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.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."