Mickles: Saints’ focus on ball security secures another win

CHICAGO — With another head coach in charge, it might have been easy — or somewhat easier, anyway — for the New Orleans Saints to have enough reasons to lose Sunday’s game with the Chicago Bears.

It started with a banged-up Saints’ defense that was going against an improved Bears’ offense that threw 103 points up on the scoreboard in its previous three games. Also, they were facing a team looking to bounce back from its first loss, there was a chance of bad weather, and the Saints were playing on a short week after crushing the Miami Dolphins last Monday night.

Last, but certainly not least, were the three losses the Saints suffered in Soldier Field from 2006 to 2008.

While at least one of the six players on the roster who had experienced all three setbacks was adamant it would not have a bearing on Sunday’s game, there was no denying the Saints were snake-bitten in their past three visits to Chicago.

In other words, there was a lot of stuff going on there.

But as it turned out on a beautiful 60-degree afternoon, not too much for Sean Payton and the Saints to overcome.

As usual, Payton came up with the motivational tactics, and, more importantly, the masterful game plan that carried his team to a 26-18 win in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

While the offense was playing a little more closer to the vest than we’re accustomed to seeing, the Saints’ new-look defense was doing another solid job in holding an opponent to fewer than 19 points for a fifth consecutive game.

The biggest thing was taking care of the ball, which Payton stressed over and over from the minute the Saints reported to work Wednesday morning.

In the three games the Saints lost at Soldier Field, they turned the ball over a total of nine times. That certainly made it easier for him to identify the theme for the week: Ball security.

Making it even easier was the fact that the Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways in 2012 and already had 14 in their first four games.

The hard part was going out and doing it, which Drew Brees and his offensive teammates accomplished when they ran 65 plays from scrimmage and didn’t put the ball on the ground or in the hands of Bears’ defenders.

It’s a formula that has worked so well for the Saints over the years since Payton arrived in 2006. In seven-plus seasons, the Saints are 24-1 and 2-0 in the playoffs when they don’t give the ball away.

In order to do that against the Bears’ aggressive defense, Brees had to focus on getting the ball more to his tight ends and running backs and not so much to his wide receivers, who were targeted just six times in 35 pass attempts.

With the Saints’ defense setting the tone early by rattling Bears quarterback Jay Cutler with three sacks in the first 16 minutes, the offense was willing to take the conservative (a word that isn’t used a lot in the Saints’ offensive lexicon) route to a victory.

“We know what their formula is for winning here,” Brees said of the Bears’ defense. “It’s taking the ball away, it’s giving their offense opportunities, it’s making you try to get impatient.”

So they took care of that formula with their own formula. Which, parlayed with the defensive performance, resulted in another satisfying victory.

The win put the Saints in great position going into Sunday’s big game with the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium. Like the Bears, the Patriots will be angry as they’ll also be coming off their first loss: a head-scratching 13-6 setback Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals.

But after beating a quality team on the road, in a tough place to play, the Saints are on a roll as one of only three remaining undefeated teams.

While they face a stiff challenge in the Patriots, they also know what comes after that: an off week. So finishing the first six-game stretch of the season with a 6-0 record would be a huge boost after what happened last year.

At this point, while still fairly early in the season, the Saints are threatening to run away with the NFC South title — much like the Atlanta Falcons did a year ago when they claimed it by Halloween, or at least seemed like they did, in eventually winning by six games.

But the Saints know there’s a long way to go before they can even begin to think about what awaits them in late December and January.

“This group has worked hard,” Payton said. “They’ve been very eager to please. We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to clean up as well now.

“We did enough (Sunday) to win, and yet there are still some things that we’ve got to look to get better at.”