CHICAGO — As passing options for New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees go, second-year pro Josh Hill is third among his team’s tight ends behind All-Pro Jimmy Graham and 11-year veteran Benjamin Watson.
Of course, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham is usually the prime target whenever the Saints offense reaches the red zone.
But not Monday night, when Hill snared two of Brees’ three scoring passes in the Saints’ crucial 31-15 victory against the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field.
Hill, who earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2013, caught touchdowns of 8 and 7 yards from Brees after the offense struggled to a scoreless tie with the Bears in the first quarter.
Hill’s first touchdown came on the first play of the second period and helped get the Saints going in the right direction in a game they absolutely had to have to take over first place in the NFC South.
“It definitely was a big game for this team,” said Hill, a 6-foot-5, 250-pounder who leads the Saints in special teams tackles. “We made some big plays on some great calls. I was excited for the opportunity and excited for the win.”
His first touchdown capped a seven-play, 85-yard drive after Brees pierced the Bears defense with completions of 21 yards to wide receiver Kenny Stills and 31 yards to running back Pierre Thomas.
The score was actually set up on a 17-yard pass interference penalty by Bears rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller, who futilely tried to keep up with Graham on a pass tossed high into the air by a scrambling Brees.
Then, after Brees fired a 9-yard touchdown to wide receiver Marques Colston with 32 seconds left in the first half, Brees and Hill teamed up for their second score on the Saints’ first possession after halftime.
The 7-yard touchdown gave the Saints a 21-0 lead, which was more than enough against the Bears’ inept offense — which turned the ball over three times and allowed Jay Cutler to be sacked seven times.
The two touchdowns turned out to be the only catches of the night for Hill, who is valued more for his special teams work and blocking. It was the first two-score game of his 28-game NFL career.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Hill’s touchdowns came on the same play; the only difference was the Bears blitzed on the first one.
“He’s been consistent,” Payton said. “He does a lot of things well. … I get fired up when he goes down there and makes a tackle on special teams. He’s versatile, and that’s a good thing to be when you’re a tight end.”
Hill, whose five touchdowns are second on the team (Graham has nine), has 14 receptions for 176 yards this season.
He certainly came up big when the Bears paid more attention to Graham as most teams do — especially in the red zone.
“There’s no doubt they were doing some stuff (with Graham),” Hill said. “Teams always try to do something with him.
“The majority of my touchdowns have come when Jimmy is double-covered and Drew throws it to me out in the flat.”
Thomas, a Chicago area native, was also a key contributor for the Saints’ passing game with five catches for 83 yards as Brees was 29-for-36 for 375 yards and three TDs.
In addition to his 31-yard catch on the first touchdown drive, Thomas caught a 39-yard screen pass to get into Bears’ territory even though the drive ended with no points when Shayne Graham missed a 51-yard field-goal attempt.
“We were definitely frustrated when we didn’t get any points early, so we had to keep our heads up and stay focused,” Thomas said. “We couldn’t get down, so we just marched down the field and put some points on the scoreboard.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.