CHICAGO — In previous years under coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints most likely would have gone for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 if they were leading 3-0 midway through the first quarter of a tough road game.
But on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, the Saints kicked a field goal, trusting their defense to protect the lead and afford the offense more shots at touchdowns later on.
They were right, and the Saints defeated the Bears 26-18, triumphing at Soldier Field for the first time in four tries since Payton took charge in New Orleans in 2006.
“We did what we needed to do to get a good road victory,” Payton said. “It wasn’t always perfect or clean ... but it was good.”
After throwing for 288 yards and two touchdowns to running back Pierre Thomas, quarterback Drew Brees added, “We knew the formula coming into the game was to remain patient, to run the football effectively, to be very efficient in the passing game and to take care of the football — priority number one.”
The plan prevented Brees from extending his league record streak of nine games with 300 or more passing yards. He targeted backs and tight ends underneath 29 times and wideouts just six times, sacrificing gaudy gains for sure ones.
But that stance also prevented a Bears team that entered the contest with an NFL-high 14 takeaways from creating a turnover, which the Saints all week said would be key to improving to 5-0.
“Every game doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be 40 points and a blowout,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “Sometimes in these games, what’s smarter is to be conservative, to try and grind a game out, to take your shots when you get them.”
That started with the decision on fourth-and-goal from the Chicago 1 with 6:03 in the opening period to settle for a 19-yard field goal from kicker Garrett Hartley, who had already nailed a 47-yarder and would tack on a 36-yarder and a 48-yarder for a 4-for-4 outing.
The short-yardage situation presented itself after Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler at Chicago’s 13 on a blind-side blitz, causing a fumble that defensive end Cameron Jordan recovered at the 17 and returned to the 6.
The Saints defense rewarded the patience Payton showed at the 1, forcing punts on Chicago’s next three possessions. Two of those punts were facilitated by sacks from linebacker David Hawthorne and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who also blitzed from Cutler’s blind side.
Vaccaro’s sack was the first of his career and helped up the Saints’ season total to 15. Jenkins’ and Vaccaro’s sacks were the first by the secondary, a surprise defensive coordinator Rob Ryan deployed to confuse Chicago early.
That set up the Saints to take over at their 28 with 9:19 left in the first half, and New Orleans opened up the passing game. Brees completed throws of 29 and 38 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham (10 catches for 135 yards) before Thomas caught a 2-yard scoring reception to put New Orleans up 13-0.
Chicago (3-2) answered with a seven-play, 80-yard drive that Cutler (24-of-33, 358 yards and two TDs) finished with a 3-yard touchdown pass to receiver Alshon Jeffery to make it 13-7. But then it was the Saints’ turn to give their defense another chance.
Faced with fourth-and-1 at Chicago’s 27 with 46 seconds left in the half, Payton didn’t hesitate to dial up a handoff to Thomas — even though the rushing attack ended up with its lowest total of the year, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry for 66 yards on 28 attempts.
Thomas picked up the first down with a 2-yard rush and soon after caught a screen pass from Brees. Thomas followed a block from guard Ben Grubbs and ran up the left sideline. The Saints had no timeouts, but Thomas cut inside, hoping there would be enough on the clock for his team to kick a field goal.
“I just (said) to myself, ‘You don’t have too much time. Get as close as you can to that touchdown — or get it,’ ” he said.
Thomas got it and helped New Orleans to a 20-7 halftime lead that would be insurmountable.
In the second half, Hartley kicked two field goals for New Orleans, which punted on its other two possessions. Chicago managed a 27-yard Robbie Gould field goal, a 2-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall, a two-point conversion off a rush from ex-Tulane running back Matt Forte and a turnover on downs.
It will bother the Saints that Jeffery had receptions of 58 and 42 yards in the second half on the way to a 10-catch, 218-yard performance. Though the Bears outgained New Orleans 434-347, the Saints produced important stops — best illustrated on a Chicago drive that ate about seven minutes off the clock before ending on an incomplete, fourth-and-2 pass at the Saints’ 25. Also, to hold the Bears to Gould’s field goal, the Saints forced three straight incomplete passes after Chicago got to its 9.
Meanwhile, a Saints offense that gained just 125 yards in the second half remained cautious. Aside from avoiding turnovers, it helped the Saints retain the ball for 36 minutes, its best of the year.
A favorable time of possession was another aspect Payton considered crucial to beating Chicago at Soldier Field.
Thomas, a Chicago native, said he understands the win in his hometown is going to inspire lots of discussion about the Saints seeming to be championship contenders. But he said all the Saints care about now is next Sunday’s opponent: the New England Patriots (4-1) at Foxboro Stadium.
“You’ve got to ... not get over-excited,” Thomas said. “Because once you do that, bad things start happening.”