When the Bears hostthe New Orleans Saints Sunday at Soldier Field, keep an eye on these three matchups:
Bears WR Allen Robinson II vs. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore
Robinson has been the Bears' top success story on offense this year. The receiver is on pace for over 1,000 receiving yards this season and has been the Bears' top receiver in four of the first five games. At times, he's seemed to will the offense down the field.
"The dude is a competitor," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, "and he has an unbelievable edge. I'd love to see it more. I'd love to see it vocally more."
The only game where Robinson has been held truly in check for most of the game was against Denver, as he entered the final drive with only three catches for 16 yards. The Broncos smothered Robinson all day with the constant man coverage by Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
So how will Robinson respond if the Saints commit to having their prized cornerback Lattimore on fulltime Robinson duty?
Lattimore made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and has been a vital part of the improved Saints defense.
"There's a lot of really good corners in this league," said coach Matt Nagy, "and [Lattimore] falls in that category. He's one of those guys that will match with your top receiver, so you understand that. And it's to our players' credit — well, not credit, but their job to study techniques and see what are his strengths or what are his weaknesses and how are we gonna attack that."
Taylor Gabriel is primed to return this week, and Anthony Miller and Javon Wims have each had reasonably solid games in his absence. However, Robinson remains the center of the Bears' ability to move the ball.
Bears RT Bobby Massie vs. Saints DE Cameron Jordan
Apart from missing the Washington game due to sudden bout of vertigo, Massie has had a quiet season, which is great for an offensive lineman. Indeed, amid the discussion about the Bears' efforts to improve the play of the line, Massie's name rarely comes up.
Massie has had a clean year, having yet to draw a penalty this season. The right tackle hasn't been flagged for holding since Nagy's arrival as head coach.
This week, however, the biggest man on the line will have his hands full with one of the league's best defensive linemen in Jordan. Jordan has already recorded five sacks this season, and he's gotten to double digits in four of the last six seasons, which has helped take pressure off his teammates.
"I've had the misfortune of playing against him for a long, long time," said Mark Helfrich, who was the offensive coordinator at Oregon during Jordan's college career at Cal, "and he's just gotten better and added more to this game. I think the guys around him are afforded single blocks a lot of the time because people are working toward him or chipping on him a little more."
If Massie can hold Jordan at bay without literally holding Jordan, the rest of the line can put their focus on the Saints' other threats.
Bears CB Kyle Fuller vs. Saints WR Michael Thomas
Thomas led the NFL in receptions last season (with 125) in part by catching a higher percentage of his targets than any other receiver. This season, he's leading in receptions again and checks in second in yards.
Few teams rely on a single receiver as much as the Saints rely on Thomas, who topped 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three seasons.
"His stats speak for itself the type of player he is," said safety Eddie Jackson. "We know it's going to be a tough one, so we've just got to be able to come in and play our keys, keep our eyes in the right spot and just contain him."
While it will take a team effort to contain Thomas, the large part will fall on Fuller. Compared to Lattimore, Fuller has allowed a higher percentage of completions (79.5 to Lattimore's 61.4) but has been more efficient in limiting yardage (8.8 yards per target to Lattimore's 9.7).
Thomas will get his targets and catches against the Bears. He's had eight or more receptions in five of the first six games. If Fuller can limit his damage to shorter gains, that could help the defense keep a lid on the Saints offense.