The Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints matchup figures to be one of the more intriguing this season. It’s two teams that are playing some of their best football right now. On the surface it looks like a game between polar opposites. The high-flying offensive juggernaut Saints against the rough, tough and suffocating defensive Bears. As it turns out though these two franchise have become more alike than fans realize. The connections certainly run deep. Bears GM Ryan Pace was a scout and personnel director for the Saints from 2000 through 2014.
He had a front row seat for their ascent from bottom dweller to cream of the NFL crop. Since leaving to take over in Chicago he’s applied so much of what he learned towards rebuilding the Bears.In fact fans may not realize how close he has stuck to the model. So close in fact that the two teams can almost be considered mirrors of each other. Here’s a breakdown of those similarities.
The “Smash and Dash” backfield
New Orleans has several editions of this running back pairing in their history over the past decade. The first incarnation was Deuce McCallister and Reggie Bush. McCallister was the power runner while Bush was a freaky athletic multi-tool who created mismatches. Then it became Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles who were arguably even more dynamic.
Jordan Howard is much like McCallister and Ingram. He won’t win many foot races but his mix of power, toughness and good vision make him an effective workhorse. Tarik Cohen is like Bush and Sproles. He was never meant to handle a full load but in proper doses can be an absolute nightmare to defend because of his speed and versatility.
The pass catching tight end
It’s not like the Saints invented the position but being a pass-first offense meant they were bound to utilize the tight end. Most remember the dominant era of Jimmy Graham but they also had a more than serviceable run from veteran Jeremy Shockey during their Super Bowl push. Zach Miller is closer to his level at this point. He may not be the focal point of the offense but he’s good for two or three meaningful catches every week and is a key presence as a locker room leader.
The star-studded interior offensive line
Common NFL practice says it’s best to have the offensive line talent concentrated at the tackle positions to slow down those dominant edge rushers. However, the Saints operate in a different way. They believe having a stacked interior trio at guard and center is the best way to ensure a stable pocket for the quarterback.
It’s hard to argue with the results. Drew Brees has set records with them employing this philosophy. The trio of Carl Nicks, Jonathan Goodwin and Jahri Evans helped him win the Super Bowl and throw for his first 5,000-yard season. Chicago has an effective threesome of their own with Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair and Kyle Long. Sitton and Long are Pro Bowlers while Whitehair is considered one of the best young centers in the league.
The dominant defensive end
The irony here is the Saints could’ve had Akiem Hicks but instead chose to trade him away to New England. This enabled the Bears to scoop him up when he became a free agent last year. If New Orleans had recalled their own history they would’ve seen that Hicks mirrored many of the qualities of the late, great Will Smith. Both are all-around defensive linemen who mix size, power and aggressiveness to wreak havoc on an offensive line.
The criminally underrated inside linebacker
It’s such a shame that enough people don’t remember Jonathan Vilma. The guy was a three-time Pro Bowler, for starters. He was the leader of the New York Jets defense for four season, during which time the unit was one of the better in the league. Then he got hurt in 2007 and was unceremoniously traded to New Orleans. His addition to their defense proved to arguably be the biggest key to their defense become good enough to win the Super Bowl a year later.
His leadership, intelligence and instinct went along well with his tackling prowess and athleticism. This sort of story must sound so familiar to Danny Trevathan. He too was an unheralded playmaker in Denver who wasn’t re-signed after becoming a free agent despite helping them win the Super Bowl. He has since landed softy in Chicago and become their leader in the middle.
The ball-hawking free safety
Of course any mention of the name Darren Sharper these days leads to lots of cringing. The man is currently serving 20 years in prison for the rape of multiple woman during his NFL career. Something the league would no doubt prefer stayed buried. The Saints are included in that even though it could be said their championship run in 2009 would not have happened without him.
Sharper was the final piece to their defensive puzzle that year. He became the secondary captain at safety, providing leadership but most importantly a keen eye for the football. That season alone he had nine interceptions and returned three for touchdowns. Rookie Eddie Jackson mirrors his game in a lot of ways for Chicago. He’s fast, instinctive and just knows how to get his hands on the ball. His two scores against Carolina prove that much.
The wild card: Mitch Trubisky
Of course everybody knows that the focal point of Saints success for over the past decade has been quarterback Drew Brees. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame five years after he retires. Pace admitted on more than one occasion that he was the benchmark used when searching for the next Bears starting quarterback. Many within the organization feel they’ve found him in the guise of Mitch Trubisky.
The two do share a lot in common. Both came from traditionally non-power programs. Brees out of Purdue and Trubisky from North Carolina. They were looked upon with general suspicion in the draft. Brees was too short. Trubisky was too inexperienced. Both were known for outstanding leadership and passing accuracy.
A lot of people are skeptical that Trubisky can reach similar levels of success that Brees has enjoyed. Those people so easily forget Brees didn’t exactly have the most electric start to his career. He played just one game as a rookie in 2001. Over the next two years he threw 28 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. He had a 59.2 completion percentage and a 72.2 quarterback rating. It wasn’t until his fourth year that things clicked. From then on he was a star.
It’s worth noting that around that time was when the Chargers had finally started putting quality weapons around him. In 2003 Antonio Gates arrived as a rookie free agent and veteran receiver Keenan McCardell came in a year later. Proof if nothing else that the Bears won’t know who they have in Trubisky until they surround him with weapons. One thing is for sure. From a mental and physical makeup, the tools are almost identical.