- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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After breaking down film of the Saints and Bears, Scouts Inc. runs down what to pay attention to during Thursday night's game, including Brian Urlacher's tough matchup, how the wintry weather will affect the Saints and the roles of the tight ends.
• The Saints like to move Reggie Bush around the formation. They will work him out of the slot or even on the perimeter by employing a lot of spread formations and multiple-receiver sets. If Bush is matched up versus a linebacker, it is a huge advantage for Bush -- although Urlacher has excellent range and cover skills. Keeping Bush on the move before the snap will make it even tougher for the Bears to match up.
• These are teams with totally different styles and philosophies. New Orleans would like to make this an up-tempo, high-scoring affair with a lot of offense (weather permitting), while the Bears would like to slow the game down with their physical, run-oriented offense. Speeding up the game will force the Bears to throw a lot and get into a shootout, which highly favors the Saints.
• Everybody knows that New Orleans is a pass-first, run-second offense, but the Saints actually showed balance versus Atlanta in Week 14. The Saints may now have a viable run game with RBs Pierre Thomas and Bush, who combined for 182 rushing yards last week. In the past, the Saints have abandoned the run game early -- and they usually get away with it because of the explosiveness of their pass offense. However, establishing the run game early versus the Bears will do three things: make bad weather less of a factor, set up play-action and force the Bears to play their safeties in the box, leaving QB Drew Brees with good matchups outside against man coverage.
• December football in Chicago means two things: bad weather and turnovers. Not only are the Bears a respectable plus-six in turnover differential, but they are also comfortable with these elements. The Saints rely on a pass-heavy offense that is not used to playing in these conditions, and their offensive style could lead to turnovers. The Bears' defense is very capable of creating turnovers, and the Saints have dropped a lot of passes when they play in cold weather.
• The Bears give up 234 passing yards per game and are in the bottom third of the league in generating sacks. However, for all the yards they give up through the air, the Bears are somewhat of a ball-hawking group with 19 interceptions. If the Bears blitz, they put their average corners on an island in man or soft zone coverages. But if they sit back in Cover 2, Brees will nickel-and-dime them all night. The Bears' defense could be in for a long night.
• Although QB Kyle Orton played well last week versus Jacksonville, there is some concern about his recent lackluster play. In his defense, the play calling has been conservative, and he lacks an explosive group of receivers and difference-makers -- with the exception of WR Devin Hester, who is still learning the position. However, Orton looks sluggish at times and has inconsistent accuracy. Even his mobility is not what we are used to seeing. He faces a shaky Saints' pass defense that lacks pure cover skills in the secondary, so Orton should be able to move the ball -- but is he the long-term answer for the Bears?
• Hester had five catches for 80 yards last week versus Jacksonville, including a nice fade route. His play makes you wonder if he's now the offensive weapon that the Bears have been looking for, or if he's a one-dimensional speed guy who can run only one route. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Hester used to be the best returner in the game, but now he seems to have totally lost his desire on kickoff returns. Some say that the discipline of running routes as a receiver has taken away his creativity and improvisation as a returner. But for all of his faults, he is still a player you watch on every play. He has a chance to be a difference-maker versus a suspect Saints secondary.
• Snow and freezing rain is not ideal for the players -- especially the Saints, who play in a dome. This is their only cold-weather trip of the season. Jacksonville faded fast last week in chilly Chicago, and it seemed as though the warm-weather Jags wanted no part of the weather. The Saints can probably handle the cold, but the wind could give their passing game problems.
• Neither of these defenses is a blitz-heavy unit. Both would prefer to generate pressure primarily from their front four. But because both are in the bottom third of the league in sack production, they are forced to blitz more than they would like, and that in turn puts their suspect corners on an island in coverage. If they sit back in Cover 2 schemes, both of these quarterbacks can pick them apart. But if they blitz and don't get there, not only do these quarterbacks have good single matchups on the outside, but Brees and Orton are good at reading the blitz and finding their hot reads.
• Both offenses like to use their tight ends in the passing game, and on what may be a bad weather night, these guys become a safe option on checkdowns and short seam routes. New Orleans has Jeremy Shockey, while Chicago has Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. Not only are they effective in standard situations, but the quarterbacks look to these players a lot on third down as hot reads versus the blitz and in the red zone. These three tight ends will play a major role.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.