On the surface, Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears appears to be a classic matchup of one of the NFL’s most productive offenses squaring off with one of the league’s toughest defenses.
While Drew Brees and the Saints go to work against the new Monsters of the Midway, with a cast that features All-Pros in middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Julius Peppers, another unit will be trying to make headlines of a different kind.
The Saints’ defense will be trying to atone for a poor first half in a 42-34 season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers and create headlines of its own in their home opener at noon in the Superdome.
The Packers’ offense scored four touchdowns on its first five possessions and had 277 total yards in rolling to a 21-0 lead en route to an eventual 28-17 halftime advantage.
But the Saints were encouraged after they tightened up in the second half and allowed just 122 yards and one touchdown, forcing three punts on the Packers’ four possessions — the last one giving the offense a chance to go down and tie the game.
“I thought we tackled better in the second half and the third-down numbers were better,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of his team’s improvement after a rocky first half.
The goal this week is to carry that over to the game with the Bears, who opened a lot of eyes with 377 total yards in a 30-12 beating of the Atlanta Falcons.
“I really don’t think we lost confidence in ourselves,” Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said of their slow start. “It was one of those games where you had two real good offenses on the field. The Packers’ defense, who I have a lot of respect for because they’re one of the best in the league, they also struggled and gave up a lot of yards and points.
“Aaron Rodgers came out hot, and we just had to weather the storm,” he said. “Once we made some adjustments, we got some stops.”
“That was a real big accomplishment for us, especially with the offense the Packers have,” defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. “We just need to play like that the whole ball game, and I think we’re capable of doing those things.”
They’ll have to do it this week against a Bears’ offense that had its way against the Falcons.
Oft-criticized quarterback Jay Cutler connected on 22 of 32 passes for 312 yards and two TDs with one interception and a passer rating of 107.8 against the Falcons.
One of the main thorns in the Falcons’ side was Slidell native and former Tulane running back Matt Forté, who rushed for 68 yards and led the Bears with five receptions for 90 yards. One of his catches was a screen pass that he turned into a 56-yard touchdown.
“I’ve seen them throw a seam route to him down the field, down the seam where a safety would be,” Jenkins said. “He can catch the ball and he runs good routes, so we have to make sure we know where he is at all times. We have to make sure we’re focused on him.
“They looked real good, but they really don’t get as much props as they should because that defense is so good,” he said. “But if you watched them last week, they executed well and Cutler managed the game well. He made great throws and didn’t force anything, so that’s a winning formula.”
“He looked sharp the other day,” he said. “When you have a defense that’s playing as well as they played, you begin to understand that there are a lot of other things that can help you in your performance as a quarterback. He has an extremely live arm and can pretty much make all the throws you look for. It was a good start for him.”
This time, it’s the Saints who will be looking for a faster start.
Jenkins said making early stops and giving the offense some scoring opportunities could be a key in the long run.
“I just think with the style of offense that we play, if our offense can get a two-score lead or something like, that the other offense will feel like it has to keep up the pace,” he said. “That plays right into our hands because we can send some pressures, and they have to throw the ball a few more times.
“But it all goes hand-in-hand. We’ve got to be able to get off the field and give our offense opportunities with takeaways and things like that.”
The Saints failed to force the Packers to turn the ball over, which Jenkins said was frustrating, but they also failed to get enough pressure on Rodgers with their front four. Both of their sacks came from blitz pressure.
They hope to change that against a Bears’ offense that gave up five sacks to the Falcons. Cutler was dropped 52 times last year when the Bears allowed a total of 56 sacks.
“Obviously, we’ve got a better chance this week,” Ellis said of the difference in facing Cutler and Rodgers. “(Cutler) holds the ball a little bit longer, and that could give us chances to get back there and disrupt him. We’re looking forward to that opportunity.”