Week 1: Falcons at Bears — what to watch for…

The only good thing about the lockout and subsequent late-starting training camp was that it made this preseason fly by; and all of a sudden, here we are at Opening Week. Experts have said that the scheduling gods did not do us any favors the first 3 weeks—versus Atlanta; at New Orleans; and versus Green Bay.  I think this could end up being a plus for the Bears; especially when you consider if we can get through this cluster of games at 2-1 or even 1-2; our schedule is noticeably easier for the final 12 games—especially the final 6 games of the season, which gives us an advantage for a late-season playoff push.
At any rate, we open the season at home against the Falcons; a trendy pick by the experts to be an NFC contender—led by (overrated, in my book) quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and wideout Roddy White. A win here could be huge later in the season, when head-to-head tiebreakers could determine playoff spots, seeding, and possibly home-field advantage. Here are some things that are key for the Bears to come out of Week one with a win:

1) Good Tackling. Matt Ryan averaged about 6.5 yards per pass attempt last season, which was actually a career-high for him. Which means the Falcons throw alot of bubble screens, slants, hooks, and quick outs. They rely on players like Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and (now) Julio Jones to break tackles in space in order to create big plays. In fact, the Falcons only had 2 plays the ENTIRE GAME over 15 yards—a 40-yard TD catch and run by White and a 16-yarder by Gonzalez—both the result of missed tackles that would have limited those plays to 4- 5 yards. We did do a good job on Michael Turner, limiting him to just 30 yards on 13 carries. But he is one of the premier RBs in the NFL, and he is a load to bring down.

Coincidentally, the Thursday night game between the Packer and Saints would have been about a 21-14 game if either side was tackling well. It looked like a charity flag football game at times. I am not sure if this was a fluke, or a result of a shortened training camp, or the reduced number of padded practices—but this bears watching in al the week one games, not just the Bears game. If the Bears miss alot of tackles, our defense could be in some trouble. If we tackle well, the Falcons should have trouble putting up more than 20 points.

2. Pass protection.  We have a 2nd-year player in his first year as a left tackle (J’Marcus Webb) and a rookie right tackle (Gabe Carimi) going against top-tier pass rushers in Ray Edwards and John Abraham. I expect us to run the ball ALOT early; and a game plan that attempts to get Forte out in space in the passing game matched up on the Falcons’ LBs and safeties, who are not known for their speed. I also expect to see alot of help from TEs Matt Speath and Kellen Davis on those edge rushers.

3. Our WRs versus the jam. The Falcons play a TON of man coverage, relying on their pass rushers to cause inaccurate passes and generate takeaways. Their CBs like to play up and aggressive on opposing WRs. However, they were exposed TERRIBLY in their last playoff game against the Packers, because if they are left to cover WRs for more than 2 or 3 seconds, or forced to try to make one-on-one, open-field tackles, they struggle. Heck, their CBs had trouble guarding our WRs during our last meeting in 2009, as Cutler threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs.  Our offense’s downfall last season was the inability of our WRs to get open against in-your-face, physical CBs. Knox, Hester, and Bennett all look like they added some strength this offseason—not to mention the addition of Roy Williams—and we will see if this results in improved play in beating jam coverage, and better windows for Cutler to throw into.

4. Punt Coverage. I do not expect to see that much action in the kickoff return game, as both Robbie Gould and Falcons’ KO specialist Michael Koenen can bury the ball into the back of the endzone from the new 35-yard line kickoff line. However, the Bears and Falcons boast Pro-Bowl punt returners in Devin Hester and Eric Weems, respectively. And the Bears had some trouble covering punts last season, and now have a new punter and as many as 5-6 new players on punt coverage. Field posistion will be huge in this game, and one big punt return either way could be the difference.

5. Cutler’s decision making. One of the most under-noticed things about the Bears’ 2010 season was how QB Jay Cutler’s decision making improved over the last 8-10 weeks of the season. Knowing when to take what the defense gives you, or when to scramble if nothing is open.  As we saw in the Thursday night game, one turnover by the Saints early in the game put them in a 14-0 hole they could never overcome. When you play elite teams, you cannot give them anything easy in the way of good field position or defensive touchdowns. As long as Cutler makes smart decisions, I really do not see the Falcons moving the ball at will against our defense.

FINAL PREDICTION: The name of the game in the current NFL is being able to create big plays. I think the Bears are more suited for this than the Falcons, and—especially being at home—-the Bears beat the Falcons in Week One, 28-17.

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