New Orleans has been one of the top offenses in the NFL since it won the Super Bowl in 2009, but has struggled mightily on defense in recent seasons. And, of course, it had to overcome the stain of Bountygate in 2012 without their head coach.
But Sean Payton is back this season and he brought a new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, along with him. Suddenly, the 4-0 Saints are looking like they could be the most complete team in the NFC.
Along with Jets coach Rex Ryan, Rob is one of the twin sons of legendary Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Although Rob doesn’t run dad’s “46,” he does run an attacking 3-4 defense that many thought the Saints didn’t have the personnel to play. So far, these Saints are proving everybody wrong.
It still all starts, though, with the NFL’s most productive offense, led by All Pro quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown for more than 5,000 yards each of the past two seasons and is on that pace again this year.
Brees gets rid of the ball as quickly as anyone in the league, is remarkably accurate, and Payton and he seem to be able to read each other’s minds. Brees’ only foible is he will throw the occasional interception, and the Bears have a habit of turning those into six points.
The ground game is spread fairly evenly among Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, with both as likely to be used as receivers. Sproles averages more than 10 yards a catch in the passing game and is the most dangerous third-down back in the league.
The Saints’ offensive line seems to shed Pro Bowlers – Carl Nicks to Tampa two years ago and Jermon Bushrod to the Bears this year – without losing too much in effectiveness. They are allowing an average of 2½ sacks a game, but when your quarterback throws 42 times a game and leaves the pocket as often as a groundhog leaves his hole in winter, that’s going to happen.
This could be the key matchup in the ballgame. The Bears have not been able to get pressure from just their front four, and blitzing the Saints can be a suicide mission. Stephen Paea missed practice all week and will be questionable. Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin absolutely must show up.
Jimmy Graham is the best receiving tight end in football and a matchup nightmare for every safety and linebacker in the league. Will Mel Tucker try and cover him with Major Wright and/or Chris Conte in bracket coverage?
Marques Colston’s a true No. 1 receiver and Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem provide plenty of depth.
How have the Saints surprised on defense?
Cameron Jordan was drafted in the first round out of California three years ago to play end in the 4-3 but has proved a natural at the five technique in Ryan’s 3-4 and already has three sacks.
Rookie John Jenkins was the 82nd player chosen in the draft this year and at 6-foot-3, 359 pounds, he’s been a force at nose tackle. Akiem Hicks was the 89th player chosen last year out of Regina College in Canada, and at 6-5, 330, he has dominated at times as the other three technique. They’re unknowns who’ve been extremely productive.
Junior Galette has been extremely active at one of the outside rush linebacker spots and David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton are tackling machines as the inside linebackers.
Rookie first-round safety Kenny Vacarro is an early frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year, and fellow defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins, Jabarri Greer and Keenan Lewis all are extremely productive.
This is a different 3-4 from the Steelers in how it attacks, and the Bears’ ability to keep Jay Cutler clean will dictate whether they can afford a shootout with the Saints.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.