Potent Saints' offense will give surging Bears defense its toughest test yet

The Bears have played solid defense for most of the season, but it's only in the past two weeks that coordinator Vic Fangio's group has gotten the recognition it deserves.

There are a number of reasons.

The Bears started out 1-4, and teams at the bottom of the standings don't attract much positive attention. The Bears' defense doesn't include any players who have ever been to a Pro Bowl. And big plays get noticed, but through the first five weeks, the Bears failed to intercept a single pass and recovered just 3 fumbles, 1 of them on special teams.

So, even though the defense was statistically in the top half of the league, it was flying under the radar. But when a defense doesn't allow a touchdown in back-to-back victories, and when it returns 3 takeaways for touchdowns of 75 yards or longer in those games, people take notice.

People like Saints coach Sean Payton. His offense has been arguably the NFL's most potent during his 11 years in New Orleans, and it will will test the Bears' defense Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"When you look at them in the last couple of years, they've made improvements in the secondary, (and) the front has gotten stronger," Payton told Saints reporters. "Vic has done a great job wherever he has been; (like) in San Francisco (2011-14), with those defenses that we saw back when they made their Super Bowl run. And, you can see his blueprint on what they're doing now."

Fangio's defenses finished in the top five in each of his four seasons in San Francisco. He won't compare this Bears defense to that group, which he says was dominant from the beginning. But Fangio says his current defense has recently begun doing things that attract attention.

"We've gotten takeaways, which we hadn't been getting," Fangio said. "That was really the only thing missing for the most part. Once you get them, it helps the entire team. These have been drastic takeaways, with 3 touchdowns and another one to the opponent's (21). They were not only takeaways, but they had major effect on the game."

The Bears' secondary was deficient in the previous two seasons, especially in the area of takeaways. But it's been the most improved area of the team this year. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown and an interception 76 yards for another TD last week. A week earlier, safety Adrian Amos scored on a 90-yard return after his first career interception. Earlier in the same game, nickel corner Bryce Callahan went 52 yards with his first career pick to set up a short touchdown drive.

Their big plays are partly the result of a pass rush from the front seven that is eighth in the NFL in sack percentage. The Bears are also 11th in run defense.

"They're playing hard and confident as a unit," Payton said. "They're hard to rush the ball against. They're real strong inside. They've got the ability to really pressure the passer, and they've gotten better in the secondary. They're playing with a lot of confidence; you can see that on film."

But Payton's play-calling and quarterback Drew Brees' precision passing will provide the toughest challenge the Bears' defense has faced this season. Brees is completing 69.1 percent of his passes, second best in the league; and his passer rating of 100.0 is seventh.

The 6-foot tall Brees is hardly today's prototypical quarterback, and he's 38 years old and in his 17th season. But in his previous two seasons, the Purdue product has thrown for 10,078 yards and 69 touchdowns. He's missed just two games in the last 13 years, and he's led the NFL in passing yards five of the previous six seasons.

"He's been in that offense ever since Sean Payton has been there," Fangio said. "He knows the offense as well as Sean Payton. He's a great operator. He dissects defenses. He knows what (defense) you're in, what you're not in, as good as anybody. He throws on rhythm a lot. There's a reason why he holds a lot of these records."

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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