CHICAGO — The New Orleans Saints have made many statements this season, each one seemingly contradicting the previous one.
On Monday night, they finally made the one they wanted to make.
A season that just a few days ago appeared to be in disarray is now once again filled with hope — thanks in part to a hapless effort by the Chicago Bears — as the Saints head into the final two weeks in control of their destiny in the NFC South race.
To be fair, the Bears showed spontaneous signs of life, but the bright spots for Chicago were few and far between during a wet and foggy Monday night at Soldier Field. For New Orleans, after an uneven first quarter, almost every moment thereafter was cause for celebration.
But the question for Saints fans exiting this 31-15 victory is whether the shakeups on defense led to the suffocating effort or if it was at least partially the result of Chicago committing harakiri early in the game.
“I don’t think some players out there looked excited to play,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said of the Bears. “Some of them came to play, and some of them didn’t.”
It might not even matter how the credit and blame is divided. What matters most is that this team received the message sent by its coach last week — and responded in a big way.
“Definitely proud of how we handled the adversity that we’ve been going through the entire season,” defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “I’m proud of the way the guys continue to show up and continue to work hard and continue to play their best.”
Following last week’s 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Saints coach Sean Payton promised that changes were going to come. He couldn’t fathom a reality where his team kept marching out the same people week after week, only to see the same results.
So, earlier this week, he reportedly met with at least 10 members of the team in private meetings and began making changes to the roster. Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro was replaced in the starting lineup by Jamarca Sanford. Cornerback Corey White was benched and then made inactive. Cornerback Terrence Frederick was inserted into the starting lineup, and linebacker Ramon Humber was given a bigger role.
Schematically, New Orleans operated out of more 3-4 defensive fronts after using more 4-3 looks throughout the first 13 weeks of the season. This could have either been the result of Junior Galette being limited with a knee injury, or it could signal a change in philosophy moving forward.
Whatever the case, the changes worked. The numbers at the end of the first half were almost a mockery. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler had completed 6-of-14 passes for 56 yards with a 14.9 quarterback rating. His leading receiver, Alshon Jeffery, had one catch for 18 yards.
Overall, at the end of the first half, Chicago had run 29 plays and gained 92 yards. It was 1-for-7 on third down. The only player who showed signs of life was Matt Forte, who ran 10 times for 45 yards. Those numbers only got slightly better in the second half: Chicago finished with 278 yards on 58 plays and was 2-for-12 on third down.
The pass defense, in many weeks, has been abysmal. The Saints ranked 30th in the NFL with 265 passing yards allowed per game. Holding Cutler to 194 yards on 17-of-31 passing typically would be reason enough to celebrate.
Add in the fact that the Saints had allowed their opponents to convert on 47.4 percent of their third-down conversions entering action, that New Orleans sacked Cutler seven times and also picked off three passes, and this performance could be hailed as season-changing. But the Saints have been here before, and they’re not quite ready to make that leap.
“It’s been all year thing, you don’t know who is going to show up,” Galette said. “You hear everybody say, ‘We don’t know what team is going to show up tonight.’ The better Saints team showed up tonight. We were hungry and desperate and pulled off the win.”
Perhaps it will be the moment that changes everything. Perhaps the Saints finally found the right mix of players by inserting Sanford, who remained unsigned for nearly a month after being released by the Washington Redskins in October, and Frederick, who spent most of the season on the practice squad, into the starting lineup.
Perhaps the Saints are better with Vaccaro, a former first-round pick, serving as the nickel back and with Galette, who leads the team with nine sacks, including two Monday, but at times struggles against the run, being used in key spots.
There are plenty of things to celebrate about this performance, and there should be some hope moving forward simply because New Orleans appeared to fix some of the fundamental errors that have plagued it in recent weeks. But Chicago’s ineptitude also must be considered.
Linebacker David Hawthorne should receive a game ball for recording three sacks. It should also be noted that the Bears offensive line did not seem very interested in blocking him on at least one of the sacks.
Pierre Warren played a fine game at free safety and recorded an interception to close the first half, but it’s also important to note Cutler floated a pass to Marquess Wilson that was begging to be intercepted.
And those are only a couple of the letdowns. Cutler missed on several other passes, including one late in the fourth quarter when Patrick Robinson slipped on the sideline and left Josh Morgan wide open for what would have been a touchdown.
But, to be fair, if Warren’s first interception was aided by Cutler, he deserves credit for reading a pass to Jeffery in the third quarter and coming across the field to pull it away for his second interception of the night. And if some of the sacks were gifted, others were certainly earned by guys like Galette, Hicks, John Jenkins and Hawthorne on other occasions.
Perhaps the best approach moving forward is to be cautiously optimistic. The defense tackled better. Players fit the right run gaps and did not freely surrender the edge, letting running backs free for huge gains. There weren’t many coverage breakdowns.
And, perhaps most important, the players took advantage of the opportunities presented to them and made Chicago pay for its mistakes. That’s not something the Saints have done often this season. The key now is to sustain it.
“I’m proud of it. That’s how it’s got to be every time, though,” Vaccaro said. “I shouldn’t be proud of effort. Honestly, it should just come. It should be like that every game.”
In an up-and-down season, it once again appears the Saints are on an upswing heading into the final stretch. With any luck, they’ll figure out a way to sustain this effort and prove the changes are here to stay.