Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's road game against the New Orleans Saints.
Offense: Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky
Circumstances called for the Bears to keep the ball on the ground the past two weeks, and that strategy helped contribute to the team's first back-to-back wins since 2015. Trubisky threw just 16 passes against a Ravens defense that lined up primarily in cover-two and then attempted just seven passes versus the Panthers after the defense had staked the Bears to an early 14-0 lead.
There will be games, however, when the rookie quarterback shoulders a much greater load, and that could be the case Sunday in New Orleans. Given the Bears' recent reliance on their running game, don't be surprised if the Saints stack the line of scrimmage and dare Trubisky to beat them through the air. If that's what transpires, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is confident that Trubisky will be up to the challenge based on how he has performed in practice and games to this point. "We believe in him that way," Loggains said. "He has posted two 90-plus ratings. The production by him is good. We just have to put him in the position to let him do it more."
Loggains lauded Trubisky for not getting frustrated with his lack of opportunities to throw the ball against the Panthers. "What he did a really good job of was not pressing, trying to make more," Loggains said. "It is frustrating and he wants to affect the game. That time and how we chose to play it as an organization he wasn't going to affect the game that way. He was just smart with the ball. He took care of it. We're excited to go out and be aggressive and throw the ball and be balanced this week."
Defense: Safety Eddie Jackson
It's going to be tough for the rookie safety to top last Sunday's performance against the Panthers when he became the first player in NFL history to score two defensive touchdowns of at least 75 yards in a game. But Jackson's play-making ability and ball skills certainly will be needed against an explosive Saints offense that's led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
The 10-time Pro Bowler threw eight touchdown passes with no interceptions in the Saints' first four games this season, but he has been picked off twice each of the last two weeks in wins over the Lions and Packers. Jackson leads an improved Bears defense that has scored three touchdowns and not allowed any in back-to-back wins over the Ravens and Panthers.
Jackson showed tremendous instincts on both of his touchdown returns last Sunday, scooping up a loose ball along the sideline and intercepting a deflected pass that caromed high into the air while running full speed. The performance earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors and showed that his knack for getting into the end zone has carried over into the NFL from Alabama, where he returned three interceptions and two punts for touchdowns.
Offense: Running back Jordan Howard
Like the tourists chowing down on gumbo in the French Quarter, Jordan Howard is probably licking his chops as he heads to New Orleans. Howard has been a workhorse for Chicago this season, running the ball 18 or more times in each of the last five games. In those contests, he's averaging more than 100 yards per game. That number could be reached again versus a Saints team that has struggled a bit against the run, allowing 4.86 yards per carry, third-highest in the NFL. Last Sunday against Green Bay, the Saints allowed 181 yards on 24 carries, a season-high 7.5 yards per carry.
There will be some new circumstances for the second-year back, however. Howard has never played in New Orleans's Mercedes Benz Superdome before, but he does have a super track record in domes. In 2016, he played in four domes in Dallas, Indianapolis, Detroit and Minnesota. In those games, Howard averaged 96 yards on 15 carries. Given how poor the Saints have been against the run this season, expect Howard to get that many rushing attempts in the first half alone. If he can have steady success, especially on early downs, the Bears offense should be able to run all day.
Defense: Defensive end Akiem Hicks
Brees presents a tricky riddle for opposing defenses. The quarterback gets rid of the ball quick, so blitzing and creating pressure can be foolish. At the same time, he's highly accurate, so dropping back in coverage can often be a wasted effort. Even at age 38, Brees is still firing on all cylinders. He's only been sacked five times on the year, an NFL-low 2.27 percent of his 225 drop backs. Brees also ranks third in the league among qualifying quarterbacks by completing 69 percent of his passes.
Nobody on the Chicago defense knows the challenge of stopping Brees and the Saints quite like Akiem Hicks. The defensive end spent the first four years of his career, from 2012 to 2015, playing in New Orleans and trying to stop Brees in practice. Hicks will be front and center at slowing them down again on Sunday, this time as a Bear. Hicks is having an outstanding season, with six sacks in seven games. If Hicks can create pressure up front, he can hopefully force Brees into some errors and give Chicago a better chance at slowing the quarterback down.