He's only 5-6, 190 pounds, but New Orleans running back Darren Sproles may provide the biggest challenge for the Chicago Bears' defense come Sunday. Sproles spent the first six years of his career with the San Diego Chargers. In the last three seasons he's developed into a triple threat, able to hurt opposing teams as a runner, pass catcher and kick returner.
He was so valuable to the Chargers in 2009 that the team placed the franchise tag on the diminutive player. Sproles tested the free agent market this summer and landed with the Saints, who signed him to a four-year, $14-million contract.
Sproles quickly made his presence felt this year, catching seven passes for 76 yards in the team's Week 1 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Yet his biggest impact came on special teams. He returned two kicks for a total of 76 yards, including a 57-yard jaunt, while his two punt returns totaled 92 yards, one of which went for a 72-yard touchdown that brought the Saints back into the game.
Bears linebacker Lance Briggs knows the defense will need to key on Sproles during Sunday's matchup.
"They use him in a lot of similar ways [to Reggie Bush]," Briggs said. "Things that they were doing with Reggie Bush, they're doing with Sproles. He's somebody you need to know where he's at on the field."
RB Darren Sproles
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty
The Saints moved Sproles all over the field against the Packers, creating mismatches against linebackers and safeties. His quickness and size allow him to get in and out of his breaks quickly, posing major problems for slower defenders, while his short stature can make it hard for linebackers to find him coming out of the backfield.
"We have big linemen. Sometimes it can be hard to find the little guy behind there," said Briggs. "He's a scat back. He's a fast guy with quick little feet. He reminds me of one of those old Scooby Doo cartoons. The guy can fly."
Sproles is just one member of a three-pronged rushing attack Saints coach Sean Payton will rotate throughout the game.
"Last year they had a lot of running back problems; they had a lot of injuries there," Briggs said. "They are all healthy now. They have a young Mark Ingram, who's a tough downhill runner. They put up a lot of yards last week against a good Green Bay defense. We're going to be tested in different ways than we were this week."
Ingram only gained 40 yards on 13 carries last week but the rookie ran hard and is complemented by the power running of veteran ball carrier Pierre Thomas. The less the Bears defense has to defend against this three-headed monster the better, so it would behoove them to do what they did to Atlanta and make the Saints offense one-dimensional.
Yet that would put the ball in quarterback Drew Brees' hands, which isn't an ideal situation either. Last week, Brees passed for 419 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"[Brees] goes through every read, every progression. You really have to be on your game," said Briggs. "There is no receiver option on the field that he won't utilize on any given pass. He'll throw the tight ones. He'll throw to a guy when you think they're covered. He'll try to fit it in there. He's somebody that you definitely have to prepare for."
Chicago's secondary gets a slight break this week in that they won't have to face Saints wideout Marques Colston, who is out with a broken collarbone. Another of the team's receivers, Lance Moore, is questionable with a groin injury. Still, the defense isn't taking New Orleans' passing game lightly. Last week, Devery Henderson caught six balls for 100 yards and a TD, while Robert Meachem caught five passes for 70 yards and a TD.
"I think Drew Brees, if he has time, whether it's Colston or anybody else, he's going to get them the ball," CB D.J. Moore said.
The key to shutting down the passing game will come from up front. If the defensive line can get consistent pressure on Brees like they did against Atlanta's Matt Ryan, it will go a long way toward slowing the Saints' offense.
"Of course we just want to stay in his face and get pressure on him and sack him, give him different looks," DT Anthony Adams said. "Coach Marinelli is going to have us all ready and I'm looking forward to it."
Yet getting pressure up front won't be any easy task, considering the Saints have a pair of Pro-Bowl guards in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks.
"They're offensive line is real good," DT Henry Melton said. "They've got two All-Pro guards. We've got our work cut out for us."
And of course, at the center of the New Orleans line will be former-Bears stalwart Olin Kreutz.
"I'm sure there will be some words exchanged," said Briggs. "There will be some good contact. Maybe there will be some blows (laughing). But if there is blows exchanged hopefully I'm giving them and not receiving them."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.