.46) while Chicago ranked 25th in Passing YPA. (5.79). However, this year may prove to be a different story. After Week 1, Chicago is actually ahead of New Orleans in Passing YPA (7.81), good for 7th in the league, but New Orleans is close behind with a 7.62 Passing YPA, which is 9th in the league. As far New Orleans is 7th in the league in Offensive Passer Rating (112.54), but Chicago is not far behind at 10th in OPR (107.81).
The Saints defense will need to keep up with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, both speedy wide recievers, as well as newcomer Roy Williams. They will also need to watch Matt Forte and the screen passing game. On the Bears defensive side, although Saints WR Marques Colston is doubtful for the game and WR Lance Moore is questionable, the Bears will still have to worry about Devery Henderson, deep threat Robert Meachem, tight end Jimmy Graham, as well as the screen passes to Pierre Thomas and rookie RB Mark Ingram. Drew Brees is known to throw to many different targets, and the Bears will have to account for all of them.
Both teams finished in the bottom half of the league last year in rushing (Chicago 22nd, New Orleans 28th), and, so far, that hasn't seem to have changed yet.
Matt Forte provided 68 of the 88 yards on the ground for the Bears, while rookie RB Mark Ingram and veteran RB Pierre Thomas provided the bulk of the 81 rushing yards so far for the Saints.
Chicago may have ranked 2nd last year in rushing defense (90.1 YPG), but they gave up 110 rushing yards to the Falcons last week. That will prove to be a concern against a Saints backfield that is a three-headed monster in Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Darren Sproles.
Comparing the Saints and the Bears offensive lines is like comparing a Caesar salad to a T-bone steak: one just isn't as filling as the other. The Saints have a reputation for possessing a beefy offensive line that is among the best in the league, as they were ranking 4th in Offensive Hog Index
(8.67) in 2010. After Week 1 of the 2011 NFL season, despite being sacked 3 times, the New Orleans offensive line still managed to start out the year ranked 4th again in OHI (8.33). However, the Saints' 66% (8/12) efficiency the Saints had on third downs, as well as Brees' excellent presence in the pocket, helped contribute to this high ranking.
In retrospect, the Bears low-fat offensive line last year ranked dead bottom (27.33), and Jay Cutler was sacked a whopping 52 times. This year, the Bears haven't fared much better, as Cutler was sacked five times in his win over the Falcons, and currently the Bears rank 28th in OHI (23.00). Gabe Carimi was selected as a 1st round draft pick to help strengthen the offensive line, but he will need time to develop and gain experience.
Again, the stats differ here as well. The Saints defensive line was competent last year, ranking 13th in the Defensive Hog Index
, and partially due to a defense that allowed 34.48% efficiency on third down, which ranked 5th in the league. This year, after Week 1's loss against the Packers, they fell to 26th, which is largely attributed to the defense as a whole allowing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to convert on 66.67% of their third downs (tied with the St. Louis Rams for worst in the league).
With the Bears, their front seven is the mainstay of the defense, and has been a classic tradition. They ranked 6th in the league in DHI (9.33) at the end of the 2010 season. After their win against the Falcons, they started out at 20th in the league in DHI. This ranking is largely due to the 110 rushing yards they allowed (100 of them from Michael Turner). But make no mistake: this is a fearsome front seven, with 6-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers anchoring the defensive line and 7-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher leading the entire defense. And with the passing away of Urlacher's mother recently, you can bet he will get his fellow men to play lights out.
At the end of last year, the Bears ranked 9th in defensive YPA (5.83), while New Orleans was not far behind with a 5.89 YPA, good for 12th in the league.
This year, the Bears pick up right where they left off, starting the year ranked 10th in defensive YPA (5.31). Charles Tillman will be a force to be reckoned with, as he had 5 INTs and 3 forced fumbles last year, and he also forced a fumble during Week 1 against the Falcons.
The Saints, however, start the year off ranked 25th in defensive YPA (7.76). But again, this is mainly due to the fact that the Saints' usually opportunistic defense could not find any opportunities for turnovers against Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers and his potent offense. In this game, Gregg Williams and his defense will need to find ways for the secondary to turn Jay Cutler into the interception machine he was in 2009.
Most NFL fans know that Devin Hester is one of the most dangerous special teams players in the league. Last year, he led the league in punt return yards (564), punt return TDs (3), and was ranked 4th in average yards per kick return (35.6).
But this year, the Saints finally seem to have one of their own special teams weapons in Darren Sproles. Last week against the Packers, Sproles sprinted for 76 yards on two kickoff returns, and 92 yards on two punt returns (one of them went for a TD).
As a side note, both of these players are also dangerous threats in the receiving game. Last week, Devin Hester caught 3 passes for 60 yards, while Darren Sproles reeled in 7 catches for 75 yards.
This may prove to be another exciting opportunity to watch kickoff/punt returns this week.
It appears that the Bears have had Drew Brees' number since he entered the league. In 2003, he lost to the Bears 20-7 as a San Diego Charger. He faced them again in the 2006 NFC Championship as a Saint, but New Orleans was beaten soundly by a score of 39-14. And in the two regular seasons since, he lost to them again 33-25 in 2007, and 27-24 in 2008.
So this next game pretty much belongs to Chicago, right? Well, that may be true, except for two very important things:
Drew Brees has always played the Bears at Soldier Field.
Drew Brees has always played the Bears between the months of November and January, where the average temperature in Chicago over those three months is 25.67 degrees Fahrenheit.
This time around, the Bears will be coming to the weather-negligent Superdome, one of the loudest environments offered to opposing offenses in the league. The Bears haven't been there since 2005, when Aaron Brooks was running the Saints offense. Although the Bears did win that game as well, 20-17, Aaron Brooks is no Drew Brees.
The Saints offense vs. the Bears defense will prove to be a fantastic and fiercely competitive matchup. Expect the Bears defense to give Drew Brees fits. But in the end, Brees's offense, with the help of the wild and crazy 12th man, will finally get his revenge on the Bears and pull out a win here.
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