A breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Falcons on Sept. 11, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Falcons defense
I think the biggest question to be answered when the Bears offense hits the field Sunday against the Falcons is what kind of play calling we’ll see from Mike Martz. Will it be that which called for Jay Cutler to sling the ball through the air at the beginning of last season? Or will it be a more conservative approach like the one that led the Bears to a five-game win streak after the bye week and took them to the divisional crown and a playoff run? A few players are suggesting it’ll be the latter, but I’d have to think that Martz will want to start anew this season and try to pass more. The Bears really did not upgrade the offensive line much this offseason, so I’m not sure how much time Cutler will have to throw. He’s going up against an opportunistic Falcons defense that had 22 interceptions last year, fourth-most in the NFL. The Falcons brought in former Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards to help improve the pass rush. He’ll play alongside John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux to give the Falcons a formiddable defensive line. The Bears may have to use their tight ends, Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth, to help protect Cutler. The Falcons had the No. 10 run defense a year ago, and I think how effective Matt Forte can be against it will be a big factor into which team wins this game. Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson is nursing a hamstring injury but is listed as probable for the game. His health will be worth keeping an eye on during the game as he goes up against the Bears’ speedy receivers.
Bears defense vs. Falcons offense
There’s no reason to believe the Bears can’t have as good a defense as they did a year ago. The team let Danieal Manning go and were prepared to replace him with second-year safety Major Wright. Wright showed some lapses during the preseason and the Bears jumped on the opportunity to sign former Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowler. The Bears are paying Meriweather good money so it’s expected that Meriweather will unseat Wright at free safety at some point. With Meriweather an upgrade over Manning, Henry Melton a likely upgrade over Tommie Harris, and with Nick Roach stepping in at strong-side linebacker, the Bears actually could be better than they were a year ago. Of course, a lot of that depends on whether they can stay healthy. The Bears had the No. 2 run defense in the league in 2010 and they’ll need that effort to stop Falcons running back Michael Turner and try to make Atlanta one-dimensional on offense. If the Bears allow Turner to have some early success, that’ll make quarterback Matt Ryan that much more successful in the passing game with play action at his disposal. Ryan is an accurate quarterback who takes care of the ball. He thew 28 touchdowns and just nine interceptions a year ago. This year, the Falcons added rookie wide receiver Julio Jones to an already strong offense. Jones, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is an imposing figure opposite No. 1 receiver Roddy White. Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (5’8″) will have a difficult matchup against whichever receiver lines up on his side of the field. The Falcons will take advantage of this matchup all day long unless the Bears pass rush can limit the amount of time Ryan has in the pocket. The Bears’ front four ought to be improved this year. Melton will start at the three technique where he should provide more burst than what Tommie Harris showed the last few years. The team added Amobi Okoye to the mix who, along with Matt Toeaina, should help wear down the offensive line and take advantage of a weakened Falcons middle. With Julius Peppers’ pressure from the outside — and possibly moving inside to tackle on select third-and-long plays — Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs will be free to penetrate gaps and blow up plays in the backfield, or for minimal gain.
The Bears special teams had their bout with mental lapses in the preseason, but I’m not overly concerned with that. They struggled in last year’s exhibition, too, before going on to have a successful regular season. It takes time for Dave Toub to find the right combination of players, some of whom don’t play a lot of special teams in college because they’re the stars of their teams there. What I am concerned about is how much the new kickoff rule will affect the Bears’ starting field position. With the kickoffs being placed five yards closer, we’ve seen an inordinate number of touchbacks in the preseason and that trend will continue into the regular season. Toub has said he’s giving his kick returners the green light to take the ball out of the end zone from more than five yards deep, but that could be a recipe for disaster to allow them to make that decision. Still, if any opposing kicker makes a mistake and the ball becomes returnable, I like Johnny Knox’s and Devin Hester’s chances of making a big return. The Falcons have a good kick returner in Eric Weems, who made the Pro Bowl last year and was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December, averaging 30.9 yards per kickoff return. Special teams should be a fairly even matchup where one mistake or big play could make a big difference.
The Bears tend to play well in season openers because they start the seasons healthy and Lovie Smith has his teams prepared. This year should be no different, although the opponent is arguably one of the best they’ve faced in a season opener in Smith’s tenure as Bears head coach. Falcons coach Mike Smith was a candidate for coach of the year in 2010 and he always seems to bring out the best in his players. With the Bears’ special teams neutralized by the new kickoff rule, they will have to rely on their offense to sustain long drives, something at which they were the worst in the league in 2011. Although Atlanta had the fifth-highest scoring offense in the league last year, the Bears have traditionally held opposing offenses in check in season openers. It may not seem like it to the skeptics, but the Bears have gotten better on offense and have the chance to be even better on defense. All of this, of course, hinges on the health of the team, which was near perfect last year. Against the Falcons, they have that health for the time being and they have the slight advantage in this overall matchup.
Final Score: Chicago 23, Atlanta 17