Behind Enemy Lines: Part III

Our Scout.com experts, John Crist of Bear Report and Matthew Postins of Saints Insider, go Behind Enemy Lines to take a closer look at Thursday's Week 15 matchup between the Bears and Saints at Soldier Field. Let's finish this three-part series with some matchups to watch and final predictions.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS OFFENSE VS. SAINTS DEFENSE
RB Matt Forte vs. LB Jonathan Vilma:
The Bears offense always seems a little milquetoast, but there's always a constant: a running back that fuels the fire. This year it's Forte, who could end up the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Forte is definitely the do-everything type, as he leads the Bears in rushing yards (1,081), receptions (53) and receiving touchdowns (5). It's not a stretch to say the Bears have not had this type of a dual threat at the position since Walter Payton (or, perhaps, Thomas Jones). Since the Bears' receivers are lackluster at best, it'll be up to Forte to keep them in the NFC North hunt.

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
RB Pierre Thomas vs. Chicago Front Seven:
The Saints may have finally found a running game this season in Thomas, who gained more than 100 yards and scored a touchdown against Atlanta last week. Thomas possesses qualities that both Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush have. Thomas runs with McAllister's pad level and toughness, while he has enough speed to break big plays a la Bush. Bush will get his touches, but Thomas will be the starter and do the heavy lifting. Thomas definitely thrives despite sharing the workload with Bush, and his performance appears to have finally pushed McAllister out of the picture.


QB Drew Brees
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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 ...
... Bush can kill the Bears for at least one big play. He has been feast and famine all season. Last week, his big reception for a 45-yard gain set up a Saints touchdown. He had a game earlier this season when he scored twice on punt returns, but he fumbled another. Bush is capable of changing the Saints' fortunes in both directions. While Thomas, Brees and Colston will certainly have better numbers, the Bears cannot allow Bush to get them even once during this game. If they do, the Bears will likely be out of the NFC North hunt. Bush may not be consistent, but he is always dangerous.


WR Rashied Davis
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

THE SAINTS WILL LOSE THIS GAME IF ...
... Brees has a bad game. He hasn't had many this season, and the Bears secondary is beat up, but it has happened. Brees threw for more than 400 yards against Atlanta in their first meeting but the Saints still lost, partly because Brees threw three interceptions. More than any one player on the Saints, Brees is the catalyst. If the Bears find a way to frustrate and slow down Brees on Thursday night, they'll win.

THE BEARS WILL WIN THIS GAME IF ...
... they take away the Saints' ground game and make Brees and Co. one-dimensional. This sounds a little backward since the Bears have struggled against the pass this season and Brees is on pace to challenge the NFL record for yards through the air, but the Saints played pitch-and-catch all over Soldier Field in the 2007 regular season and the 2006 postseason – and still lost both games. While Brees could be the MVP of the league when it's all said and done, forcing him to put it up 45-50 times will inevitably lead to a few mistakes.

THE BEARS WILL LOSE THIS GAME IF ...
... their receivers continue to play as poorly as they have the second half of the season. Forte has been incredible all year long and accounted for over a third of the Bears' offensive production as a rookie, but the other 10 players in the huddle can't keep expecting him to move the football consistently all by himself. Rashied Davis is dropping passes at an alarming rate, Brandon Lloyd has disappeared since a Week 4 knee sprain, and Marty Booker is clearly over the hill, but the Saints are just 26th in the league defending the pass and have been continually gashed by completions of 20 yards or more.

FINAL PREDICTIONS
Matthew Postins:
It's going to be cold, and it's going to be a short week. The Saints don't thrive on either. The Bears love the cold weather, and it gives them a decided advantage. If the Bears commit four turnovers, that changes things. But cold-weather teams always do a good job of protecting the football on their home turf. Road teams from warm-weather cities usually don't ... BEARS 19, SAINTS 16.

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.

To go back and read Part I, where John answers five questions from Matthew, Click Here. For Part II, where Matthew answers five questions from John, Click Here.

John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report. Matthew Postins is the Publisher of Saints Insider.


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