The Chicago Bears (1-0) will travel to New Orleans for their first road contest of the 2011 regular season when they take on the Saints (0-1) this Sunday.
It will be the second of three-straight contests against 2010 NFC playoff teams to open the regular season for the Bears. In Week 1, Chicago defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 30-12, at Soldier Field. In Week 3, the Bears will host the Green Bay Packers. The 30 points scored by Chicago last week were the most in a season opener for the franchise since 1995 (31-14 vs. Minnesota). The Bears defense did not allow an offensive touchdown in the season opener for the third time under coach Lovie Smith.
The Bears own a 15-11 edge with the Saints in a series that dates back to 1968, including four-straight victories. The series is split, 5-5, in the 10 meetings in Louisiana.
Location: Louisiana Superdome
Play-by-play - Joe Buck
Color analyst - Troy Aikman
Sideline Reporter - Pam Oliver
National Radio: Sports USA Radio
Play-by-play - Bob Fitzgerald
Color analyst - Doug Plank
Sideline reporter - Tony Graziani
Local Radio: WBBM Radio (780 AM & 105.9 FM)
Play-by-play - Jeff Joniak
Color analyst - Tom Thayer
Sideline reporter - Zach Zaidman
Probable: G Carl Nicks, illness.
KEYS TO THE GAME
DT Henry Melton
-The biggest weapon on the Saints' offense is five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans' offense is loaded with weapons and Brees isn't afraid to use every single one of them. He distributes the ball very well, which doesn't allow opposing defenses to key on just one or two players. If he has time to throw, he'll pick apart Chicago's defense. The Bears will need to apply pressure from the front four and not rely on the blitz too often. By means of hot routes and screens, a savvy veteran like Brees can take advantage of a team that brings too many rushers. If Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and the rest of the defensive line can fluster Brees like they did Matt Ryan last week, it will be impossible for the Saints to rack up 400-plus yards like they did against Green Bay last week.
-Chicago's interior rushers will face a tough challenge this week, as the Saints boast two of the best guards in the league in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Anchoring the line is Olin Kreutz in the middle, who, as most Bears fans know, is a smart, cagy player. He also knows the tendencies of those playing across from him, having played 13 years in Chicago. The three-technique penetrators, Melton and Amobi Okoye, will need to work in tandem with the nose tackles, Anthony Adams and Matt Toeiana, using a variety of different stunts and rushes find a way through the center of the line.
-The reason pressure up the middle will be so crucial is because it won't allow the Saints to double-team Peppers on the outside. On the left side resides Jermon Bushrod, who is a quality tackle that doesn't give up a lot of pressure. Yet on the right side is Zach Strief, a career backup. The Bears will very likely try to take advantage of Strief by lining Peppers across from him – which is a one-on-one matchup Peppers should be able to win the vast majority of the time. The Saints will want to give Strief help, but if Chicago's defensive tackles are getting penetration up the middle, that help will have to come from the running backs. If the backs are forced to say in and block, that means one less player the rest of the defense will have to worry about covering. Peppers will have a chance to be extremely disruptive if his teammates on the inside do their jobs.
-The Saints have a three-pronged rushing attack in Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Ingram is the feature back and should get the bulk of the carries, with Thomas spelling him occasionally. Both are downhill runners that can wear down the defense. The Bears' front seven needs to make sure these two don't do too much damage between the tackles. The Falcons' Michael Turner rushed for 10 yards per carry last week. If Ingram and Thomas even come close to that average, the defense won't stand a chance.
-The X-factor in this game is Sproles. He's one of the NFL's smallest players (5-6, 190) yet he's as quick and shifty as they come. The Saint lined him up all over the field against the Packers last week: in the backfield, at wing, in the slot, split wide … anywhere to create mismatches. He responded by catching seven passes for 75 yards. Most linebackers don't stand a chance in one-on-one coverage against Sproles. The Bear's best shot would be for Urlacher to mirror Sproles but that would bring him out of the middle of the field where he's so effective. If Roach or Briggs has to chase the little guy around, Sproles will eat them up. Even the safeties will have trouble with him. If the defense is using a nickel package, they can matchup a corner on Sproles, which gives them a fighting chance. Limiting him will be key.
-Saints TE Jimmy Graham is also a matchup nightmare. He's a former collegiate basketball player that has good size and the pass-catching ability of a wide receiver. In man situations, the Bears will have to line up Urlacher across from Graham if they're going to have a chance at shutting him down. He works the middle of the field well and has good speed down the seams. Expect Brees to look his way often, especially near the end zone.
-The Saints will be without receiver Marques Colston, the team's leading receiver in 2010, who is out with a broken collarbone. WR Lance Moore, who didn't play last week, is questionable with a groin injury. The Saints are still stocked at the wideout position with Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, but if Moore can't go, it limits their ability to attack Chicago's defense with three- and four-receiver sets. Meachem and Henderson have good speed on the outside, which may force Chicago to drop into their Cover 2 shell more often than not. That way, they can take away the big play and force Brees to move the offense ponderously down the field. Brees threw 22 picks last year, so the more the defense makes him throw, the more opportunities there will be for interceptions.
DE Will Smith
-The Saints will be without the team's best pass rusher, Will Smith, who is serving a suspension. Without him, the team wasn't able to get consistent pressure from its defensive linemen against the Packers. This forced New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to dial up a number of exotic blitz packages. Expect that to continue this week. The key for Chicago's front five will be their ability to pick up the large number of blitzes they're likely to see. The biggest threat will most likely come from rookie Cameron Jordan, who is extremely quick off the edge. If the line – which will feature Chris Spencer at guard, a position at which he has very little experience – can't work as a cohesive unit, it could be a long day for quarterback Jay Cutler and may lead to turnovers. Pay special attention to T J'Marcus Webb, who had a rough week protecting Cutler's blindside last week.
-The Saints were stout against the run last year, finishing fourth in the NFL, and got even better this offseason with the free-agent signing of NT Shaun Rogers. The former-Browns lineman is a space eater that can be very difficult to move inside. He will be spelled by Aubrayo Franklin, another big-bodied player that anchors well against the run. C Roberto Garza and G Chris Williams must work together in order to open holes on the interior for Matt Forte.
-The second level is where the line must really succeed, particularly in finding and blocking Jonathan Vilma. The seven-year veteran has been the Saints leader in tackles every year since signing with the team in 2008. He's one of the NFL's premier middle linebackers and must be accounted for on every play. It wouldn't surprise me to see coordinator Mike Martz use more zone block this week in an effort to get his linemen to the second level more quickly. How effective Vilma is on the inside will make or break Chicago's run game. Cutler will also need to pay attention to him roaming the middle in pass coverage, as Vilma has intercepted at least one pass each year of his career.
-The Bears will need to take advantage of the Saints' outside linebackers. Jonathan Casillas was added to the injury report today and is listed as questionable. If he can't go, Will Herring will likely get the nod. He's played four years in the NFL yet started just seven games. On the other side, veteran Scott Shanle probably wouldn't be a starter on most NFL teams. The Bears need to use Forte and TE Kellen Davis in the middle of the field in order to exploit New Orleans' weak crop of OLBs.
-The Saints could be without two of their secondary starters: CB Tracy Porter and SS Roman Harper. If neither can play, there will be plenty of room for Chicago to move the ball through the air. Roy Williams is unlikely to play, which would give Johnny Knox the start. Expect Martz to utilize the speed of both Knox and Devin Hester on the outside by taking a number of shots downfield. If injury forces the Saints to use their fourth cornerback in nickel situations, presumably rookie Johnny Patrick, then Earl Bennett could have a big day out of the slot. And don't sleep on Dane Sanzenbacher, who is also a weapon underneath.
-Darren Sproles handled both kick- and punt-return duties last week and was outstanding. 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. The Packers may have the worst coverage units in the NFL, so don't expect Sproles to have as much success against Dave Toub's group. That said, the team can't sleep on him and must pay close attention to him on all kickoffs and punts.
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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.