Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, as the New Orleans Saints will face the Chicago Bears. Here’s what you should know:
SAINTS’ DEFENSE HAS REBUILT INTO A LEAGUE-LEADING UNIT
Ever since their Super Bowl win in 2009, the Saints’ defense had been in a perpetual rebuilding mode. Save for one season in 2013, New Orleans ranked at or near the bottom in many categories virtually every season.
That is no longer the case. In 2019, the Saints’ defense began to ascend, finishing 11th overall, fourth against the run and third in the league in sacks. This year New Orleans took the next step by ending 2020 with 45 sacks (eighth-best in the NFL), 3,472 yards yielded through the air (fifth-best) and 1,502 yards given up on the ground (fourth-best).
Savvy veteran Cameron Jordan, on the rise gap-stuffer Sheldon Rankins, former Patriot Malcom Brown, third-year defensive end Marcus Davenport and breakout star Trey Hendrickson, who had a career-high 13.5 sacks, have all contributed to New Orleans’ upper-echelon pass rush and all anchor well against the run. Linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone and Zack Baun are tackling machines and can defend sideline-to-sideline with great speed (Anzalone is replacing Kwon Alexander, who is also done for the year with a torn Achilles tendon).
Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, has a very multiple defensive scheme. He uses a lot of personnel groupings and front-seven alignments, but nowhere is he more versatile than in his postsnap coverage rotations and usage of both man and zone. This fits perfectly with someone like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s best shutdown defenders. Malcolm Jenkins, Janoris Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams make up the rest of their secondary.
BREES AND COMPANY STILL EXCELLING IN BIG EASY
Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level, even while in his 20th season and with declining arm strength. His footwork and pocket presence is impeccable, his accuracy is deadly (as evidenced by his holding the NFL record for completion percentage four different times), his experience gives him a leg up against most coverages and is great at influencing pass defenders with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder rolls.
For the most part, the Saints’ passing game has been built through having big, physical targets who can get open over the middle of the field, especially on deep in, or “dig” routes. Head coach Sean Payton has employed such players before like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, and he has another such specimen in Michael Thomas. Thomas, the record-setting nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, isn’t just athletically gifted but also possesses strong hands and the knowledge of how to find holes against certain coverages.
Trying to work the middle of the field helps Brees due to his lack of height, but Payton isn’t adverse against throwing the ball deep either. 11-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders is a crafty route runner, Tre’Quan Smith is a vertical threat and tight end Jared Cook is both a red zone target and New Orleans’ best mismatch-creating threat at the position since Graham roamed their sidelines six years ago.
The Saints like to line up in base personnel with a fullback and tight end split out wide with their top two wideouts in the slot to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties. New Orleans will also use post-wheel route combinations (or any type of vertical routes) to clear out zone defenders deep while Alvin Kamara picks apart linebackers underneath on option routes. Look for that to continue on Sunday.
New Orleans isn’t averse to running the ball though. The Saints love using Kamara on inside runs, misdirection plays, screens and draws, and lining him up at wide receiver – both out wide and in the slot. His speed, route-running ability and reliable hands make him a threat no matter where he aligns, and backup quarterback Taysom Hill is reminiscent of Kordell Stewart – athletic enough to make a play at any position.
The Saints’ offensive line is made up of the talented Terron Armstead, run-blocking extraordinaire Andrus Peat, maulers Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz and the ascending Ryan Ramczyk. They are one of the best units in football.
Another tactic the Saints are fond of is throwing out of run-heavy personnel. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “No NFC coach uses formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees’s eyes don’t reach them until late in the play.”
MONSTERS OF THE MIDWAY AREN’T AS SCARY LATELY
When John Fox was hired as the Bears’ head coach in 2015, he brought former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with him to mold that side of the ball. Fangio, a onetime protégé of Dom Capers and Jim Mora, had built a dominating unit in San Francisco – helping Jim Harbaugh and company reach three consecutive NFC championship game appearances and a berth in Super Bowl XLVII – and he set the foundation for a defensive renaissance in the Windy City.
Transitioning Chicago to an effective 3-4 defense took some time, but it was worth the wait. The drafting of players like Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller, and the acquisitions of the likes of Khalil Mack, Danny Trevathan, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks turned the Bears from a bottom-feeder into an elite outfit. But 2020 saw a bit of a decline on this side of the ball, as they finished the season in the middle of the pack against the run and pass, and just so-so in creating big plays – just 17th in sacks and near the bottom in interceptions.
While current play-caller Chuck Pagano, who was hired last season as Fangio’s successor after his predecessor was named the head coach of the Denver Broncos, doesn’t like to blitz much – relying on a four-man pass rush most of the time – he does heavily employ well-disguised zone concepts. With his linebackers adept at both rushing opposing signal-callers and dropping into coverage, Pagano has good chess pieces at his disposal.
BEARS’ OFFENSE A MIX OF OLD AND NEW IDEAS
Head coach Matt Nagy, a former offensive coordinator for Andy Reid in Kansas City, has brought an intriguing version of the West Coast offense to Chicago. According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “(Nagy’s) system features the misdirection, presnap motioning and multi-option plays that are now in vogue. Nagy aims to isolate specific defenders (often linebackers) and present them with run/pass assignment conflicts. He also gets defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
Trubisky, in his fourth year out of the University of North Carolina, reminds one of a mix between Jake Plummer and Kirk Cousins. While not extremely athletic nor boasting an elite arm, Trubisky has just enough of both traits to play well. He is also effective at play-action, is decently accurate and has vision outside of the pocket, despite not being great at handling the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
Trubisky struggled early on this season before giving way to journeyman backup Nick Foles. But Foles also struggled, which led to Nagy turning back to Trubisky and getting back to what worked well for him. More outside zone paired up with run-action creates defined reads for Trubisky and covers up his limitations as a pocket thrower.
Wide receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller are talented – Robinson may be the most unsung pass-catcher in football – while tight end Jimmy Graham remains a scoring threat inside the 20-yard line. Running back Tarik Cohen – who is reminiscent of Darren Sproles – is usually dangerous in Nagy’s misdirection concepts like the Chiefs use Tyreek Hill, but he is injured, paving the way for David Montgomery to accumulate 1,508 yards from scrimmage.
The Bears’ offensive line is made up of Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and German Ifedi.