Friday, January 19, 2007

Insert Lame Saints Pun Here

When the Saints come marching . . . oh, never mind. Though it appears to be required this week, I can't bring myself to engage in the lame pun-ditry involving the Saints and references to New Orleans food, music and culture. I'm just too freakin' excited. I mean, holy crap, I'm wound up. Last weekend, I spent the entire game rocking slowly in my living room chair. This week I may have to investigate how my insurance policy handles ulcer surgeries.

It's just that we, Bears fans, have rarely been in this exact position. I guess some people felt the 1984 Bears had a chance against San Francisco after a magical win at Washington, but I never felt like the Bears were going to the Super Bowl that year. Conversely, in 1985, I never doubted that the Bears would dominate the Rams. Again in 1988, it was clear to most that an overachieving Bears team, with no healthy quarterbacks, could never beat the mighty 49ers. So, this is the first time the Bears sit one game from the Super Bowl, and I feel a mix of hope and anxiety.

These are two very closely balanced teams. Though the Bears were three games better in the standings, the Bears played their best football at the beginning of the season. That Bears team, from before the Arizona game, would handle the Saints, even on their best day. But that Bears team ceased to exist when Mike Brown and Tommie Harris went down. Still, the team that remains is at least as good as the Saints, who are excellent in some facets, and deeply flawed in others.

When the Saints have the ball the two teams will pit strength versus strength. No, the Bears defense is not as good as it was before losing two stars, but it's still one of the better in football. New Orleans had the 4th most efficient passing attack and 10th best rushing attack in the NFL this season. Drew Brees was one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFC. He completed 65% of his passes for 4,322 yards and 26 touchdowns. He did turn the ball over 13 times. His best receiver was Marques Colston, who caught 61% of the passes directed his way, for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. The Saints also got big contributions from Devery Henderson (59% completion, 745 yards, five touchdowns) and Joe Horn (61% completion, 679 yards, four touchdowns). Then there's running back Reggie Bush, who caught 73% of the passes directed his way, for 748 yards and two touchdowns. You get the idea. Lots of weapons.

The Bears had the 2nd best pass defense in the league this year. People have lamented the recent lack of a pass rush, but the Bears compiled that ranking despite not getting much pressure all season. When you adjust the Bears' sacks for the number of pass attempts by their opponents, the Bears rank only 21st in the league rushing the passer. The Bears' pass defense is keyed by their ability to cover people. You can put away Henderson and Horn. The Bears ranked second in the league stopping #2 wide receivers, and sixth stopping #3 wide outs. And, you can take a breath about Bush. The Bears' excellent linebackers and safeties combined to post the 3rd best numbers in football stopping running backs in the passing game. But this whole game could hinge on the Bears' ability to control Colston. The Bears were just 21st in the league against top receivers, and Colston has become a true #1 as a rookie. Peanut Tillman did an excellent job when the Bears asked him to take away the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress, who many see as a model for Colston. The Bears need Tillman to do it again, but make no mistake, Colston is already a far better player than Burress.

Of course, if you stop the pass, you still need to deal with New Orleans' top-10 rushing attack. Deuce McAllister, once one of the most overrated running backs in football, returned from his knee injury a new, and much better back. He gained 1,061 yards on 245 carries, and 11 touchdowns. But most impressively for the former boom or bust specialist, he was seventh in the league in success rate, which measures a back's ability to consistently get the yards his team needs -- four yards on first down, three yards on third and two, etc. Conversely, Bush, who gained 559 yards on 154 carries, ranked 39th in success rate. As dangerous as Bush is in the passing game, he's a serious risk in the ground game. I doubt you'll see Bush carry the ball often as the Saints try to avoid third and long situations. So, it'll be a lot of McAllister straight ahead. Why do I say straight ahead? More than half of New Orleans' runs this year were between the guards. And, that's where they enjoyed their most success, ranking 10th in the league in yards per carry on those types of runs. Of course, that's where teams attacked Chicago most often this year too. Forty-two percent of runs against the Bears targeted the middle of the line. Fortunately, it's a myth that the Bears' vulnerability lies up the middle. The Bears ranked fifth in the entire league stopping runs up the middle.

No matter how well the Bears' defense plays, and unless Colston explodes I suspect they'll play pretty well, they're going to give up some points to the Saints' offense. The Saints are just too good on that side of the ball. So, the Bears' offense will need to do some producing of its own. When the Bears have the ball you'll see the 18th ranked offense face off against the 19th ranked defense. Scintillating. The Bears' offensive strength is their ninth ranked rushing attack. Thomas Jones was 11th among running backs in overall production, and the 19th most efficient back. Cedric Benson was 18th in overall production, and 10th in efficiency. Together, they combined for 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most of that damage came between the guards, although the Bears actually had a better inside/outside split than the Saints. But the Bears led the league in yards per carry between the guards, where the Saints are only average defensively. Plus, the Bears also enjoyed success running off-tackle behind John Tait. Meanwhile, the Saints ranked 20th in run defense and were 25th against off-tackle runs to their right. In other words, the Bears can use John Tait to attack the Saints' pass rush specialist Will Smith to great effect.

The potential for the Bears to move the ball on the ground means they won't have to rely too heavily on their 23rd ranked passing attack. Rex Grossman finished the season with 3,052 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he also turned the ball over 25 times. He played pretty well last week, but was terrible on third down. The Bears should minimize his exposure, even against the Saints poor pass defense. The Saints were only 22nd in the league on pass defense, and a miserable 32nd defending opponents' top receivers. But the Bears' top wide out is the mediocre Muhsin Muhammad, who caught only 51% of the passes thrown his way this year. No, the key for the Bears when they have the ball will be to stick the ball in the capable arms of Jones and Benson as often as possible.

A run heavy attack will have the added benefit of minimizing the chances of Brees connecting with Colston for a big play. I'm guessing the game plan works. The Bears run the ball, "stay on schedule" offensively, control the clock, and avoid the big play largely by limiting New Orleans' opportunities. The Bears advance to the Super Bowl 20-17. Now, I'm going to go throw up.


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