New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has moved on from the 38-17 thrashing his team dealt to the Miami Dolphins to improve to 4-0 on Monday night.
His new fixation: protecting the football against a Chicago Bears defense that has taken it away from opponents more than anyone else in the NFL has.
The 3-1 Bears’ 14 takeaways are tops in the league as they prepare to host the Saints at Soldier Field at noon Sunday. It appears Chicago picked up right where it left off in 2012, when the Bears — under former coach Lovie Smith — led the NFL with 44 takeaways.
That helped the Bears finish with a solid 10-6 record, but they didn’t qualify for the playoffs, resulting in Smith’s firing. The Bears replaced Smith with Marc Trestman, who had been coaching in the Canadian Football League the previous four years.
Anyone hoping the Bears’ knack for creating turnovers would dissipate during the transition from Smith to Trestman was in store for disappointment. Chicago has won three of its first four games this year by intercepting quarterbacks six times and recovering eight of the 10 fumbles its defense has caused.
“They take the ball away better than anyone,” Payton said about the Bears on Tuesday. “It’s a credit to (Trestman) and those guys on defense.”
Eight Bears players have caused fumbles, led by seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, safety Major Wright and Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings, who each have forced two. Six players have recovered fumbles: defensive end Corey Wootton (two), linebacker James Anderson, Jennings, eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers (for a touchdown), defensive end Shea McClellin, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton and linebacker Blake Costanzo.
Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman and Wright lead the Bears with two interceptions each (Wright returned one of his for a touchdown). Jennings and safety Chris Conte each have one interception (Jennings returned his for a score).
The Bears’ three defensive touchdowns are the most in the league, and they’re one of the reasons why Chicago opened the season with wins over Cincinnati (2-2), against Minnesota (1-3) and at Pittsburgh (0-4) before losing at Detroit (3-1) in Week 4.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen by accident,” Payton said about the Bears, to whom he’s lost the three times he’s gone to Soldier Field since taking charge in New Orleans in 2006. “To have the numbers they’ve had, it’s something that’s obviously emphasized and worked on.”
Payton singled out Tillman as a player to be wary of. Tillman is perhaps the best ball-stripper in the NFL — the 11th-year player has forced an astounding 40 fumbles, a quarter of which were in 2012, according to the Bears. He has one this year.
“There’s a skill set involved in that,” Payton said. “There’s a simple effort involved in that, kind of a want-to.”
The good news for the Saints is that their players on offense have done a good job of shielding the football through four games. The Saints surrendered their first fumble Monday night, when running back Darren Sproles was dispossessed at the end of a game in which he scored two touchdowns and accounted for 222 all-purpose yards.
Quarterback Drew Brees has tossed four interceptions in the process of passing for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns while completing almost 67 percent of his throws.
But New Orleans, ranked seventh in takeaways, has the same plus-5 turnover margin that Chicago has after safety Rafael Bush, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Roman Harper have each recovered a fumble. Harper, cornerback Chris Carr, cornerback Jabari Greer, linebacker Will Herring, safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro have each picked off a pass for a total of seven interceptions in the wins over Atlanta (1-3), Tampa Bay (0-4), Arizona (2-2) and Miami.
Saints wide receiver Marques Colston on Tuesday said he and his teammates were on notice that their main focus for upcoming practices was going to be ball protection.
“We say it time and time again, (turnovers are) the number one stat in football,” Colston said. “That’s going to lead you to the winner or lose of any given game.
“Going on the road against an opportunistic defense, we’ve got to protect the ball on offense.”
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