This should give you a hint who I think has to step up huge on Sunday. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Preseason's over. Thank Ditka. Now... wait, I have to start doing these for real? I can't only give half effort like I did on the last one and know my spot is solidified? No, Dane, please don't send the Turk after me, I'll do it, I'll do it!
Phew... Okay, back to business. As I was saying, preseason is finally over, and now we get to kick things into high gear with the regular season. Step one, the Atlanta Falcons. Follow me past the jump and let's get this started...
How'd They Do Last Year: 13-3, 1st in the NFC South; lost in the Wild Card round to eventual Super Bowl Champion (gag!) Green Bay Packers 48-21.
When Last We Met: The Falcons downed the Bears in Week 6 of the 2009 season 21-14 to push their record to 4-1. Jay Cutler threw for 300 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs, one of those TDs coming with 6:14 left in the game to tie the score at 14. The Falcons got a touchdown the very next drive as Michael Turner went five yards for the score, and with first and ten at the 14, the Bears went incompletion, Omiyale false start, incompletion with OPI on Bennett, incompletion, incompletion, Orlando Pace false start (remember him?), and a final incompletion on fourth and six from the ten yard line.
The Falcons would like to run a balanced attack despite having a severe pass/run attempt differential, and with the weapons at their disposal, how can you blame them. Running backs, Michael Turner leads the four backs on the roster, with capable backup Jason Snelling, former practice-squader and special teamer Antone Smith and draft pick Jacquizz Rogers. Roddy White and Harry Douglas are still around at receiver, and some guy they spent most of their draft to get, Julio Jones something-or-other. And we can't forget aging-but-still-useful tight end Tony Gonzalez and an offensive line that allowed 23 sacks for the entire year. And some other guy that many claim to be in the top ten of quarterbacks in the NFL - Matt Ryan. Mike Mularkey runs this bunch as the offensive coordinator. They'll use a power-running game with Turner and fullback Ovie Mughelli and are willing to let Ryan's weapons work for him as opposed to making Ryan make the long play (8th in the league in attempts, only 9 INTs, but 15th in yardage). Douglas led the team with 13.4 yards per reception; Roddy White had 115 completions for 1389 yards.
The Falcons run a 4-3 scheme reliant on front-line pressure. In years past the only true rushing threat on the line was John Abraham; across from him Atlanta adds Viking nemesis Ray Edwards. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux is more of a pass-rushing tackle yet managed four sacks last year. The linebacking corps is a fairly solid one led by Curtis Lofton, who forced three fumbles and managed 117 total tackles (92 solo, 25 assisted), and the Falcons have one of the better secondary units in the NFC behind CB Brent Grimes (80 total tackles, 5 INTs, 23 deflections), SS William Moore (72 total tackles, 5 INTs), FS Thomas DeCoud (74 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) and CB Dunta Robinson (55 tackles, 7 deflections, 1 INT). They also added CB Kelvin Hayden and safety James Sanders to further solidify the unit.
If the Bears do this...
The Bears will have a good test for their offense, particularly the line. Abraham had thirteen sacks himself last season, and Edwards had 8.5 sacks in 2009 and another eight last season. So for starters, the line needs to show their nice middle two games of the preseason were not a fluke. Pending that, the Falcons allowed 4.6 yards per rushing attempt last season, good for 27th in the league. 7 times they allowed a team to reach 100 yards rushing with the Panthers reaching 212. The Falcons also only faced 366 rushing attempts last season - the second fewest. The offense should be predicated on establishing the run.
If the Falcons do this...
Some might point to this as a test for the defensive line; I'd say it's a test for the back seven. Ryan is among the best in the league at taking what's given, which plays into the Cover 2's "limitation" emphasis. If the Bears limit the extra yards guys like Julio, White and Gonzalez can get on their receptions, the Bears stand a better chance of slowing down the offense. But if Ryan's weapons have room to work with, a team that scored 414 points last season (5th in the league) could get on track in a hurry.
This can't be a game the Bears fall behind early; the Falcons picked up 22 INTs last year and excel at picking off rushed throws.