In what should be the final season of the Drew Brees era, the New Orleans Saints relied heavily on their fifth-ranked defense to help them earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC. In fact, when they faced their upcoming playoff opponent back in Week 8, they needed a timely sack to steal a victory on the road.
But just days before they host the Chicago Bears, the Saints have suffered a brutal blow to their Super Bowl chances. Because given how much Chicago has improved on offense since it nearly toppled New Orleans back on November 1, the latest personnel loss for Sean Payton’s team could lead to another early postseason exit.
New Orleans stepped up on defense in key moments this season
Even though Drew Brees missed four games, the Saints still went 12-4. While their fifth-ranked scoring offense provided plenty of punch, their defense delivered big-time results, too.
After finishing 13th in points allowed in 2019, the Saints jumped all the way to fifth. They finished fourth in total yards one year after ranking 11th.
More importantly, the unit stepped up in timely moments.
Against the LA Chargers, New Orleans didn’t have a fantastic fourth quarter on that side of the ball. However, after kicking a go-ahead field goal in overtime, the Saints locked up on defense and ended the game by turning the ball over on downs.
A week later, New Orleans pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter to complete a comeback against the Carolina Panthers.
In Week 8, the Saints traveled north to take on the Bears. Chicago kept the game close, but the New Orleans defense made the biggest play of the night just in the nick of time.
With the clock winding down in overtime, Trey Hendrickson sacked Nick Foles on third down to force the Bears to punt away possession. Less than three minutes later, Will Lutz nailed a 35-yard field goal to secure a 27-24 win for the Saints.
And in their season finale, they recorded five interceptions against the Panthers in a lopsided 33-7 victory. Needless to say, the Saints no longer have the label of being an unbalanced team.
The Bears have been much better on offense since going back to Mitch Trubisky
While Chicago struggled on offense in its Week 8 loss, that came with Nick Foles at quarterback. However, Mitch Trubisky has played a major role in turning around the team’s anemic offense since Week 12. The Bears averaged 35 points from Week 13-16 before falling to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 by a final score of 35-16.
Although Trubisky only went 3-3 down the stretch, he showed much better accuracy. The former No. 2 pick completed a career-high 67% of his passes in his fourth NFL season. He surpassed the 70% mark in four of his final six starts. In fact, his late-season turnaround has already led to rumblings about a possible contract extension for a quarterback who seemed to have worn out his welcome in Chicago.
Considering they almost beat the Saints with a much worse offense, the Bears obviously have shown they can compete with a team many believe will represent the NFC in Super Bowl 55. Unfortunately for New Orleans, the chances of that happening just took a brutal blow.
Losing Trey Hendrickson could cost the Saints a chance at making it to Super Bowl 55
Trey Hendrickson’s clutch sack helped put the Saints in a position to defeat the Bears back in Week 8. But the FAU product provided much more than just one highlight-reel play in his fourth season. The impending free agent recorded a career-high 13.5 sacks (second-most in the NFL) and 25 quarterback hits despite playing only 53% of the team’s defensive snaps.
However, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end who’s poised to break the bank won’t get a chance to take down Trubisky on Sunday.
On Friday, the Saints released their official injury report for the Bears game. Hendrickson will not suit up due to a neck injury that kept him out of practice since Thursday.
Losing their most impactful pass rusher represents a brutal blow to the Saints’ Super Bowl chances. Take away Hendrickson’s team-leading 13.5 sacks and New Orleans has only recorded 31.5. His 25 quarterback hits aren’t far off from the combined total of the team’s No. 2 and 3 leaders in that category. Cameron Jordan and David Onyemata combined for 32 quarterback hits and 14 sacks this season.
Without Hendrickson to worry about, Matt Nagy has even more creative freedom in designing and calling plays. Trubisky should have more time in the pocket, which would give Bears pass-catchers a chance to gain better separation against a secondary that won’t have the benefit of the NFL’s second-leading sack artist putting consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Ultimately, the Saints’ road to Super Bowl 55 begins with a rematch against a team that took them to the limit earlier this year. And it took a timely sack from Hendrickson to help earn a valuable win.
But with the talented pass rusher out for Sunday, New Orleans suddenly becomes much more vulnerable. And if the Bears can take advantage of the absence of the Saints’ lethal defensive weapon, Drew Brees will retire without a second Super Bowl ring.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.