Bears facing important test against New Orleans

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Bears facing important test against New Orleans

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 10:55 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
This one matters a whole lot more than the last one, for a whole lot of reasons.

The Bears got the NFLs attention by thumping the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. But that was in Soldier Field, and Lovie Smith Bears teams are a combined 27-15 at home against NFC teams.

Sunday is on the road. It is in a dome, where Smith's Bears are 10-9. It is also against a team that one a Super Bowl two years ago and leads the NFL in yards per game since 2006, when Sean Payton took over as head coach.

So as impressive and significant as the Atlanta win was for the Bears, what the Bears now have to deal with in New Orleans is even more difficult. Add to the equation the fact that the Saints were out-pointed by the Green Bay Packers in their opener and the Bears are going into the home arena of a desperate team.

Youre supposed to win most of your home games, Smith said. But good football teams win on the road. For us of course, going in a dome, and were just playing a good football team. The Saints are one of the best teams in the NFC. So I talk a lot about improvements you make that second game.
Where to improve

With Tampa Bay going to Minnesota and the Falcons at home against a good Philadelphia team, the entire NFC South is suddenly wobbling and in danger of seeing its supposed elite teams become bottom-feeders at this early point in the season. Losses by Atlanta and New Orleans would leave the two playoff qualifiers of a year ago with 0-2 marks and trailing the rest of the NFC in tiebreakers.

But the issue for the Bears is both to prove that Week 1 against the Falcons was no anomaly and that they can play with the best on the road. In all three of the playoff seasons under Smith, the Bears have lost no more than two games on the road.

The expectation is that the offense should improve weekly as coordination develops, particularly on the offensive line. But the line will be without the right guard (Lance Louis, knee) who started every preseason game and Week 1; the backfield will not have hammer-back Marion Barber (calf) for a second week; and the receivers are expected to be minus Roy Williams (groin), although Williams was officially only questionable late in the week.

The Bears got past the Falcons despite missing TD opportunities twice in the red zone. The results were still field goals but against the scoring likes of the Saints this week and Packers next, those project to be the difference between starting 2-0 and coming home 1-1.

I think that we were very close on two, coordinator Mike Martz said. We had some penalties inside of there. We just missed the screen to a wide-open Kellen Davis a little bit. In terms of the first game, we had some very minor things happen to us that kept us from being even more a little effective down there. But that will come. We got better at that last year, too.

Dominating defense

The organization and the defense in particular were rocked this week by the death of Brian Urlachers mother Lavoyda. Urlacher was at practice Thursday and Friday and the expectation is that he will play against New Orleans and probably at an extremely high level.

Urlacher will indeed get by with a lot of help from his friends.

The team genuinely loves each other, said newcomer and safety Brandon Meriweather. That surprises me more than anything. They take up for each other, bend over backwards for each other. That inspires me a lot.

Meriweather is expected to get his first Bears start at free safety, with Major Wright sliding from free to strong safety in the absence of Chris Harris (hamstring). Meriweather, with rookie Chris Conte on the brink of increased playing time, brings a speed upgrade in the deep middle but his key will be playing within the system, not always his trademark because of his exceptional athleticism and fun in using it.

The bigger, literally, problem for the Bears is the Saints offensive line, a huge step up in class from the Atlanta front five that allowed five sacks last Sunday. Former Bear Olin Kreutz is undersized but flanked by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Kreutz may be a weaker link physically but he has powerful friends and hes a great player and he is smart, said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

We know that. Weve got our own checklist and make sure were on top of our stuff when youre going against a guy like that," Marinelli said. "Even if he wasnt here and you were playing him as an opponent, you have to be on top of it. Hes so bright and so sharp, so itll be a challenge for us.

The Bears defeat of the Falcons was due in large part to the play of the front four, which got two sacks each from tackle Henry Melton and end Julius Peppers and the fifth from tackle Amobi Okoye. If the Bears get close to that level of impact from the front, without blitzing, Drew Brees and the rest of the offense will be pressed to score at the level to which they are accustomed.

And the Bears are 42-9 under Smith when opponents score 17 or fewer points.

Special edge

Robbie Gould was a one-man coverage team with five touchbacks on seven kickoffs. Added to those starts at their 20, the Falcons started at the 15- and 6-yard lines on the two kicks they did return.

Atlanta started all 13 of its possessions in its end of the field, while the Bears defense was giving the ball to the offense either points (Urlacher TD fumble return) or the Chicago 28 or 40.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

Bears numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

In doing some post-season wrapping up of my Nerdy NFL Notebook as we begin turning the page to the 2017 season, part of it involves compiling where each team finished in big-picture team offensive and defensive categories: overall ranking (total yards), as well as team rushing and passing ranks on both sides of the ball.

So if the Bears wound up ranked 15th overall in total yards gained and allowed, they should've finished…oh, 8-8, right? It adds to the deception of some of the deeper issues that focus on a lack of playmakers, which tied into their inability to make plays when it matters most. In John Fox's 9-23 start, 18 of those games have been decided by six points or less. They've won just six of those games. 

Offensively, the Bears ranked higher in total offense than five playoff teams: Kansas City (20), Detroit (21), Miami (24), New York Giants (25) and Houston (29). They wound up 17th in rushing offense, better than four teams who advanced: Seattle (25), Green Bay (26), New York Giants (29) and Detroit (30). And their 14th-ranked passing offense ranked better than the Giants (17), Kansas City (19), Dallas (23), Miami (26), Houston (29).

On the other side of the ball, they'd be even better off before allowing 109 points over the final three losses. Their total defense ranked better than Detroit (18), Green Bay (22), Kansas City (24), Atlanta (25), Oakland (26) and Miami (29). After being gashed for 558 rushing yards the last three games, they fell to 27th in the NFL against the run (better than only 30th-ranked Miami). But the seventh-ranked pass defense, despite collecting a measly eight interceptions (among only 11 turnovers), was better than nine playoff teams: Miami (15), Pittsburgh (16), Kansas City (18), Detroit (19), the Giants (23), Oakland (24), Dallas (26), Atlanta (28) and Green Bay (31).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

What do all the hollow numbers indicate? A lack of complementary, opportunistic football, playmakers on both sides of the ball, a minus-20 turnover ratio, and a lack of quality and continuity at the quarterback position — to name a few. All of those playoff teams have more impact players (or kept more of their impact players healthy) than the Bears in 2016.

While some of the numbers aren't that bad to look at, and some even raise an eyebrow, there's still a deep climb from the most significant numbers: 3-13.

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

Bears' best rookies will have another learning curve

There's a sense of irony and, to a certain degree, concern about what changes the Bears' coaching staff has undergone.

Think of the best of Ryan Pace's 2016 rookie class: Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. They were brought along under the position group tutelage of outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, offensive line coach Dave Magazu and running backs coach Stan Drayton. The latter was the first to depart, shortly after the season ended, to return to the collegiate ranks on Texas' new staff.

He's been replaced with former 49ers and Bills offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins (also serving as that position coach in Detroit, Buffalo, Arizona and Kansas City). Howard certainly adapted to the NFL game well, more than anyone expected, as the NFL's second-leading rusher. One would think Drayton played a part in that.

Longtime John Fox assistant Magazu was also let go after the season despite the impressive move of second-round pick Whitehair to center the week of the season opener after Josh Sitton was signed following his release by Green Bay. Whitehair was sold as a "quick study" following his selection out of Kansas State, where he was a four-year starter at three different positions (but not center).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Like Howard, he wound up making the All-Rookie team, but whether he remains in the middle of the line or not, he'll be getting his orders now from Jeremiah Washburn.

Rounding out the trio of All-Rookie selections was Floyd, who was brought along by Hurtt. He impressed Fox enough to be kept around from Marc Trestman's staff, and moved from defensive line to outside linebackers.

That's where he assisted Willie Young in morphing to a foreign role, yet still managing 14 sacks over the last two seasons. The Bears have yet to name a replacement for Hurtt, who's joined the Seahawks in taking over one of their strengths in recent years, the defensive line.

These three were already good, and the jewels of last year's draft. But if they're to grow and ascend into impact contributors if and when this team becomes a regular playoff contender, it'll come from new faces, new voices in their respective classrooms and position groups.