The NFL season is finally here.
Yes we made it through the long, winding, offseason to the the big payoff.
A new season is here and even for the Bears, coming off of a 3-13 season, there is a lot to be excited about.
Of course the storyline will circle around the quarterback situation as No. 2 overall draft pick and No. 2 on the depth chart Mitchell Trubisky is already breathing down the neck of Mike Glennon. The defense should be improved, the wide receivers have questions and on and on it goes.
It all starts at noon Central Time when the Bears kick off against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons have their own intrigue as they come off one of the best seasons in their franchise’s history and a Super Bowl trip that saw them blow a 28-3 lead. How will the players respond? Can they avoid the Super Bowl Loser’s Hangover that so many teams fall prey to? We shall see.
SB Nation Blog: The Falcoholic
Record (2016): 11-5, first in the NFC South
Last Week: 13-7 loss to the Jaguars in the fourth preseason game
Bears All-Time Record Against: 14-12
Historical Match-ups: Hard to believe that the NFC rivals have only met 26 times since the Falcons came to exist in 1966 and that none of them happened in the postseason.
Since they have never shared a division it’s hard to say that there’s been any real classics between them. There was the memorable 2001 game when Brian Urlacher shut down rookie sensation Michael Vick, holding him to 18 rushing yards, sacking him once and returning a fumble 90 yards for a TD.
Then there was the bitterly cold Sunday Night Football game in 2005 when the 9-4 Bears and 8-5 Falcons met in December. The Bears rode their stifling defense to a 16-3 win in a game that saw Kyle Orton benched at halftime for the healed Rex Grossman.
Last meeting: A 27-13 win in Atlanta in Week 6 of 2014. The Bears moved to 3-3 with the victory, the Falcons fell to 2-4. It felt like a turning point, but the Bears ended up winning just two more games under Marc Trestman.
Jay Cutler threw for 381 yards and a touchdown that day as Matt Forte scored twice while Matt Ryan finished 19 of 37 with a touchdown and a pick.
Injury Report: On Wednesday injury report the Falcons had only four players listed, three of which were actually limited in some fashion. Safety Damontae Kazee was a full participant (ankle) while offensive lineman Austin Pasztor was limited with a chest injury and running back Tarron Ward was limited by a hamstring ailment. Running back Brian Hill was out with an ankle injury.
Offense: The Falcons are a loaded team with plenty of firepower through the air and on the ground. They were the highest scoring unit a year ago, notching a league-leading 540 points (over 33 per game). The unit is led by Matt Ryan (69.9 percent comp./4,944 yds./38 TD/7 INT last season), the reigning NFL MVP entering his 10th season. He’ll be throwing to Julio Jones (83 rec./1,409 yds./6 TD last year), Mohamad Sanu (59/653/4) and Taylor Gabriel (35/579/6), among others.
The rushing attack is two-headed led by Devonta Freeman (1,079 yds./11 TD/4.8 YPC) who also is prolific pass-catcher in his own right, finishing third on the team in receptions last year. Freeman is spelled by Tevin Coleman (520/8/4.4). He added three receiving TDs himself.
Gone though is Kyle Shanahan, whom many put the blame on for the Super Bowl slipping away due to a lack of run calls in the second half. Now comes in disgraced former USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who has never been an NFL play caller and hasn’t worked in the NFL since serving as a QB coach in 2004. The offense should look similar with Sarkisian familiar with running an uptempo system and distributing the ball around like the Falcons did last year. He also likes to use play-action.
By most accounts, Sarkisian is adjusting to the Falcons’ existing offense, not the other way around.
Defense: The offense carried the day a year ago and the defense, which was vulnerable, obviously sputtered at the worst possible time a year ago.
The Falcons had the 27th ranked defense in 2016 in terms of points allowed per game, giving up around 25 PPG.
The unit is led by linebacker Vic Beasley, an All-Pro a year ago after notching 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and a fumble return touchdown.
They added NT Dontari Poe from Kansas City to help shore things up on the defensive line along with returners Courtney Upshaw and Grady Jarrett.
The secondary is anchored by Desmond Trufant who recorded an interception, two forced fumbles and two sacks last season.
Many of the Falcons’ back side defensive players skew younger, with DBs Ricardo Allen and Keenu and linebackers Beasley, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell all with less than four years in the league.
Dan Quinn is a defensive minded coach and he brought his style from Seattle and with another offseason to coach up his young players, this unit could be looking to take the next step.
Key matchups: This one looks bad for the Bears on paper. How does a top three draft pick team match up with a Super Bowl contender?
It’s like showing up to the drag strip in a Smart car to race a prepped Corvette. Same sport, different equipment.
The Falcons’ roster is vastly deeper and more complete than the Bears’ is.
A huge match up for Chicago will be Julio Jones vs. Marcus Cooper. With Prince Amukamara battling an ankle injury, it’s going to be up to Cooper to match up against one of the league’s best WRs. He should have some help over the top from Quintin Demps but the Falcons have too many weapons for the Bears to constantly be double-teaming Jones.
Up front the key match up is going to be Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd vs. the Falcons offensive line, especially tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Shraeder. The defensive front seven is the Bears’ strong suit and getting pressure on Matt Ryan could really be the difference between a close game and the Falcons torching the Soldier Field grass.
For the offense it’s going to be about how the offensive line can block Beasley and Poe. Can the shuffled interior with razor thin depth (keep in mind that if Kyle Long is inactive Sunday the Bears will have no back up guards) keep those defenders at bay?
Last year the Falcons surrendered the fourth-most passing yards but some of that was down to the routs they put onto other teams. They faced the most pass attempts against the fifth fewest rushing attempts.
If the Bears are going to hang around they need to establish Jordan Howard early and play keep away from the Falcons offense. If Mike Glennon can avoid mistakes and not give the Falcons a short field, the Bears could have an outside shot at the upset.
What to watch for: How will Mike Glennon look in his regular season debut? That’s a heck of an opener for the Bears.
The September schedule is rough so while many won’t pick the Bears to get the W, it at least can give a glimpse of how this should-be-improved team matches up against the likes of the very best in the league.
Will the defense look as dangerous as some fans think it can be? Will any receivers step up? How does Jordan Howard look entering his second year? These are other questions that are worth watching to find answers to.
Key Stat: The Falcons were 6-2 on the road last year.
They are 1-3 in Week 1 road games since 2010.
Super Bowl losers are 1-5 in the next season’s Week 1 road games since 2007.
What are you expecting to see Sunday? Can the Bears hang with the Falcons?