Streaking Saints head to the Windy City to face the scuffling Bears
The New Orleans Saints bring their four-game winning streak to Chicago to face a Bears team hungry to start its own. New Orleans (5-1) continues to churn out victories without Drew Brees steering the wheel of the offense. The Saints improved to 4-0 without the future Hall of Fame quarterback in the starting lineup, beating Jacksonville 13-6 on the road last week in a lackluster matchup of backup signal-callers. The defense did the heavy lifting, as the two field goals were the fewest points allowed by New Orleans since shutting out Miami in London in Week 4 of the 2017 season.
Speaking of London, Chicago (3-2) has had two weeks to mull over its inexplicable flop across the pond against Oakland. The Bears' offense appeared jet-lagged in the first half as they punted four times and Chase Daniel threw a costly interception. Matt Nagy's team woke up in the third quarter with three touchdowns and held a slim led late in the fourth, but the Raiders scored right after the two-minute warning and then picked off Daniel one more time to seal the 24-21 victory.
The all-time series between these two teams is tied at 15-15. At home, Chicago is 15-7 against New Orleans but the Saints have won the past four meetings regardless of location.
New Orleans at Chicago
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 20 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Making do without Kamara
Already dealing with the dreaded high ankle sprain entering last week's game against Jacksonville, Kamara added a knee injury to his maladies in the win over the Jaguars. He finished the game with a team-high 11 carries but managed just 31 rushing yards, by far his lowest total this season. After not practicing all week, Kamara was ruled out for Sunday's game.
This gives Latavius Murray a chance to shine. Murray signed with New Orleans in the offseason with the expectation that he would replace Mark Ingram as the backfield complement to Kamara. Last week, he turned in his most productive outing for his new team, gaining 44 yards on eight carries to go along with 35 receiving yards on three catches. For the year, Murray has matched Kamara in terms of yards per carry (4.3) and he's been reliable (caught nine of 10 targets) when used as a receiver.
No one is expecting Murray to fully fill Kamara's shoes, but there's pressure on him to produce considering the lack of other options. New Orleans brought in former Saint Travaris Cadet for a workout earlier this week but instead signed former Lion Zach Zenner to add depth to the backfield. Last season, Zenner appeared in eight games for Detroit and gave the Lions 265 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
While the Bears won't change their approach and preparation simply because Kamara won't be playing, it will make the defense's job easier since it won't have to worry about facing the Pro Bowl back. On other side, Murray and Zenner will have their work cut out for them against a defense that ranks fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (83.0) even after getting run over by Oakland's Josh Jacobs in London two weeks ago.
2. Are the Bears capable of making monumental plays on defense to help the struggling offense?
The Bears' offense has spent much of the season in hibernation. They are 30th in the league in passing (185.4 ypg) and haven't fared much better on the ground (80.6 ypg, 26th). Their season-high for yards in a game is 298 and the team is averaging 17.4 points per contest (26th).
This has put even more pressure on the defense. And while it remains one of the stingiest units in the league, the Monsters of the Midway haven't had quite as much bite to this point compared to last season. In 2018, the Bears feasted on takeaways, generating a league-high 36, including 27 interceptions. They also did a good job of turning several of those takeaways into points, as the defense scored six times and also had a safety.
So far this season, Chicago is still forcing teams into mistakes with 10 turnovers in five games, but there's just been one defensive TD, a pick-six in Week 3 win at Washington. That game also was responsible for half of the Bears' turnovers. Let's not forget the Redskins are just 1-5 with their first win coming last week against the winless Dolphins.
Until Chicago's offense finds its rhythm it will be up to the defense to not only keep the Bears in games, but to potentially come up with the big play to help win them. That's a lot to ask of any defense, but especially ones that's going up against a Saints team that's turned it over just five times in the first six games.
3. Has Teddy Bridgewater's streak of success ended?
The Saints escaped Jacksonville with a victory despite the tepid effort of the offense. New Orleans managed just one touchdown, which didn't come until the fourth quarter. The rest of the scoring came on a pair of Wil Lutz field goals as the Saints finished the game with 18 first downs and 326 total yards.
While New Orleans has found a way to win all of its games without Drew Brees, the Saints' offense hasn't been its usual explosive self. Including the Week 2 loss against the Rams when Brees got hurt, New Orleans is averaging less than 20 points per game over its last five. Take out the 30-plus-point outbursts against Seattle and Tampa Bay and that drops to 34 total points in the other three games (Rams, Cowboys, Jaguars). If it weren't for the continued strong performance by the defense, the Saints would probably not be tied for the second-best record in the NFC.
So what has caused the sluggishness on offense? Does Brees' familiarity with Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn Jr., and others matter that much? Has the reduced role of Taysom Hill limited the creativity of head coach Sean Payton's play-calling? Are the Saints suffering significantly from the loss of Mark Ingram?
Add these questions to the fact that Kamara and tight end Jared Cook have already been ruled out and Sunday could prove to be a pivotal game not just for New Orleans but also for Bridgewater. For all of Chicago's struggles, the Bears are still one of the NFL's top defenses, ranking sixth in yards (312.2) and third in points (13.8) allowed per game.
The Saints have sustained an impressive four-game winning streak though none of the victories resemble the masterpieces of offensive fireworks typical of a Sean Payton-coached team. That is remarkable considering the prolonged absence of Drew Brees. One does have to wonder how much longer the defense will be able to do hold down opponents if the offense continues to struggle to put points on the scoreboard. Not having Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook only make things tougher on Teddy Bridgewater and company.
The Bears have a few other factors in their favor. First, they have a greater sense of urgency following a lackluster showing in London and having the bye week to stew over it. There's also the matter of wanting to stay in the hunt in the NFC North, arguably the best division, top to bottom, in the NFL this season. It also doesn't hurt that the Bears are at home for this one.
Prediction: Bears 16, Saints 13
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.