The preseason also took us on a rollercoaster ride of highs (Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Bears Defense) and lows (Mike Glennon, Cameron Meredith). Throughout it all, we have a better idea of what to expect and the final 53-man roster has given us a small glimpse as to what the 2017 Bears might look like.
Trubisky leap-frogging Mark Sanchez was a bit of a surprise and to a lesser extent, so was the news that Eddie Jackson would begin the season as the starting free safety. Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee and Markus Wheaton were all back at practice on Thursday, while Danny Trevathan appears to be ready to go from the onset of the season.
Prince Amukamara appears to still be sidelined with an ankle injury, but Kyle Fuller looks to be an able substitute for the difficult task of covering Julio Jones. Amazingly, this team appears to be relatively healthy in comparison to where they were last week. That makes it much easier to take a gauge individual matchups and keys to the game.
What to Watch For
On offense, the first game of the season generally does not go very smoothly for the offense as defenses are usually ahead of them at this point. That said, I would like to see the offense come out with good pace and be relatively efficient with a balanced attack.
It all starts up front with the offensive lineman. Atlanta’s defensive front is smaller and quicker, which should be a pretty good matchup for the Bears early in the season (assuming Long is still out and Hroniss Grasu starts at center). If the Bears can control the line of scrimmage, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen should be able to grind out a lot of yardage and help dominate the time of possession.
Look to see a lot more passing in the short to intermediate zones with the tight ends and backs than we saw in the preseason. The Bears didn’t keep 4 tight ends and 4 running backs on the roster not to use them. With Meredith going down for the season, I expect to see the tight ends step up.
Defensively, again, it starts up front. The defensive line and outside linebackers were very disruptive in the preseason and that will need to continue if the Bears are going to have a chance in this game. Keep an eye on the middle of the line to see how Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Jonathan Bullard collapse the pocket. This will make throwing uncomfortable for Matt Ryan and also free up angles of attack for Leonard Floyd, Willie Young and Pernell McPhee off the edge.
This is going to be a tough test for the new-look secondary. I expect Amukamara to sit this one out, so Kyle Fuller will look to get the start. If I were Vic Fangio, I would take advantage of his strengths and run mainly zone coverage schemes. I believe that going 2-deep will also help Jackson by cutting the field in half for him and limiting the amount of thinking that he has to do in his inaugural start.
Who to Watch
Mike Glennon: The quarterback is always the obvious choice, isn’t it? This will be our first opportunity to see what Dowell Loggains draws up for Glennon. I suspect that it will be quite a bit different than what we saw in the preseason. I will be looking to see heavy doses of running plays early, which will setup the play-action passing game later. While I don’t think Glennon will go deep often, he should be able to establish the intermediate passing game to the tight ends off of the play-fake.
Tarik Cohen: It was interesting how the Bears used Cohen in the preseason. He rarely went out on a pass route and was utilized in a similar manner to how you would expect Howard to be used. I have a sneaking suspicion that Loggains has been trying to hide Cohen from the league and we will get our first look at the “chicken salad” package on Sunday afternoon.
Leonard Floyd: This is the straw that stirs the drink for the defense. Floyd NEEDS to be a wrecking ball this season and there is no better time to start than against the reigning MVP. The rest of the defensive front is very important, but Floyd is absolutely crucial to the success of this team. Watch to see how Fangio moves him around and plays games up-front to try and get Floyd some free looks at Ryan.
Eddie Jackson: The rookie free safety is getting his first taste of the NFL and it is going to be against a high octane passing attack. Expect to see some bracket coverage (Jackson playing over the top, cornerback underneath) against Julio Jones. This is a key matchup for the game and Fuller and Jackson are going to have their hands full with the 4-time pro-bowler. Jackson’s tackling ability and physicality was also an issue in college. The Falcons have physical receivers that will provide a good test for his first NFL action.
Keys to the Game
The Running Game: This is absolutely pivotal for the Bears success against the Falcons. Their offense is top notch and pounding the rock is one of the best ways to keep your defense fresh and their offense off of the field. Expect heavy doses of Jordan Howard early in the game with a mix of Tarik Cohen to spice things up.
The Defensive Front: Expecting to see the secondary here? I think that first and foremost, the Bears have to stop the run. If they can make the Falcons one-dimensional early, the pass rush should be able to disrupt Matt Ryan in the pocket. Step one, stop the run. Step two, rush the passer. Rinse and repeat.
The X-Factor: The special teams unit appears to be much improved over last year’s squad. The Bears have, at least, an average coverage unit but what could set them apart is an array of different returning weapons. Deonte Thompson and Benny Cunningham have had success returning kicks and will likely share that duty. The rookie duo of Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson could prove to be special in the punt return department. This is one area that is often over-looked but could turn the tide if the game stays close.