Saints adapt to situation against Bears to remain unbeaten
The Saints used a different formula to beat Chicago on Sunday than in their first four games, and coach Sean Payton views that adaptability as a huge positive.
Drew Brees threw for fewer than 300 yards for the first time in 10 games.
Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery had 10 catches for 218 yards after no opposing receiver had reached 100 yards this year against New Orleans.
Yet the Saints were in complete control all the way, scoring on their opening possession of their 26-18 win and leading by double digits for all but the last 2:11 of the second half.
“The one thing we’ve tried to preach all year is each game is not necessarily played the same way,” Payton said Monday after reviewing the video. “Understanding as a team what it takes to win that specific game is an important trait, and we’re beginning to get it. … That game was much different from other ones we’d won earlier in the year. It’s just understanding and being able to play smart football.”
The Saints bothered the Bears with a series of blitzes that produced three sacks and a fumble by quarterback Jay Cutler in the first 16 minutes. On offense, Brees took what the conservative Chicago defense gave him, throwing 26 of his 29 completions to his running backs and tight ends, and targeting his wide receivers only six times.
“That’s just complementary football,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose strip sack of Cutler on the Bears’ second series led to a Garrett Hartley field goal. “We did a great job, especially early in the game, of getting three-and-outs or getting shortened drives. And then our offense does a great job with just sustaining drives, winning on third down.”
They also did a masterful job holding on to the ball, running 65 plays without committing a turnover. That was another huge point of emphasis in preparation for Chicago, which had forced an NFL-high 14 turnovers entering the game and led the league in the same category a year ago.
The Bears had at least one takeaway in 10 consecutive games dating to a 32-7 loss to San Francisco last November.
“It’s tough to get wins when you play on the road against a good team like that,” Payton said. “There are certain things you have to do to give yourself a chance to win, and that was one of them. We handled that element real well.”
Good individual plays took care of the rest. With the Saints ahead 13-7, running back Pierre Thomas avoided traffic in the backfield on fourth-and-1 and slithered through a small hole to pick up a pivotal first down in the last minute of the first half. Two plays later, he had a 25-yard touchdown on a screen pass to put New Orleans ahead by two scores.
Thomas, a Chicago native, was much more effective than his final rushing numbers (19 carries, 36 yards) indicated, also scoring the Saints’ first touchdown on a 2-yard reception.
“He’s someone that gets to the cavity in the defense the right way,” Payton said. “He kind of finds the crease.”
Cutler’s final numbers were misleading, too. He went 24-of-33 for 358 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions, but almost all of his damage came after the Bears fell behind 13-0.
Jenkins lamented a defensive letdown in the second half, giving the Saints something to work on as they try to remain undefeated when they play at New England on Sunday. Denver and Kansas City are the only other NFL teams with perfect records through five games.
“We’re finding a way to win that’s different pretty much every week, and that’s a good sign for a team. But I wouldn’t say we’re totally complete yet,” Jenkins said. “The defense kind of let off the gas a little bit and gave that team a little bit of hope, and that’s something we can’t do against these top teams. There’s still work to do.”
That work includes not getting content with the fast start. Jenkins said he did not care that 36 of 40 NFL teams starting 5-0 since the expansion to 12 teams in 1990 had made the postseason.
“Five wins only gets you five wins,” Jenkins said. “You’d be an idiot to listen to that stat and think you’re automatically going to the playoffs. Winning five games literally gets you nothing but five games. So people are going to throw that around and look forward, but right now, we’re just trying to get six.”