By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
We’re approaching another big week in a still-developing NFL season, but coming off the last week left to themselves to re-energize and re-group after a loss, the Chicago Bears should know that the consequences of a bad performance this week are as high as they’ve been since playing in last season’s playoffs.
A loss on Sunday to a first-place New Orleans squad might end any talk of the Bears being able to rally beyond the season’s beginning as the NFC North is looking tough as is the conference at large. The Saints, even without two of their biggest offensive stars this week, could be a prime example of how difficult it will be to break into the class of true League contenders.
Similar to the week against the Vikings, the Bears are being afforded a good chance to face a good team at home, which is something they do not want to fumble away. These are the type of tough games a good team gets after a great 2018 such as the Bears had. In playing a first-place schedule, they have to show they deserve to compete against great teams like the Saints.
Injuries will play a big factor in this game for both sides. Saints coach Sean Payton and Bears coach Matt Nagy will each be tested in trying to elevate all the healthy players they have on Sunday. Payton has been dealt the toughest hand of the two as reports Friday had his stellar playmaker Alvin Kamara being ruled out officially for Sunday.
Weather forecasts for Sunday are predicting a pretty day, so for the moment it won’t play a factor. These two teams could possibly run up and down Soldier Field, but that may not be likely either as both New Orleans and Chicago have established their defenses as hard-hitting groups to reckon with.
All these various factors in mind mean there is no excuses for the Bears to not be hungry, motivated and focused for a big early-season game. Here are the four goals for them to get a victory on Sunday.
Offensive Identity — Arguably the number one key to the rest of the Bears’ season is the offense finding an identity. Chicago’s offense looks completely lost compared to last season and its showing in the stats. Right now the Bears are bottom five in basically every major statistical offensive category.
It’s hard to imagine the Bears beating many opponents with this type of ineptitude on the primary side of the ball. Sure the defense should keep the Bears in just about every game, but a potential champion or a threatening playoff team has to develop an identity on both sides of the ball. Look at the 2000 Ravens or the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks, their calling card was epic defense but offensively those teams had an identity as a smash mouth running team that didn’t make mistakes.
Something has to give soon, either the Bears’ lack of offensive identity will do them in or perhaps they find something and it potentially changes their current forecast for the rest of the season.
Until such an offensive threat is established, every week the goal will be to build a reliable identity to create plays off. It would be quite the achievement if the Bears are able to discover their identity on Sunday.
Defensive Bounce Back — What a wait its been to see the Bears again — it hasn’t been a whole two weeks but it feels like they haven’t played in months. Hopefully this long layoff has given that defense a chance to really reflect on its woeful performance in London. So far it hasn’t been quite the same dominant defense as last year but injuries are probably the main culprit.
Bad news came this week when defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was placed on the injured reserve list. Hicks can still potentially come back this year but won’t be back until around Week 15 at the earliest. Playing without their star nose tackle for two games hasn’t been easy and certainly the long haul wont be easy either.
As we all know injuries play a factor for every team eventually. It sucks not being as healthy as a year ago but this defense has more than enough talent to continue to play well. This Bears team can’t win without their defense playing really well consistently, against a great offensive coach of the Saints, it will be quite the challenge.
Simple goal for the defense is to get back to playing elite or as close to elite level as possible without Hicks.
Be Opportunistic — As of right now, it looks like at least two of the Saints’ top offensive stars will be out of this game. Chief among that group is franchise quarterback Drew Brees, but New Orleans has sort of gotten used to being without his services — he has been out for four complete games in 2019 and the team has won all four.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has done solid in his stay but he doesn’t posses the downfield ability of Brees. Being a game manager is Bridgewater’s game, he wins by being efficient and not turning the ball over. If the Bears can disrupt Bridgewater’s play it could be deadly for the Saints since they are likely without another star in running back Kamara. All week Kamara has been listed as questionable and hasn’t practiced so far.
Without their two studs in the backfield and the Saints going on the road is a recipe to a potentially good day for the Bears defense. In London though, the Raiders were also without lots of players, yet the Bears shrunk. The injury problems heading into this game should favor the Bears, but that’s if they make good use of it and exploit the missing Saints talent.
Get Out of Your Own Way — One thing has marred the second season under Nagy more than anything — undisciplined play. Too many times this year have the Bears made a penalty at a bad time or a big mental mistake. Last season the Bears were usually the more disciplined team than their opponents but it feels like the total opposite so far through six weeks.
Part of reasoning for the undisciplined play could be because the level of competition has increased with a step up in opponents this year. Ultimately players have to be accountable and find a way to execute because a championship team doesn’t keep beating themselves in games like what has transpired. During the bye week, the entire team took a hard look inside and the challenge is to stop beating yourselves.
It should be a very interesting game and we will see how effective the bye week was for the Bears as they look to make a statement on the lakefront.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR