Priority No. 1 vs. Bears: Protect the ball

METAIRIE, La. -- Every week, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton likes to come up with a point of emphasis that he drills into his team. It’s not hard to guess what his message will be this week as the 4-0 Saints travel to face the 3-1 Chicago Bears: Protect the ball.

The Bears lead the NFL again this year with 14 takeaways after leading the league with a whopping 44 of them last year. They even led the league with 14 takeaways in the preseason. It’s something the Bears have always done well, even while switching coaches and personnel.

“In the last however many years you want to go back, they’ve taken the ball away better than anyone,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Tuesday. “It’s kind of one of those things that become somewhat tradition or become somewhat expected of a group. And that’s a credit to the players, it’s a credit to (new coach Marc Trestman) and his staff, those guys on defense. They feed off of that. And it’s been a formula for them. They’ve been exceptional.

“And then you’ve got guys like (cornerback Charles) Tillman who have an unusual, or a very high amount of forced fumbles. There’s a skill set involved in that, and then there’s also just a simple effort involved in that and kind of a ‘want to.’ It’s something that doesn’t happen by accident. To have the numbers that they have, it’s obviously emphasized and worked on.”

Tillman’s 39 forced fumbles are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2003. He also has 35 career interceptions and nine career defensive touchdowns.

Cornerback Tim Jennings had nine interceptions last year and one this year. Safety Major Wright had four picks last year and two this year. Dynamic defensive end Julius Peppers just had a sack-fumble this past Sunday against the Detroit Lions and has eight forced fumbles in his four years with the Bears.

As a team, Chicago has scored three defensive touchdowns this year and leads the NFL with 55 points off turnovers. Last year, the Bears scored nine defensive touchdowns, tied for the second most in NFL history.

Even Trestman, who has carried on the tradition that was started under former Bears coach Lovie Smith, has marveled at what he’s seen.

“We’ve done it by punching it out, we’ve done it by scooping and scoring, we’ve done it by literally just grabbing it out of guys’ hands,” Trestman said last week of the Bears’ stolen fumbles (now a league-high eight of them). “The (six) interceptions are a little more the norm. You get a good pass rush, you get a hand in a guy’s face, you disguise a coverage, you’re going to get a turnover that way. Teams do that. But it’s the other things that are around that; the strips, the punching out. The way they’ve done it in terms of technique-wise, it’s terribly unique.”

The Saints’ players had a part-time schedule on Tuesday, following their 38-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night. So they haven’t started in fully yet on studying the Bears. But receiver Marques Colston said Tuesday that he’s well aware of the Bears’ opportunistic ways.

And he’s fully expecting that to be a point of emphasis by Payton this week.

“You hit it on the head,” Colston said when asked if he expects that from Payton. “It’s gonna be protecting the ball. You know, we say it time and time again, it’s the No. 1 stat in football. So going on the road against an opportunistic defense, we’ve definitely gotta protect the ball on offense. ... You can tell just watching the film it’s a point of emphasis for them.”

The Saints have done a good job of protecting the ball this year. They have just five giveaways, tied for fifth best in the NFL.