The Chicago Bears (2-3) and Atlanta Falcons (2-3) will square off for the 26th time on Sunday at 3:25 CT. The Bears hold a slight 13-12 edge in the all-time series, winning the last meeting 30-12 at Soldier Field in the 2011 season opener.
The Falcons hold a 7-5 advantage in games played in Atlanta, and a 3-2 edge in games played in the Georgia Dome.
The following Bears players have been ruled out for Sunday’s contest:
Questionable for the Bears are LB Jonathan Bostic (back) and CB Sherrick McManis (quad/knee). Bostic, who suffered the injury against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, did not practice all week, making it highly unlikely he’ll suit up. McManis was limited on Wednesday and Thursday, yet didn’t practice on Friday, which isn’t a good sign.
The following Chicago players are probable:
The following Atlanta players are probable:
THE CUTLER REPORT
As has been written in our game previews all season, the Bears will go as far as Jay Cutler takes them. The offense that Cutler leads has collapsed in the second half of the past two contests, scoring just three points combined against the Packers and Panthers.
Despite rolling up plenty of yards between the 20s, the point totals have been lacking. Currently, the Bears are averaging 23.2 points per game, which is tied for 16th in the NFL. In essence, Chicago’s offense is middle of the pack, or mediocre, which is unacceptable considering the overall level of talent.
“We can’t have this. We are better than this,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week. “We need to score more touchdowns.”
The Bears showed last year the capability of this offense – second in the NFL in points scored, fifth in passing, eighth overall – and considering all 11 starters returned this year, a drop off in production as severe as what we’ve seen through five weeks is startling.
Some might say there’s so simple fix for what ails Chicago’s offense, but that’s nonsense. Just ask Cutler.
“It’s hard to look past the turnovers,” Cutler said. “We have to concentrate on that. If we clean that up, we think that that’s going to solve a majority of our problems.”
Without Cutler’s eight turnovers through five games – six interceptions, two lost fumbles – the Bears might be 5-0. In each of the team’s three losses, he’s turned the ball over at least twice, while he hasn’t thrown a single pick in the club’s two victories.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: that is not a coincidence.
“I’ve just got to be better,” said Cutler. “Check it down. Throw it away. A lot of [other] options.”
When asked if he feels the offense, which is arguably one of the most talented in the league, has underachieved this year, Cutler was honest.
"Sure. I think that's fair,” he said.
The Falcons do not boast a top-notch defense. They are 29th in points allowed, 29th in total defense and 28th in rushing defense. Yet Atlanta’s offense is prolific, averaging 30.2 points per game, 3rd most in the league, meaning this game could easily turn into a shootout.
And do you know who typically wins a shootout? The team with fewer turnovers.
If Cutler doesn’t turn the ball over on Sunday, the Bears will win this one going away. If he reverts to the player he’s been the past two weeks, Chicago will lose to a less-talented team for the second week in a row.
Cutler Career vs. Atlanta
|BEARS (NFL RANK)||FALCONS (NFL RANK)|
|23.2 (T-16th)||Points Scored||30.2 (3rd)|
|348.6 (17th)||Total Offense||434.6 (3rd)|
|102.4 (22nd)||Rushing Offense||115.4 (17th)|
|246.2 (14th)||Passing Offense||319.2 (2nd)|
|26.2 (23rd)||Points Allowed||28.6 (29th)|
|362.4 (17th)||Total Defense||407.2 (29th)|
|116.0 (16th)||Rushing Defense||147.6 (28th)|
|246.4 (17th)||Passing Defense||259.6 (24th)|
|+1 (T-12th)||Turnover Ratio||-2 (T-21st)|
BEARS ON OFFENSE
Matchups to Watch
Trufant has been the lone bright spot for Atlanta’s defense this season, and even that’s not saying much. Trufant has good size (6-0, 184) and he’s aggressive and physical when the ball is in the air.
For most of the contest, Trufant will square off against Marshall, who said this week he’s finally healthy from the ankle injury that has hampered him the past month. Kromer talked about the trickle-down effect Marshall’s injury has had on the offense.
“I think we’re getting healthier and healthier on offense the further we get into the season. That’s what I think is going to make a difference in our progress and our improvement. You can see it in practice,” Kromer said. “The thing you don’t always see is the trickle-down of an injured receiver that’s not running as fast as he normally does. All of a sudden it becomes bad pass protection because it takes a click longer. When you’re an efficient route-runner and you’re getting open quick, now the protection looks great and it might not have even been as good as it was the other day when it looked like he got beat.
“So it’s a combination of 11 guys playing together and you can see us growing in practice, this week especially, just having all the receivers back healthy, having the guys playing together more. You can just see an efficiency in the offense that you haven’t seen in the past.”
Marshall has just six receptions for 69 yards and one touchdown the last three games combined. If the offense is on the verge of righting the ship, as Kromer predicts, then Marshall needs to get back to playing like his old self. If he can exploit Trufant and have one of his signature big games, the Bears should have no problem outscoring the Falcons.
C Roberto Garza vs. NT Paul Soliai
In order to avoid a shootout, and to keep Atlanta’s offense off the field, Chicago must be able to run the ball effectively. Matt Forte has just one 100-yard game and no rushing touchdowns this year. Against the Falcons’ 28th-ranked rushing defense, there should be no excuse for another lackluster rushing performance.
“The key is when you have a team like that is to keep them off the field,” Forte said this week. “So if we can control possession of the clock and put up points and manage the ball, take care of the football, that’s when you can win the game like that.”
Up front, the focus of the offensive line should be on Soliai, who is a massive run stopper who clogs lanes with the best of them. Garza is returning from a four-week injury hiatus and must have an impact in this game. Working in conjunction with his guards, if Garza can help seal Soliai on rushing plays, Forte should find plenty of room to run.
Keys to the Game
-The Falcons have one of the worst defenses in the league. There should be no reason the Bears can’t score more than 30 points in this contest.
Don’t turn the ball over the Bears will return home 3-3.
BEARS ON DEFENSE
Matchups to Watch
Bears fans are fully aware of Carimi’s “prowess” in pass protection. (You’re probably also aware that Houston wants you to “eat dirt” but that’s neither here nor there.)
Carimi has allowed seven QB hurries, three QB hits and a sack, yet Houston hasn’t picked up a single sack and has been mostly invisible through five weeks. Houston’s ability to collapse the pocket will be key in pressuring Matt Ryan and moving him off his spots. If Carimi wins this battle, Ryan is going to pick apart Chicago’s secondary.
WR Julio Jones vs. CB Kyle Fuller
This is as big a test as Fuller will face all year. Jordy Nelson is good – he caught 10 passes for 108 yards and 2 TDs against Fuller in Week 4 – yet Jones is on another level athletically. Coming into Week 6, Jones led the league in receptions (40) and receiving yards (552), to go along with three touchdowns. He’s big (6-3, 22), fast and very tough to bring down – he has 157 YAC already this year.
In reality, expecting Fuller to “shut down” Jones is asking too much. No cornerback in the NFL, not even the almighty Richard Sherman, can completely eliminate Jones in the passing attack. Fuller just needs to limit Jones and not allow him to turn short passes into big, back-breaking long gains.
“Contain is the right word to use, I think,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said this week. “You have to make sure you know where he is at all times and you have to be sound in coverage, on whatever that coverage is. And you have to be nearly perfect in coverage when he’s a target to have a chance to contain him. It’s going to take rush and coverage working together to try to limit his explosiveness.”
The Bears would also be wise to roll safety help over the top of Jones, as he’s a monster on jump balls down the field.
Keys to the Game
-Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has done a solid job of masking the deficiencies of the offensive line, which could be without three starters again this week. Carimi and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews have been spotty at best on the edges, yet Matt Ryan has done a very good job of getting the ball out quickly and avoiding sacks – the Falcons have given up just six sacks on the season, half as many as the Bears.
As a result, there won’t be a lot of opportunities to get Ryan on the ground. That means the defensive line must be ready to get their hands in passing lanes. With a passing attack as dangerous as Atlanta’s, swatting the ball at the line of scrimmage will be crucial in limiting Ryan and company.
-Atlanta is averaging 115 rushing yards per game using a four-headed RB attack. Veteran Steven Jackson is the lead man, yet the most dangerous ball carrier is Antone Smith, who is averaging more than 50 yards on his four touchdowns this year.
Smith has just 17 touches this season but expect him to play a bigger role this week, as his explosiveness could be a game changer. Chicago’s defense, particularly the patchwork linebacker corps, must be cognizant of Smith every time he steps on the field.
-The Falcons are one of the league leaders in passing plays over 20 yards, with Ryan connecting on four big passes last week alone. Therein lies the key for Chicago’s secondary, which must keep Atlanta’s skill-position players in front of them. If Falcons receivers get loose deep, it could get ugly.
-Devin Hester will be a huge factor in this game in terms of his ability as a returner. Yet with Harry Douglas on the shelf, Hester will likely see plenty of snaps in the slot. If McManis can’t play, which seems likely, rookie safety Brock Vereen will serve as the club’s nickelback. Vereen played corner and safety in college, and served well in the slot during the Week 2 contest against the San Francisco 49ers.
Hester is going to be plenty motivated in this contest and the Falcons will surely call his number a handful of times. If Vereen isn’t on his game, Hester could be the wildcard that shifts this game in Atlanta’s favor.
Bears 31, Falcons 27
Chicago’s offense is too talented to stay dormant for much longer and with Marshall near full health, this could be the breakout week. If the offense plays to its potential and limits turnovers, the Bears should walk away with their third victory of the season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.