The Bears kick off the season with a home date against the defending NFC Champions. Thanks schedule makers. We were able to flag down Dave Choate, Editor-in-Chief of The Falcoholic, to answer a few questions about this team.
WCG: Let's get this one out of the way. I think the vast majority of Bears fans cheered for the Falcons in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, at a minimum, last year so there's at least a little bit of camaraderie with your friends in navy and orange. How has the fan base held up after the Super Bowl and do you sense that this team is going to suffer from the "Super Bowl Hangover?"
Falcoholic: We appreciate your support! My sense is that the fanbase is bruised and sick and tired of 28-3 jokes, but generally intact. Almost everyone I've talked to is genuinely excited about the season ahead, which is more than you can ask for after such a traumatic loss in the Super Bowl.
The team, meanwhile, is saying all the right things. They're a resilient bunch, Dan Quinn is excellent at reinforcing a message of togetherness and toughness, and there are some great locker room presences that will absolutely help to drive that home. That said, this Falcons team is probably due for some offensive regression and are counting on the defense to pick up the slack, so it wouldn't be unfair to expect some slight pullback in performance overall. I do think they'll be one of the few teams that doesn't suffer a post-Super Bowl swoon.
WCG: The biggest loss from last year's squad is arguably Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who now roams the sidelines in San Francisco as their head man. What are your expectations of Steve Sarkisian, the new OC?
Falcoholic: I expect Sark, as he is popularly known, to continue with the basic contours of Shanahan's offense. Shanny is a gifted, creative playcaller with a well-earned reputation for arrogance, and the Falcons aren't going to get the creativity or the level of freakish control over the offense this year that they got during the 2016 campaign. Aside from phasing out the fullback a bit, getting tight ends more involved, and trying to revive Julio Jones' status as a dangerous red zone weapon, though, I don't expect huge changes to the way this offense looks and functions. It helps that so many starters are returning, so Sarkisian can learn on the job a bit and lean on Matt Ryan for expertise and advice.
WCG: Dan Quinn's defense really started to come on in the later part of the year in 2016 to help make the Falcons the force that ran through the NFC playoffs. Now that we're starting year 3 of the Quinn era, what are the expectations of that unit? Has Quinn rebuilt a young, fresh version of the Seahawks dominant defense or are we still a year or two away?
Falcoholic: I think we're probably a year away from a Seahawks-level defense, and that's if everything breaks the right way, which is never a given. That said, this defense should finally make the leap from "sort of decent and exciting" to "actually good," largely thanks to the emerging young playmakers that dot the defense. Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are just a handful of the young impact players on that side of the ball who have either shown flashes of excellent or have already ascended to the league's elite at their respective positions. With the addition of Dontari Poe at defensive tackle, a terrific young secondary, and anticipated growth from Jones, Neal, Campbell and others, I'm extremely bullish on this defense's outlook at think they'll generate loads of turnovers even if they don't rank in the top ten in scoring or total yardage.
WCG: Bears fans that follow the draft are well aware of the exploits of Vic Beasley as GM Ryan Pace broke many hearts picking Kevin White one ahead of the Clemson Tiger. Who is another player on that defense that Bears fans should key in on Sunday?
Falcoholic: Deion Jones, for certain. Debo has become one of the best young linebackers in the NFL in an alarmingly short time, and his closing speed and playmaking ability mean he can disrupt almost any play he's within 10 yards of. If anyone's going to have a game-changing turnover against you guys, it'll be Jones.
WCG: After Julio Jones, what are your expectations for target share between Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel this year? Will anyone else enter into the rotation as a significant contributor?
Falcoholic: I think Sanu will get more targets than Gabriel, probably by a significant margin. Gabriel is incredibly fast and dynamic, but the team had a lot of success using him to spread out the defense and hooking up with him only when he had the space to work, something they'll likely look to repeat this year. Sanu has Matt Ryan's trust and is easily the most sure-handed option on the team today, so he should be #2 behind Julio.
I do expect that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back will continue to soak up targets in the passing game because they're so useful there, particularly because Coleman is dangerous when split out wide. Austin Hooper, who is entering his second NFL season, should also emerge as a reliable option at tight end, particularly in the red zone.
WCG: Bonus - I'm not going to ask you what you think the outcome of this game will be as the dirty birds are touchdown favorites on the road. Instead, how many games will the Falcons win in 2017?
Falcoholic: I have them repeating their 11 wins from 2016. I think there will be some measure of offensive regression, but it'll be largely erased by a slightly friendlier schedule and defensive improvement. I'm hoping that will be good enough to win the NFC South, get them in as a top seed, and hopefully pave the way for a return trip to the Super Bowl.