N.0. defense clamps down in key situations against Chicago
CHICAGO — Even with extra plays, Chicago couldn’t dent the Saints’ end zone in the second half Sunday — or least not until it was all but too late.
As result, New Orleans is one of three teams in the NFL and the only one in the NFC, at 5-0 and the Saints defense continues its remarkable turnaround from a year ago, even if it did give up season highs in yards and points.
“Those were big stops — close plays that could have gone either way,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We contested enough, and we just hung in there.”
An ineligible receiver on an incomplete pass from the 4 resulted in the Saints taking the penalty, giving the Bears three instead of two more shots at the touchdown before having to settle for a field goal late in the third quarter.
And in the fourth period, Keenan Lewis’ defense of Jay Cutler’s fourth-down pass for Earl Bennett stopped another threat, preserving what was then a 23-10 lead.
It meant that when the Bears finally did get a touchdown with 2:11 left, there wasn’t going to be time for another.
“Red zone, red zone, red zone,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said after his team’s 26-18 victory. “(Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan) takes a lot of pride in controlling that because that’s his baby.
“He’ll let the other coaches do third down and stuff, but the red zone is his. He knows you can give up yards, but keeping them out of the end zone is what wins games.”
The third-quarter sequence was reminiscent of the end of the opener against Atlanta when the Falcons had four shots from the 3 and fell short.
This time, after the penalty pushed the ball back to the 9, Lewis and Rafael Bush had double coverage on intended target Alshon Jeffrey on first down, Corey White denied Matt Forte in the end zone on second down, and on third down, the play went nowhere because of the Saints coverage.
“By that last play, I don’t think they knew what to do,” Bush said. “That’s the way Rob wants it.
“Frustrate them so much on the other plays that they don’t have a good one left.”
Lewis’ play wasn’t technically in the red zone (the Bears were at the 25), but felt like it, pressure-wise, as the home team decided that three points wouldn’t be enough when trailing by 13 with 8:45 left and facing fourth-and-2.
Lewis, who had broken up an identical attempt to Bennett on the previous play, didn’t get a hand on this one.
But he did get his hand in Bennett’s eyes enough to distract the Bears’ receiver, who failed to reach far enough for the ball.
“It’s like when you’re driving and somebody puts his hand in front of your eyes,” said Lewis, who last season with Pittsburgh led the league with passes defended with 28 but who had only three thus far with the Saints. “You might still be driving, but you’re sure not driving that car correctly.”
Early on Sunday, the Saints were blitzing more than they had been in earlier games.
The change of habits resulted in three sacks of Cutler, one by Jenkins which caused a fumble that was recovered by Cameron Jordan and returned to the Bears 6, setting up a field goal.
After that, the Bears adjusted and Cutler made hay with his running ability to force the Saints’ back into zone coverage.
But the tone for the day had been established. Chicago, which came into the game averaging 31.8 points per game, had just two first downs on its first five possessions.
And of the Bears’ 434 yards, 174 came in the fourth quarter when the clock was working against them despite the Saints only getting two field goals in the second half.
“There were some times near the end when I thought we let up,” Jenkins said. “We were doing some dumb things in the two-minute drill that gave them life.
“We won’t be able to do that (next week) against Tom Brady and a smart New England team. We’ve got to be critical of ourselves and not believe all of the hype we’re going to get.”