The feel-good story for the Chicago Bears never came to pass.
That’s because the New Orleans Saints were making Jay Cutler feel so rotten.
The Bears entered Sunday’s road game with extra incentive to win. A victory would have provided a touching tribute to star linebacker and team leader Brian Urlacher, whose 51-year-old mother Lavoyda Lenard was buried Saturday after her unexpected death last week in Texas.
The Saints’ defense, though, also had its own pregame inspiration — rebounding from a poor effort in a 42-34 season-opening loss to Green Bay.
New Orleans did just that with a 30-13 victory.
The Saints made the Bears one-dimensional by stuffing the run and pulling away in the second half with 14 unanswered points. This allowed the Saints to tee-off on Cutler like Rory McIlroy on a Titleist. Cutler was sacked six times — losing a key fumble on one blind-side blow — and knocked down at least a half-dozen more times.
“We started hitting the quarterback,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “We felt that if we started doing that, we had an opportunity to get (a turnover). It was great to see for our defense.”
And sorely needed, too.
The 2010 Saints didn’t just fail to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The defense also lost the swagger and confidence that developed from its aggressive, turnover-forcing efforts in 2009. New Orleans ended last season with a stunning 41-36 first-round playoff collapse at Seattle and were skewered again 10 days ago by the Packers.
“It was disappointing last week,” Saints defensive end Junior Galette said. “That wasn’t our standard of defensive play. We took that to heart this week and practiced real hard.”
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has stressed to his unit that taking chances to generate big plays isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially with quarterback Drew Brees leading an explosive offense. Williams also placed heavy pressure on his cornerbacks Sunday by calling for man coverage in about a dozen situations to free safeties for blitzes. As defensive end Turk McBride wisely said, “If you let (Cutler) sit in the pocket, it’s just going to be a seven-on-seven (drill).”
Saints cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Leigh Torrence responded by allowing Chicago’s top two wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox a mere three combined catches for 62 yards despite being targeted on 15 Cutler attempts. Another wideout (Earl Bennett) joined injured teammate Roy Williams on the Bears sideline after strong safety Roman Harper delivered a bone-jarring blow to his chest early in the first quarter.
“The way we communicated and rose up was special,” Greer said. “It was one of those games where you had fun playing.”
Unless you were Cutler.
The game began to spiral out of control early in the third quarter. McBride, substituting for the suspended Will Smith, worked his way past blocking tight end Kellen Davis to crush Cutler from behind. The resulting fumble was recovered by Saints middle linebacker Jon Vilma at the Chicago 29-yard line.
Five plays later, Brees completed the second of his three touchdown passes on a four-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Robert Meachem that gave New Orleans a 23-13 advantage.
The Saints continued to bring the heat as Cutler became increasingly frustrated.
“When you start seeing the quarterback getting a little flustered, that’s when you’ve got to get deep and get after him,” McBride said.
When the Saints scored on their next possession — a 12-yard pass from Brees to running back Darren Sproles — Chicago completely abandoned its running game with 18 consecutive pass plays to end the game. The Saints proceeded to notch five Cutler sacks.
Cutler’s only effective target Sunday was running back Matt Forte, who had as many catches (10) as rushing attempts. Cutler was often forced to use Forte as a safety valve because of the heat brought by the Saints.
“Once a team becomes one dimensional — and we’ve seen this happen on our side — it’s challenging in our league,” Payton said. “Especially in an environment here, it becomes a recipe for a lot of hits.”
Cutler’s longest completion spanned 30 yards. His lone scoring throw came when the Saints only had 10 defenders on the field.
Brees passed for 270 yards — including a 79-yard second-quarter strike to wide receiver Devery Henderson — while dissecting a Bears secondary that predominantly played Cover 2 despite depth issues at safety.
“It was a long day out there,” said Cutler, who finished 19 of 45 passing for 244 yards. “I don’t know how many sacks I took, but I had to throw a lot of balls away before I wanted to.”
Chicago (1-1) must now fix its offensive line woes — possibly without injured rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi (right knee) — before hosting the Packers next Sunday. The Saints face their own formidable test in the high-powered Houston Texans.
New Orleans and Houston both have championship-caliber offenses. Defensive performance, especially the number of interceptions and fumble recoveries produced, will likely determine just how strong a Super Bowl run either franchise can make.
The Saints know that first-hand.
“You can’t discredit the momentum positive plays gives your defense,” Greer said. “If we can use it the right way, we can be a dangerous, dangerous team.”
Cutler, Urlacher and the rest of the Bears learned that the hard way Sunday.