Saints return to the unfriendly confines of Soldier Field

Few places have been as harsh to the New Orleans Saints as Soldier Field.

The Chicago Bears have ended the Saints’ hopes for a championship in that stadium at least four times through the years. New Orleans has lost its past three games there and hasn’t triumphed at Soldier Field since Oct. 8, 2000, and a survey of NFL history books suggests the Saints don’t win there unless the weather is dry and it’s well above freezing.

When the Saints visit the Bears again Sunday, the temperature won’t be a problem, though it has rained in Chicago this week. Regardless of the conditions, Saints veterans who know what it’s like to lose at Soldier Field believe their 4-0 team can flip the script on the Bears (3-1) by drawing on lessons learned.

They can flip the script at Soldier Field, they said, by capitalizing on a strength they didn’t have on previous trips — a fierce defensive front that’s creating turnovers and giving a potent offense a wealth of opportunities.

“This is going to be a big challenge,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “But we have the right people to get it done.”

The Bears defeated the Saints once in each of the first three seasons of the coach Sean Payton era either by snatching the ball away or tearing off huge plays on special teams.

In a 39-14 win in the 2006 NFC Championship game, the Bears seized on four turnovers by the Saints, who came up with none. The Bears and Saints each had three turnovers when they met the following regular season, but New Orleans surrendered a 64-yard touchdown on a Devin Hester punt return on the way to a 33-25 defeat that eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Saints were plus-1 in turnovers when the teams met in 2008, but they gave up a 93-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff and ultimately lost 27-24 in overtime.

“They thrive on turnovers,” said Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem, who played in the 2008 game and was with the team in 2007. “That’s one of our Achilles heels there ... (and) big returns can change the game on special teams.”

A new regime is in charge of the Bears, but the culture of emphasizing turnovers and big special teams plays is alive and well under first-year coach Marc Trestman.

The Bears lead the NFL with 14 takeaways — eight off fumbles and six interceptions. Cornerback Charles Tillman, who has the reputation of being the best ball-stripper in the NFL, was questionable to play Sunday, but plenty of his teammates — nine, to be exact — have accounted for takeaways. It’s part of the reason why Chicago is off to a good start despite having a defense that has allowed 384 yards per game and is ranked 21st.

They also still have Hester, who has the most yards off kickoff returns in the league this year (453 on 14 attempts). That has helped a Bears offense featuring quarterback Jay Cutler’s strong arm as well as the playmaking of receiver Brandon Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett and ex-Tulane running back Matt Forte.

The Saints have been secure with the ball, losing just one fumble late in the 38-17 win over Miami in Week 4. Nonetheless, one of the major areas of emphasis around the Saints training facility this week was ball protection, right guard Jahri Evans said.

“They really do have an unusually strong ability at getting the ball out,” said Evans, who has been with the Saints since 2006. “The team is built around that. ... There is no bigger correlation to winning or losing in this league than turnovers.”

New Orleans also has done a good job of making the opposition deal with long fields. But Meachem said special teams players have been repeatedly warned by coaches that they must “be special” to contain Hester, whose kickoff returns this year include one of 80 yards and another of 76.

Asked what gave them confidence that they could leave Soldier Field with a 5-0 record, Saints players repeatedly mentioned a defense and pass rush that has generated a dozen sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 47 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

That kind of pressure is something the Saints lacked on their previous trips to Soldier Field, and it has facilitated New Orleans’ 10 takeaways.

Those takeaways have kept New Orleans’ offense on the field an NFL-best 34 minutes per game in spite of a rushing attack that’s 25th in the league at 81 yards per contest. And millions have seen what quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Darren Sproles and their pals on offense can do with that much time to work with.

“It’s amazing ... with the running game not being as good as we want it to be,” Evans said. “Once we get everything working, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”