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It has been an awfully long time since the Chicago Bears last defeated the New Orleans Saints. Twelve years to be exact. That victory in Week 15 of 2008 came in overtime with Danieal Manning returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and Robbie Gould delivering a walk-off 35-yard field goal. The Saints (4-2) have won the last five meetings, including last year’s 36-25 blowout at Soldier Field. The Bears (5-2) are 4 1/4 u00bd-point underdogs heading into Sunday’s reunion at Soldier Field. With kickoff closing in, here’s our snapshot look at the game.
Keep an eye on …
The weather. The WGN Weather Center is forecasting afternoon temperatures in the mid- to upper-40s Sunday at Soldier Field with northwest winds of 25-35 mph and gusts up to 50. The conditions are certain to affect the kicking game and both teams' passing attacks and could make for an unorthodox and low-scoring affair.
The wind conditions might resemble those that accompanied the wild November 2005 game against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field, a 17-9 Bears win that featured a handful of comical, gust-related moments, including a 39-yard Robbie Gould field-goal attempt that bent at a right angle toward Lake Shore Drive; the only blown snap in the 16-year career of long snapper Patrick Mannelly; and a 108-yard Nathan Vasher return of a missed 49ers field-goal try for a touchdown.
If the conditions turn Sunday into a run-only affair, it could help the Bears neutralize Drew Brees and the Saints passing attack. But the Bears' already-challenged offense could be in big trouble. The Bears have the league’s worst rushing attack and have averaged only 43.8 rushing yards per game since Nick Foles became the starting quarterback four games ago. The Saints, meanwhile, rank fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (89.7) and third in yards allowed per carry (3.5).
Player in the spotlight: Alvin Kamara
When the Bears prepared to host the Saints last season, they seemingly caught a break. Brees and Kamara both missed the game because of injuries. It didn’t matter much, however, as Teddy Bridgewater, Latavius Murray and the Saints offense torched the Bears for 424 yards and 36 points anyway.
This time the Bears are set to face Brees, Kamara and Murray. Kamara has carried a big load for the Saints with wide receiver Michael Thomas out with ankle and hamstring injuries since Week 1. Kamara has 75 carries for 364 yards and four touchdowns and 46 catches for 460 yards and three touchdowns. He broke free for a 49-yard run and added a 52-yard touchdown catch against the Green Bay Packers.
Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said he was hopeful to hold Kamara to fewer than 100 yards from scrimmage, something no team has done since Thomas was hurt in Week 1.
“The game’s so easy to him,” Pagano said of Kamara. “He’s just floating and gliding and he breaks tackles and he can stop and start, get to full speed on his second step and make guys miss. We have to do a phenomenal job. It’s like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ We’ve got to know where this guy’s at at all times. And it’s all hands on deck to try to limit this guy.”
Kamara is on pace for 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns and has accounted for 36% of the Saints offense through six games. Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks referred to Kamara as a special player “who can stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change.”
“You’ve got to get everybody to the football,” Hicks added, “because this is not an easy tackle.”
Will rookie tight end Cole Kmet be featured in the offense more?
This question has been on repeat for Bears coach Matt Nagy, who continues to talk about getting the second-round pick more involved.
Kmet has five catches on seven targets for 77 yards and a touchdown. But four of those catches and the touchdown came in the last two games. Kmet’s 38-yard catch over Los Angeles Rams linebacker Justin Hollins on Monday fired up the Bears sideline.
Said offensive coordinator Bill Lazor: "The ability to make contested plays, to not be distracted by contact or by hands in your face, some of that is innate. Let’s face it, you come in with it or you don’t have it. If you don’t have it, then as coaches we try to develop it. But that’s a tough one.
“What you see now (from Cole), on those contested catches especially, is a guy who fights through it, stays focused on the ball and is tough. It’s a matter of mentality and ball skills and poise. When you see that stuff all together, you get pretty fired up.”
With no true offseason program and a shortened training camp this summer, quarterback Nick Foles and Kmet had limited time to develop trust on throws like that one and Kmet’s 9-yard touchdown catch in traffic against the Carolina Panthers.
Those contested connections within game situations is valuable.
“Those two plays are kind of cool for me as a young player to have our quarterback have that kind of confidence in me to put those balls up,” Kmet said.
Odds and ends
Don’t be surprised if the Bears make a change at punt returner, potentially promoting veteran Dwayne Harris from the practice squad to slide into the role Ted Ginn has held over the last four games. The Bears are hopeful to get some kind of spark from their special teams unit Sunday. But it won’t be easy.
Beyond the possible change at punt returner, standout kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson is battling a quadriceps injury and was unable to practice in full this week. On top of that, the Saints have top-tier coverage units, allowing only 16.8 yards per kickoff return and 4.7 yards per punt return.
Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor couldn’t say enough about how disciplined and tough the Saints special teams group is, specifically praising Justin Hardee, Dwayne Washington and Josh Hill.
“It’s an all-star team,” Tabor said. “They’re loaded. … This is by far the best special teams unit in the league in my opinion.”
In addition, Tabor knows the Bears' coverage teams will have their hands full with Saints return specialist Deonte Harris, who ranks third in punt return average at 13.8 yards while also averaging 25.3 yards per return on kickoffs.
“Not only does he have first-step quickness,” Tabor said, “he has great acceleration and long speed. … People say, ‘Boy, he’s a small guy.’ But he runs strong. He can break tackles. He’s hard to get down.”
It’s official: Bears center Cody Whitehair is out for Sunday with a calf injury, marking the first time he has missed a game in his NFL career. Sam Mustipher, who played the final 26 snaps in Whitehair’s place on Monday night, will get his first start. Nagy has expressed confidence that Mustipher will be able to compensate for his lack of NFL experience with his football intelligence and sound fundamentals.
“Here’s a guy who takes the game extremely seriously,” Nagy said. “He’s been playing center for a long time. He’s a natural born leader You can feel that. Super-hard worker. And are there times where things may happen like last week where he might get beat technique-wise here or there? Yeah. But it sure as heck isn’t going to be because of effort and want.”
Mustipher expressed his eagerness to make his first NFL start, noting he has been a lineman since he started playing football at 5 years old.
“A lot of people dream about throwing that touchdown pass,” he said. “I dreamed about making that clean block on the best defensive player.”
In other injury news, Bears receiver Allen Robinson remains in the concussion protocol and did not practice this week. He is listed as doubtful for Sunday. Other Bears who are listed as questionable are outside linebacker Khalil Mack (ankle), safety Eddie Jackson (knee), Cordarrelle Patteson (quadriceps) and Sherrick McManis (hamstring). Mack and Patterson were both limited in practice Friday.
For the Saints, star receiver Michael Thomas has been declared out with hamstring and ankle injuries. Receiver Marquez Callaway (ankle) and guard Nick Easton (concussion) also are out.
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