It's about to get real, folks.
The 4-0 New Orleans Saints will pay a visit to the 3-1 Chicago Bears in what should be the biggest test for both thus far in the season. Coincidentally, each of their last opponents could help prepare their respective game plans for this contest.
The Miami Dolphins (the Saints' last opponent) and the Bears both run two of the purer West Coast offenses. Both have athletic quarterbacks who can extend plays, but don't mind holding on to the ball until the last possible moment.
Their offenses have the ability to be among the most balanced in the NFL, which means if you shut down one aspect of their attack, they can easily rely on another to win the game.
Meanwhile, both have defenses that are stout along the lines and will take advantage of weak offensive lines.
The Detroit Lions and the Saints are also very similar in operation. Both teams are perennially among the elite as far as the passing game goes. Both have receiving targets that are virtually impossible to defend (Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham) and they have the ability to have the screen game act as their run game.
The Saints disposed of the Dolphins 38-17, while the Bears were defeated by the Lions 40-32.
When the Saints and Bears collide, it could well be a preview of this year's NFC Championship Game.
The Chicago Bears may have finally found the answer to their offensive woes. The hiring of head coach Marc Trestman was met with a bit of bewilderment, but the surprise has quickly turned into praise with the job he's done thus far.
Trestman was hired after spending the last five years in the CFL as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. However, he's best-known for his time with the San Francisco 49ers (95-96) and the Oakland Raiders (01-03), where he worked with famed quarterbacks Steve Young and 2002 MVP Rich Gannon.
His system is extremely QB-friendly. He favors three- and five-step drops, which is a complete departure from some of the more vertical-based offenses the Bears employed in years past.
From a tangible standpoint, quarterback Jay Cutler is the ideal signal-caller for Trestman's offense.
His rocket of an arm, above-average mobility and uncanny accuracy are almost unparalleled. There are very few QBs with his natural gifts, but for some odd reason Cutler hasn't been able to put it all together.
Now may be his best chance.
Stopping the Bears Offense
At 6'3", 220 pounds, Cutler has the prototypical build for this style of offense. He's big enough to take a pounding, but mobile enough for the bootleg game.
Though this offense is based off timing and precision, QBs are often counted on to hitch, which allows receivers to get open in the short-area game.
Due to Cutler's ultra-quick release, he can hold on to the ball as long as possible in an effort to move the chains.
The receivers in this type of offense must first and foremost be able to break tackles. Their goal is to take short passes and turn them into long gains.
The Bears have the best tackle-breaking receiver in the league in 6'4", 230-pound Brandon Marshall. I'm not sure if there's a pair with more chemistry than Cutler and Marshall.
If the stars had aligned correctly, both Cutler and Marshall would be well on their way to being in the Denver Broncos' ring of honor. The pair was together in Denver from 2006-2008, where it looked like the next great duo in NFL history.
After a change in coaching and the subsequent trade of Cutler, the duo became more of a what-if than the perceived all-world duo many predicted.
After the Bears swung a trade for Marshall prior to the 2012 season, the duo picked up right where it left off. With Marshall being targeted an astounding 194 times last season, it's not hard to figure out how to dampen the effectiveness of the Bears offense.
Saints corner Keenan Lewis was brought to New Orleans for games like this. The Saints want to be able to put him on No. 1 receivers and have them disappear. So far, Lewis has been doing a good job.
This game will undoubtedly be his stiffest test, though.
The Bears like to play a lot of 11 personnel, meaning they usually don't use a fullback. So the Saints can expect at least three receivers to be prevalent on all passing plays. The Bears love to attack the middle of the field with concepts called Hi-Lo crossers—which is a staple in the West Coast offense.
Expect a ton of curl routes and slants, which are meant to isolate their large receivers on smaller defensive backs.
In addition to Marshall, the Bears trot out an impressive receiver in Alshon Jeffery (6'3", 216 pounds), who is well on his way to becoming a star in the league.
The Bears like to move their receivers around in an effort to find a matchup to exploit. One thing the Saints must realize is there will be opportunities to make plays in the form of jump balls.
Jeffery is matched up with Lions corner Chris Houston in this still. Jeffery is running a 9-route against a much faster Houston. With large athletes like Marshall and Jeffery, you want to put the ball on them rather than lead them like the route normally calls for.
Houston actually has perfect coverage on Jeffery. He's on top of the route initially and then stays in his hip pocket. From there, it becomes a matter of physics.
Houston fails to turn his head and locate the ball, which is a major no-no in solid corner play. Jeffery out-jumps him and locates the ball at its highest point. Saints corners can't afford to play with mediocre technique against these two monsters.
Graham is widely recognized as the best tight end in the league. At 6'7", 265 pounds, he is simply too big, too fast and too skilled to be covered by mere mortals. The Bears have a Graham-esque tight end in Martellus Bennett (6'6", 265 pounds), who is every bit the athlete.
It's also recognized that Bennett was a huge disappointment in his first four seasons in the NFL as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Bennett broke out in his subsequent lone year as a New York Giant.
Thus far in Chicago, he's continuing the positive trend.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro will have possibly his greatest test to date. Vaccaro is one of the most physical players in the league and will give the much larger Bennett a lot to deal with off the line of scrimmage.
The secondary of the Saints can't afford to play off-man coverage, as the Bears' receivers are much too large to rely on keeping them in front for a tackle. They must deny these athletic monsters the chance to even catch the ball.
The offensive line—and coaching staff—has a couple of familiar faces. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was one of the best players on the Saints during his six seasons, which culminated in him becoming a prized free-agent acquisition for Chicago prior to this season.
Bushrod will be more than fired up to stop the Saints' ferocious pass rush.
Coordinating the Bears offense is former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who spent five seasons in New Orleans (2008-2012), where he developed some of the very best linemen in the league.
With the troubles the Saints' offensive line is having now, it's not a stretch to think the absence of Kromer has a great deal to do with it.
The line heads one of the very best run games in the NFL.
Running back Matt Forte, a Tulane University product, is possibly the most versatile back in the league. His ability to receive, run and block is unparalleled. He's a fit in any scheme and will undoubtedly give the Saints defense fits in a multitude of ways.
The Saints must take advantage of Cutler's propensity for turnovers. His fearless belief in his gifts causes him to take unnecessary risks.
The offensive line is good across the board, but most lines look good until they face the Saints.
The Saints can't afford to let the Bears off the hook by giving them great field position. The Bears have the best return man in the history of the NFL in Devin Hester. Avoid this guy at all costs!
Exploting the Bears Defense
The Bears employ a similar defense to that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, using an even-front alignment with odd-front principles.
Though they play with four down linemen, the splits with which they play cause confusion for offensive lines.
The Bears run these wider splits to create one-on-one matchups for talented edge-rushers Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers. Having the interior linemen angled in the gaps creates double-teams. This ensures that Wootton and Peppers get single attention.
Peppers lines up away from the tight end, positioned at the 9-technique to take advantage of his vast skill set. Peppers is big (6'7", 287 pounds), fast and agile. He's like the defensive version of Graham!
His matchup with left tackle Charles Brown has to be scary for Saints fans.
The Saints catch a major break, as Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton was placed on injured reserve following a knee injury. Melton is one of the league's best interior linemen—especially when it comes to disrupting the passing game.
Melton would've been a thorn in the side of a struggling Saints interior line. Replacement Nate Collins is good, but more of a run-stuffer.
The Bears can run wide splits because of their talent at linebacker. Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs is the best at his position. His ability to run sideline to sideline makes him the ideal fit in such a risky defense.
Strong-side linebacker James Anderson has similar athleticism. He used that skill set to terrorize Saints backs as a member of the Carolina Panthers over the last seven seasons.
As good as these guys are, I believe they can be run on in the interior of the line. With former Saints back Reggie Bush, the Lions were able to gash the Bears with between-the-tackles runs.
If the Saints can run draws, delays and counters, they can create opportunities up the middle as well. Running back Khiry Robinson would eat this scheme alive for the Saints.
The Bears defense is great at creating opportunities to get after the passer, but it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the linebackers. If they get caught up in the trash, the onus falls on the safeties. Can you imagine Robinson one on one with a safety?
To be a great back, you have to be able to evade one-on-one tackles. Other than Mark Ingram, every back in the Saints' rotation exemplifies that theory.
Chicago has a couple of special players in its secondary in corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. Both of these players force turnovers at an extremely high clip and are versatile enough to be effective in zone or man.
Tillman has been a bit injury-prone lately and might be ripe for the picking.
Some are calling for Tillman to cover Graham, but I believe that would be a form of football suicide. There's not a person on any roster who can cover Graham, so the Bears could let Tillman try...but then who covers New Orleans' other six threats?
Saints win this one 28-21.
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