January 27, 2021

Hub Arkush: Bears’ hopes vs. Saints likely hinge on getting pressure against Drew Brees

What is the key to beating Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints?

Pressure, pressure, and more pressure.

No team in the NFL is better at protecting its quarterback than the New Orleans Saints. In 2017 and 2018 the Saints tied for the third fewest sacks allowed. They were first in 2019 and tied for first again in 2020 when Brees has been in the lineup.

In part it is because in Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Erik McCoy, Nick Easton and Ryan Ramczyk the Saints have one of the best offensive lines in the league with Armstead, Peat and Ramczyk all Pro Bowlers.

It is also, however, in large part because Sean Payton’s offense is designed to have the ball come out of the quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible and few in the history of the game have been better at processing information and getting the ball out quick, quick, quick than Brees.

But, if you pressure Brees consistently and get him on the ground every once in a while, your chances at beating the Saints increase significantly.

Just looking at the last two seasons, Brees was sacked just 12 times in the 2019 regular season but six of those sacks came in a stunning upset loss in which the Falcons routed them.

The Saints also suffered a huge upset in the opening round of the playoffs last year falling 26-20 in overtime to the Vikings, and in spite of allowing just 12 sacks prior to that game, the Saints let Minnesota dump Brees three times.

This season, in 12 games, Brees has been dropped just 13 times, but one of those sacks came in a loss to the Chiefs and two in a loss to the Packers.

The Saints have also been pushed to overtime before winning twice this year and Brees was sacked once by the Bears and twice in their OT victory over the Chargers.

Six sacks of Brees in his four toughest games, seven in the other eight.

It is also worth noting that while Taysom Hill is a totally different quarterback, in the Saints’ stunning loss to the Eagles just three weeks ago, Hill, playing for the injured Brees, was sacked five times.

Pressuring the passer is the best way to slow the Saints.

While the Bears only dropped Brees once in their Week 8 meeting at Soldier Field – Khalil Mack dumped him for a 9-yard loss – they were in his face all day long, causing the Saints to convert just two of 13 third-down attempts.

One would think all of this would give a huge edge to a team featuring Mack, Robert Quinn, Akiem Hicks, the blossoming Bilal Nichols and Mario Edwards Jr. and a strong inside blitzer like Roquan Smith.

If only life were that simple.

Problem No. 1 is that while you do desperately want to pressure Brees, you want to exhaust every effort to do it with just four because blitzing Brees is every bit as risky as blitzing Aaron Rodgers, and the Bears just saw first hand what that risk yielded against the Packers.

There is also the issue that it seems likely Smith’s elbow could keep him on the sideline Sunday.

It is also problematic that one of the Bears biggest issues on defense this year has been the lack of consistent pressure.

The Bears defense was just 17th in the NFL this year with 35 sacks and a full 28.6% of them, 10, came in just two back-to-back games against the Texans and Vikings in Weeks 14 and 15, and they have notched just two since, one against the Jaguars’ porous front and one against the Packers.

Twenty-five of the Bears’ 35 sacks this season have come in their eight wins while they’ve managed just 10 sacks in eight losses.

Mack acknowledged the defense’s issue Thursday.

“We understand what it is, what we struggle with and haven’t done so well,” Mack said. “So understanding those different things, you have to learn from them and continue to help that and continue to let that help us get better.”

Much has been made of the lack of production of Quinn, whose emergence Sunday could be huge if the Bears are to pull an upset.

If the pass rush doesn’t get better Sunday, expect he Bears to be packing up for the offseason Monday.