It's no secret that after years of dominating Mike Vick's Falcons, Lovie Smith has yet to notch one against Matt Ryan. Interesting to note, however, that both games we have played against Ryan were in Atlanta, where his record stands at 19-2. Things might be different when he steps out of the dome and into the windy confines of Soldier Field. In any case, let's look back to the last time we faced Mike Smith and his gang to break down the tape. The game may have been a disaster in classic 2009 style, despite the close 21-14 final score, but what I saw was a very winnable game against a team we match up well against. Onwards!
The Bears defensive game plan is simple: stop the run, stop the deep pass, and try to take the ball away. For the most part, we executed this to a T. We only gave up 68 yards on the ground, held Matt Ryan to 5.6 yards per completion, intercepted two of his passes, and held Atlanta to only 26 minutes of possession during the game. However, without our big man in the middle - a certain Brian Urlacher - the inexperience of then third-string MLB Nick Roach showed. He botched coverages, including going in for a blitz while leaving two men covering three receivers on the weak side. End result of that mistake? 40 yard Roddy White touchdown. He had trouble dealing with Falcons no-huddle. End result? Ten yard pass to Tony Gonzalez to cap off a long drive. Also, he missed some big tackles in the middle. End result of that? Six yard touchdown run by Michael Turner. Hard to put all the blame for the three touchdowns we gave up on one player, but he was the man who stood to make each of those plays. Moreover, in trademark 2009 style, we had very little pressure being generated by our front four, which forced Lovie Smith to blitz enough to give Ryan some one-on-one matchups on the outside, which he repeatedly exploited. We did well to hold them to 21 points, and made some big stops when we needed to, but I wouldn't blame the defense for this loss despite their B- performance.
Play of the Game:
The Bears made a big defensive stop as the Falcons were inching into field goal range at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Dave Toub, however, sent one too many men out on the field to block for Devin Hester, which made a fourth and four turn into a first and ten for the Falcons. Like any offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey wanted to make the Bears pay for their mistake, and had Matt Ryan take a big shot down the field. The pass, however, went right into the hands of Nathan Vasher on the eight yard line. No return on the play, but the Bears would go on to get a tying touchdown on the ensuing drive, providing a big momentum shift in the game and giving the team a fighting chance of winning this game.
I have to split this one in half and give it to both Adewale Ogunleye and Charles Tillman. Wale had a great game, and while he didn't generate a sack, he was a solid veteran presence on the line and broke up what would have been some big plays by either knocking Tony Gonzalez down in the backfield so he couldn't go out on his route or by flushing Ryan from the pocket. Tillman wins his half of the game ball by completely shutting down his half of the field - in the whole game, they never beat him once in coverage. He also made some great tackles in run support. Honorable mention goes to Lance Briggs, who had two batted passes, but I knew if I gave him a game ball he might ask me for a bigger contract.
The Falcons only ground game came from running on the strong side, but I don't think they are going to have much luck doing that with Julius Peppers lined up there. The 2011 Bears have looked equally stout in the middle against the run, meaning if Turner is going to get his yards, it will be through the swing passes and checkdowns that they used in 2009. Nick Roach and Al Afalava did a decent job of covering Tony Gonzalez, but I can only imagine that Harris and Urlacher will do even better against the wily old TE. The Falcons have been pass wacky so far in the preseason, and if they continue to show such a one-dimensional look against the Bears, strong pressure from the front four will be key. Matt Ryan is a smart guy and can find his one-on-one man if we are forced to blitz, but if we are able get sacks from our front four, play zone coverage and hunt for interceptions, we should be able to contain the Falcons very well. Honestly, I think with the improvements we have on our defensive compared to 2009, it'll be a good game for the Bears defense.
Ugh. Even rewatching this game made me want to throw things at the television. Three red zone turnovers - 2 INTs, 1 fumble by Forte. Even with all this, however, it took the horrible play of Orlando Pace and Frank Omiyale to really lose the game for us. False start Frank killed two drives, with, well, false starts, and Orlando Pace decided that, down by a touchdown and facing fourth and less than a yard on the five, that he would make it a much more manageable fourth and six by jumping the gun way too early. Despite all that horror, we did some good things in this game. The passing game had some nice moments, especially with Cutler finding both tight ends for big gains on successive drives: the first found him connecting with Dez Clark for two straight passes good for 40+ yards, and then next found him hooking up with Greg Olsen for a forty yard bomb followed by a touchdown pass from five yards out. Matt Forte had a typically 2009 mediocre game, and we had just as much trouble on the ground as they did. Our leading rusher ended up being Jay Cutler, who racked up 30 yards on a QB sneak, and Garrett Wolfe eclipsed Forte's running total the second time he got the ball. It could have been worse for the Bears, but the upside is that we have nowhere to go but up in this upcoming game after the horror show it was last time.
Play of the Game:
Everybody loves a two-play touchdown drive. The Bears set up on the Atlanta 45 after a sweet Devin Hester return, then Hester grabbed a nice pass to move the ball another fifteen yards or so. Atlanta, which had been blitzing on first down all game to stop our ground attack, sent the fleet after Cutler, but the line held out just long enough for Jay to load one up to Johnny Knox, who was streaking by his man into the end zone. He hauled the catch in, took two steps, and then dropped the pass, but two steps is enough of a football move to put six on the board. Nice work from the rookie.
Player of the Game:
Tough call on this one. I'll continue giving split decisions here and award both tight ends with a half a game ball each. Both Dez Clark and Greg Olsen made key plays on big drives for the Bears, with Dez perhaps getting an extra bit of the ball for making some very tough catches over the middle all game to help keep the ball moving. The two bright spots in an otherwise dull game.
The Matt Forte of 2011 is better than his limping 2009 version and while still suspect, our line can't play much worse than they did in '09. Forte will definitely get over 100 combined yards, if only because you know he's going to be seeing action in the passing game. I think the Martzfence matches up better to the Atlanta defense than anything Ron Turner could dish out, as we will present enough of a threat with the deep ball to open up running lanes in the front and the short passing game in the middle of the field. Most importantly, this game would have gone to overtime if we would have converted one of our four non-scoring trips to the red zone into a touchdown, something I think a more mature Jay Cutler can do for us. With our improving offensive line, better QB play, and speed on the outside, we can do some damage to this offense.
The Falcons and the Bears came into this game rated #1 and #2 in starting field position, but their return game, led by WR Eric Weems, had the better of it. He had some big runbacks, including one that set up the Falcons all the way on the Bears 38. Maynard had a good game, with three punts inside the 20, but you'd rather not have us punting that much. Hester had some nice returns as well and was a shoestring tackle away from taking one to the house, but he was still the second-best returner out there. And getting a 12-man penalty on a punt? Wow, that's bad.
Play and Player of the Game:
Brad Maynard, if only because nobody else did much of note other than Hester. He had some real nice punts, dodged a near-block, and set up the defense very nicely field position wise, especially in the first half. Let's just hope Podlesh has as much skill at the coffin corner kick as ol' Brad did.
Hester has been kept on ice all preseason, and between him and Johnny Knox, we have two Pro-Bowl return men. While ST has been suspect throughout the preseason, I'm hoping that Toub has things settled down now that he has a clear idea of who will be playing for him throughout the season. I think that we will have a slim advantage in ST play, and with both Knox and Hester being capable of scoring whenever they have the ball in their hands, you never know what will happen. While Robbie Gould didn't get any action other than two extra points in the '09 game, you know he will shake off his preseason missed and be back to his normal good-as-Gould self.
My final prediction: I think the oddswizards have it right that this will be a close game, but with Lovie Smith holding one of the better first-week records of active NFL coaches, I think the Bears will pull out a close win. Looking back at this game makes me even more confident that we have what it will take to beat out the NFCS champs from last year and put the national media on notice that the Bears are a real threat this season.
Again, as this is a new feature, let me know if there are other things you would like me to include in the game breakdowns. Thanks for reading, as see you next week as we look ahead to New Orleans, a team Lovie's Bears has always matched up well against.