<
>

Saints vs. Bears preview

When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday. Where: Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: ESPN.

Call it the Disappointment Cup, Underachievers Bowl, The Battle of We’re-Not-What-We-Thought-We-Were teams. But any way you bill it, Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints (5-8) and Chicago Bears (5-8) at Soldier Field makes for an intriguing matchup, even if Bears receiver Brandon Marshall believes ESPN should take the teams off "Monday Night Football."

Despite New Orleans’ dismal record, there’s still plenty of incentive to win, considering the Saints remain alive in the playoff hunt. The same can’t be said of Chicago, but how this club finishes should go a long way toward determining the extent of upcoming changes this offseason, whether in personnel, the front office or the coaching staff.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:

Wright: Team leaders have called the Saints' effort in the loss to the Carolina Panthers unprofessional, which frankly is odd considering the Saints are still playing for a postseason berth. How is the team handling the situation moving forward because it has the easiest remaining schedule in the league based on average DVOA of opponent?

Triplett: First of all, the Saints’ remaining schedule is pretty meaningless considering the opponent hasn’t mattered much this year. When the Saints have shown up, they’ve beaten the Green Bay Packers by 21 points at home and played great in a win at Pittsburgh, among others. When they haven’t, they’ve been blown out at home by Carolina and Cincinnati, among others. And that’s the point the leaders were getting at when they talked about professionalism. As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief put it, you can’t just show up and expect to win. They have to treat every game with the same season-on-the-line intensity that they showed in those good games.

Clearly they still have a high ceiling, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The loss to Carolina this past week was extremely disturbing, and it led to a major roster shake-up. There’s clearly no excuse for a lack of urgency at this point.

I obviously haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve seen from the Bears in their recent national TV appearances. And I know how much they’ll miss Marshall. But I still see a lot of talented playmakers on that offense and think they could cause big problems for a Saints defense that is struggling in all areas. Am I wrong?

Wright: No, you’re correct. But it all comes down to execution, and we haven’t seen any evidence the Bears can do that on a consistent basis, which has been the group’s main problem all year. Even without Marshall in the lineup, there are still plenty of weapons in running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. My expectation is the Bears will lean on Forte early and try to use him to set up play-action so the Bears can go deep to Jeffery or hit Bennett down the seam or on intermediate crossing routes. Forte is the key here, and one of the main issues we’ve seen with this offense is the Bears never truly commit to establish the rushing attack, which eventually forces them to be one-dimensional, thus much easier to defend.

New Orleans and Chicago play similar offenses, which should make for an intriguing matchup. What has gone wrong with the Saints, offensively?

Triplett: The Saints’ offense has been good at times, especially since they now have a consistent run game to balance their prolific passing offense. The two problems that have crept up most are turnovers and the disappearance of the downfield passing game.

Drew Brees has been sharp at times. He’s on pace for another 4,900 passing yards and he’s leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.3. But he has turned the ball over way too many times in big spots (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles). A big part of the problem is that he’s pressing too much to do it all by himself with the Saints’ defense struggling so badly. Their other star, tight end Jimmy Graham, has also been too up-and-down.

And defenses have done a great job of taking away deep passes and forcing the Saints to patiently work their way down the field. The Saints are decent at that; they lead the NFL in third-down efficiency. But that also increases the opportunity for mistakes.

When I look back on past Saints-Bears matchups, I think of the Cover 2 defense that forced the Saints to patiently work their way down the field (something they finally did successfully last year). Is that still the case -- on their good days, at least?

Wright: Mike, I don’t think so. They’ve moved away from playing Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 style of defense and become more of a traditional under 4-3 that plays a variety of coverages on the back end based on that week’s game plan. Against a quarterback such as Brees, the Bears would probably play more Cover 2 early on to force him to slowly move the ball down the field. But if the Bears can’t generate consistent pressure with the front four, they’ll try to manufacture pressure via the blitz. Chicago fares well against average quarterbacks protected by average to below average offensive lines. But when this team comes up against the top quarterbacks and good offensive lines, they struggle tremendously, and the main reason for that is the inability to consistently generate pressure with just the front four. When Chicago can’t do that, it dials up the blitz. But if the rushers can’t get home -- which is often the case -- it puts this team’s horrid secondary in coverage situations it can’t handle.

How “real” is this rift between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, and how do you think the situation will affect how the Saints perform the rest of the way?

Triplett: Both guys went to great lengths to downplay it and insist they have a ton of respect for each other. And I haven’t heard otherwise from sources I’ve talked to. So I think that story was overblown at least a little bit. And the sideline shouting matches are typical of Payton, as he has explained, so I also don’t read much into that.

But there’s no question that Ryan must be sitting on an extremely hot seat with a defense that is by far the worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s efficiency rating. This defense was supposed to be a great strength after they finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’ve totally imploded with everything from a lack of a pass rush, a lack of turnovers, a woeful run defense, missed tackles and assignment breakdowns in the secondary. That doesn’t all fall on Ryan, but the results are unacceptable.

That offensive line has become New Orleans North. Was sorry to see Brian de la Puente wind up on injured reserve. How are Jermon Bushrod and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer faring?

Wright: I guess the answer to that question depends on perspective with regard to Bushrod. New Orleans didn’t mind letting Bushrod walk for a reason, in my opinion. The Bears overpaid Bushrod to anchor that offensive line, but the truth is he has struggled, especially during the second half of the season. Going into the team’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Bushrod produced four consecutive games with negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, and that registers among the worst in the league. As for Kromer, it’s difficult to determine how he’s faring because nobody really knows how much input he has in what’s going on offensively. Even though Kromer holds the title of offensive coordinator, head coach Marc Trestman actually calls all the plays. The truth is it would be nice if Trestman relinquished those duties over the team’s final three games to see what Kromer can do. Just based on interviews with Kromer, it seems his philosophies differ a little from Trestman’s. I definitely sense Kromer is more committed to establishing the run than Trestman is.