The two teams with the best records in the NFC last season will face off Sunday at Soldier Field when the Chicago Bears host the Atlanta Falcons. For a season opener, it doesn't get much better than this one.
The Falcons (13-3 last season) return a strong team that upgraded at key areas this offseason through free agency and the draft. They have added to the passing game, the defensive line and the secondary. Their offense is potent, finishing fifth in the NFL in scoring last year. Their defense was just as good, allowing the fifth fewest points in the league.
To say the Bears have their hands full is an understatement.
Sunday marks the 25th meeting between the Bears and the Falcons, dating back to a 23-6 Chicago win at Wrigley Field in 1966. The first 24 meetings have been split evenly, 12-12. The Falcons have not won in Chicago since 1983.
Location: Soldier Field
Forecast: Mid-70s, sunny
Play-by-play - Kenny Albert
Color analyst - Daryl Johnston
Sideline reporter - Tony Siragusa
Radio: WBBM Radio (780 AM & 105.9 FM)
Play-by-play - Jeff Joniak
Color analyst - Tom Thayer
Sideline reporter - Zach Zaidman
Line: Atlanta (-3)
Both teams are dealing with a few injuries in some key areas. For Chicago, backup running back Marion Barber (calf) will not play. DE Corey Wootton (knee) and WR Sam Hurd (ankle) are questionable. Anthony Adams, who has been recovering from a calf injury for almost a month, is listed as probable, as is LB Lance Briggs (knee), Kahlil Bell (knee), S Chris Conte (head), TE Kellen Davis (back), LS Patrick Mannelly (calf) and S Craig Steltz (hip).
KEYS TO THE GAME
DT Anthony Adams
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
-First and foremost, the Bears will need to stop the Falcons' rushing attack, led by Michael Turner, who gained 1,371 yards last season. He's a bruising inside runner who has enough speed to beat defenders to the corner. Expect Atlanta to run him early and often. Chicago will need to set the tone from the start and force their opponents to become one-dimensional.
Much of this responsibility will fall on nose tackles Anthony Adams and Matt Toeaina. Adams hasn't played all preseason and rust may be a factor. Both will have to eat up space in the middle and keep the opposing linemen away from the linebackers. The coaches will turn to rookie Stephen if Adams is ineffective or can't finish because of his injury. Paea has been pushed around all preseason and has trouble anchoring against the run.
The Falcons offensive line includes two of the game's best in LG Justin Blalock and RT Tyson Clabo. Yet the team lost G Harvey Dahl in the offseason and will be working in two new starters this year. Expect the group to make a few mistakes. When they do, the Bears must capitalize.
-Because of Clabo on the right side, don't expect a monster game from Israel Idonije. He's looked quick when getting after the passer but has had some troubles against the run this preseason. On the other side, Julius Peppers should be able to get decent pressure against Sam Baker. If he can wreak havoc, it will go a long way toward disrupting Atlanta's offense.
-The Falcons traded five draft picks, including two first rounders, to move up in this year's draft and select WR Julio Jones from Alabama. He has blazing speed and most feel he'll be able to take some of the pressure off teammate Roddy White, who led the NFL in receptions last year (115). Yet Jones hasn't played a single down in the NFL and the odds are stacked against him having a big game tomorrow. I still see Chicago rolling coverage White's way. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings must be physical with these two at the line of scrimmage and not allow them free releases into the secondary.
A crucial matchup will come in the slot between WR Harry Douglas and nickelback D.J. Moore. Douglas has been on fire this preseason working the underneath routes. Moore has been shaky in man coverage since training camp started. He'll need to do a much better job mirroring Douglas, so the rest of the secondary can focus on the wideouts.
-The X-factor in Atlanta's passing game is Tony Gonzalez. The 35-year-old is no longer the All Pro he was throughout most of his career but he still has enough left in the tank to be dangerous down the middle. Expect the Bears to utilize the speed of LB Brian Urlacher in one-on-one coverage in an attempt to mitigate Gonzalez's effectiveness up the seams.
-There is one surefire way to disrupt Atlanta's passing game: getting pressure on Matt Ryan. The Falcons' quarterback has developed into one of the game's best and will pick apart this shaky Bears secondary if given time to throw. Peppers and Idonije need to bring it from the edges but pressure also needs to come from up front. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye must be able to penetrate through the middle and not allow Ryan to step up in the pocket.
-Pay attention to how the Bears use their newest safety Brandon Meriweather. Second-year player FS Major Wright has struggled at times this preseason and appears to be on a short leash. He can keep his starting job with a strong performance but a few missed reads and busted plays could have Meriweather patrolling the deep middle sooner rather than later.
T J'Marcus Webb
-Let's face it, this offense will live or die based on the performance of its front five. The starters are a reshuffled unit that includes a rookie at right tackle, Gabe Carimi, and a second-year player at left tackle, J'Marcus Webb – both of whom played different positions last year. They will have their hands full with DE John Abraham, who had 13 sacks last season, and recent-acquisition DE Ray Edwards. Both players present a serious challenge off the edges. These two battles outside could dictate the entire flow of Chicago's offense.
In the middle, Atlanta will be without its starting NT Corey Peters, which should open up some room in the interior. C Roberto Garza, LG Chris Williams and RG Lance Louis must show cohesiveness and power in order to open holes in the run game. This is especially so for Louis, who has been pushed around some in the preseason. On most plays he'll have to face DT Jonathan Babineaux, an accomplished under tackle. Keeping him restrained in the middle will be key.
-The loss of RB Marion Barber for this contest hurts the Bears in short yardage situations but Kahlil Bell performed very well in the preseason and should have no problem spelling Matt Forte on occasion. We'll get our first real look at whether or not Forte's contract situation is going to affect him on the field. He continues to talk about it publicly, so it's obviously still on his mind. He's run hard this preseason though, so there's no reason to think that will change.
-Kellen Davis could be the most important player on the field for Chicago's offense. Falcons second-year LB Sean Weatherspoon has only started five games in his career. Davis has five inches and 20 pounds on the linebacker. He can make Weatherspoon's day miserable. The Bears need to take advantage of that matchup and move Davis around to force Weatherspoon to cover him.
-And what would a game preview be without the obligatory paragraph on WR Roy Williams? He had a poor offseason, dropping way too many balls and appearing out of sync with QB Jay Cutler the entire time. The chemistry between those two isn't there yet and it wouldn't surprise me to see Cutler look for different receivers after Williams drops a couple of balls. If he has an awful start to the game, expect Johnny Knox to get more looks, as will Devin Hester.
Yet the biggest weapon in the passing game may end up being Earl Bennett. The Falcons will surely line up their Pro Bowl corner Brent Grimes on either Williams or Hester throughout the game, which will leave Bennett one-on-one against the Falcons' nickelback. Kelvin Hayden, whom Atlanta signed last week, may fill that role. Bennett has been outstanding so far and will match up well with whomever the Falcons line up across from him. He'll need exploit man coverage running underneath routes while also finding soft spots in the zones, two things at which he excels.
If the offensive line can give Cutler time to throw, I believe he can put up numbers against this secondary. He'll want to avoid throwing Grimes' way too often but there should be plenty of opportunities to get the ball downfield. Cutler has looked sharp this preseason. If he can carry that over into Sunday's showdown, the Bears have a good shot at winning this one.
Bears 24, Atlanta 23
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.