Top storyline: Saints aim to keep rolling against Bears
After putting on a clinic on both sides of the ball the past two weeks in the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints (4-0) have a big challenge awaiting them Sunday, when they venture out of their comfort zone.
The Saints have started 5-0 just three times in the 47-year history of the franchise, and making it four will certainly be a challenge — their second-biggest of the still-young season — against the Chicago Bears (3-1).
Forget for a moment that the Bears are tied for the top spot in the NFC North after just one quarter of the regular season, which obviously makes them a worthy opponent.
Adding to the challenge is the venue. Soldier Field, with its tricky winds and a grass surface that’s anything but fast, hasn’t exactly been kind to the Saints since Sean Payton took over in 2006.
But nearly five years after losing there for the third season in a row in December 2008, the Saints will be back to try to wash away the awful memories.
The Saints return with an offense that came around and scored 69 points in the past two games after sputtering in their first two outings.
They could find more resistance from a surface that will likely be softened by days of rain than from a Bears defense that hasn’t looked the same without All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
On the other side, a Bears offense that cost longtime coach Lovie Smith his job last fall has shown improvement under first-year coach Marc Trestman and has scored more than 30 points in each of the past three games.
About the Bears
First-year coach Marc Trestman’s team is coming off its first loss of the season — an error-filled 40-32 setback against the Detroit Lions.
Despite the loss, it’s been a pretty decent start for Trestman — a 57-year-old first-time NFL head coach who hasn’t coached in the league since 2004.
Trestman, a highly-successful coach with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes for the past five seasons, desperately needed to get off to a good start after replacing Lovie Smith.
Smith was fired after leading the Bears to a 10-6 record last season, but his team missed out on the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons following an appearance in Super Bowl XLI after the 2006 season.
His demise brought on Trestman, a curious selection to pick up the pieces although his expertise is on the offensive side of the ball.
Getting quarterback Jay Cutler to play up to his potential on a consistent basis is a key for Trestman and his team’s postseason chances.
Key matchup: Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Bears defense
After throwing four interceptions in the first three games — which gave him 23 in 19 games dating to the start of the 2012 season — Brees was not picked in a blowout of the Miami Dolphins on Monday night.
That’s good news because the Bears know how to take the ball away with a league-leading 14 takeaways in four games this season after coming up with 44 turnovers to lead the NFL in 2012 — topped by cornerback Tim Jennings’ nine picks.
As a result, ball security has been a hot topic for the coaches and Brees since they started preparing for the Bears.
That concern carries over to the wide receivers and backs, who must be wary of pursuing Bears trying to strip the ball after catches or on running plays.
X factor: Bears KR Devin Hester
If you thought Bears kick returner Devin Hester has started to slow down just a bit since he celebrated his 30th birthday last November, think again.
As one of the most electrifying return men in NFL history, Hester, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, is still as elusive as ever.
Hester, who has returned 12 punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns in the regular-season and also had a 92-yard TD return on the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI, remains a dynamic threat in the kicking game for the Bears.
In a Week 2 win against the Minnesota Vikings, Hester recorded a Bears’ single-game record with 249 yards on five kickoff returns with an 80-yarder — shattering his club mark of 225 set during his rookie season in 2006.
Of course, the Saints will be trying to keep Hester, who burned them for a 62-yard punt return for a score in 2007, in check with the booming kickoffs and directional punting of All-Pro Thomas Morstead.
Three and out
1ROAD SUCCESS: Since Sean Payton became their coach in 2006, the Saints have put together the second-best road record in the NFL with a 34-23 mark. The only problem is, they’re 0-2 in Chicago’s Soldier Field, where they’ll try to win Sunday for the first time since 2000.
2GOING HOME:Payton spent his high school years in the Chicago suburb of Naperville and later played three games at quarterback with the “Spare Bears” as a replacement player when NFL players went on strike in 1987. His last game was against the Saints.
3OH, BROTHER: With their parents sitting in the stands, the two backup quarterbacks — the Saints’ Luke McCown and Bears’ Josh McCown — will meet for the third time as NFL players with each sibling having one victory from their two matchups back in 2008.