MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS OFFENSE VS. SAINTS DEFENSE
Vilma, who the Saints poached from the Jets for a fourth-round pick, has been one of the few highlights of their defense this season. Vilma is the Saints' leading tackler and makes play after play despite a less-than-productive front four. His speed and agility allows him to squeeze through tight tackling lanes, pursue from behind and string out ball carriers. Vilma is also a solid pass defender, which will be especially important when defending Forte. Vilma can't give too much cushion over the middle on obvious passing downs, or Bears QB Kyle Orton will check down and hit his favorite receiver. Vilma has his hands full Thursday, and limiting Forte's effectiveness will be a key storyline during the game.
S Danieal Manning vs. New Orleans Kick Coverage: Although technically not an offensive matchup, one of the big changes for the Bears the last few weeks has been Devin Hester being taken off the kickoff-return team in favor of Manning, which would have seemed ludicrous before the season. Hester was arguably the greatest return specialist the league had ever seen just two years into his career, scoring 13 times off kick, punt, and missed field goal returns in just 35 career games including the 2006 postseason. However, Hester's increased role in the passing game – he's the team's second-leading receiver with 39 catches – brought his kick-return average down to a very pedestrian 21.9 yards, while Manning has been more aggressive and yielded 28 yards per attempt.
This is not an offense that drives 80-85 yards down the field with regularity, so field position is worth it's weight in gold for the Bears – especially in inclement weather.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: SAINTS OFFENSE VS. BEARS DEFENSE
The Bears have always had the tough-run-defense reputation, and this year is no exception. They are sixth against the run, giving up only 91.2 yards per game. The Saints have won their fair share of games with QB Drew Brees' arm, but they proved last week they can do the same with Thomas' legs. If the Saints' offensive line can get the same kind of push it did last week against Atlanta, they can dictate the pace of the game and balance their offense. If Thomas doesn't play well the Saints can still win, but the Bears will be able to make the Saints' offense less diverse and could force Brees into questionable decisions.
WR Lance Moore vs. CB Corey Graham: Charles Tillman usually draws the assignment when the Bears face a big-and-tall wideout, meaning he'll likely be squaring off with the 6-4, 225-pound Marques Colston most of the night. That leaves Graham, a second-year corner who outplayed former Pro Bowler Nathan Vasher even before the veteran was moved to injured reserve with a bum hand, to contain one of the feel-good stories of the NFL in 2008: Moore, a former practice squader that's become the Saints' leading receiver. The Chicago coaching staff really likes Graham because of his physical nature and sure tackling defending the run, although he still has a ways to go in pass coverage.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton does a brilliant job creating mismatches with the Xs and Os, as a no-name like Moore has caught at least five passes in 8 of 13 games this season and reeled in 8 touchdown tosses.
THE SAINTS WILL WIN THIS GAME IF ...
THE SAINTS WILL LOSE THIS GAME IF ...
THE BEARS WILL WIN THIS GAME IF ...
THE BEARS WILL LOSE THIS GAME IF ...
John Crist: The Saints have won three of their last four ballgames and averaged a stunning 36.7 points in those victories, so it's safe to say that the return of both Bush and Colston from injury has made Brees even more dynamic. The beauty of the New Orleans offense is that there isn't a clear go-to guy – Thomas, Bush, Colston, and Moore have all had huge games this year, plus the tight end duo of Jeremy Shockey and Billy Miller has caught 79 passes for 885 yards. The Bears will be able to dent the scoreboard against an underachieving New Orleans defense, but they don't have enough firepower to keep up ... SAINTS 30, BEARS 20.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part III
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