It's been 34 years since the Atlanta Falcons have won a game in Soldier Field, and while that guarantees nothing, these Chicago Bears might be better than you think. Although I'm not suggesting that they are playoff bound by any means, if Mike Glennon can keep the mistakes down, and the Bears run the ball successfully, with this defense they could improve by at least three wins over last seasons's dismal showing.
That said, it all starts this Sunday in Soldier Field, as the Monsters of the Midway take on the Falcons, who are coming off of a devastating Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. The Falcons return a fiery offense capable of testing a rebuilt Bears secondary that should be improved, though that isn't saying much, since they were awful last season.
So let's get right to it and see how the new-look Bears match up against one of the best teams in the NFL. These are my keys to a Bears win.
Pressure on Matty Ice / Take Away the Run
If Matt Ryan is allowed to sit back in the pocket all day, he will pick apart the Bears secondary, improved or otherwise. He's simply too good and their wideouts are just too talented for the Bears to have a chance at winning this game if they allow him time to throw the football.
For the Bears to generate a pass rush, they will need a healthy push up the middle from Eddie Goldman, who is talented but seemingly always hurt. They will also need to see the Leonard Floyd from the second half of last season.
The Bears defense should be pretty good, although outside linebacker is a little thin, with Lamarr Houston being released off of IR. However, overall, the front seven of the Bears has the makings of a very solid unit, and they will need this defense to hold down the high-flying birds, since the Bears probably don't have the type of offense that will put up a lot of points.
Akiem Hicks is entering a contract year, and is coming off a breakout season, so if he takes the next step the Bears can win this game. He will be one of the keys to rushing Ryan, and in order for the Bears blitz packages to be effective, he will need to beat his man.
Danny Trevathan is said to be ready to go, though he plays the run better than the pass. If the Bears can force Atlanta's offense to be one dimensional by taking away the run, then Ryan will be put into obvious passing situations. This will allow the Bears to pin their ears back and go after the QB.
But if the Falcons run the ball, and end up in short third down situations, then the Bears defense won't know if Ryan is throwing the ball or if they are calling a run play, and that would obviously benefit Atlanta greatly. Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman will have their hands full trying to provide coverage while containing the running game.
Devonta Freeman is one of the top running backs in the NFL. They may try to establish the run in this game, so it will be important to prevent that from happening, or the Bears could lose big.
Point is, make the Atlanta offense one dimensional.
Minimize Mistakes on Offense / Don't Fall Behind
For the Bears to succeed, Glennon simply cannot throw the ball to the opposing team. Interceptions will kill this offense. They do not have the play-makers necessary to come back from behind, so they need to keep the game close. Plus, if they get behind, they will be forced to go away from the running game, and that running game, behind Jordan Howard, will be key to the Bears offense this season, at least until Mitch Trubisky is ready.
A lot of short, safe passes may not sound like fun football to watch, but it's that and a cloud of dust that the Bears offense will need to succeed if they are going to have any chance against a high-powered offense like the Falcons possess. If the Bears get out to a lead, Atlanta can throw the ball. But if the Bears get behind, they simply do not have the ability to play catch up.
With the Bears lacking in wide receiver talent, the running game is a must. No interceptions or fumbles are allowed in this game if the Bears are going to keep it close. That may be asking a lot, but it's what is required.
Mike Glennon is starting an opener for the first time in his career, and especially with the young Mitchell kid breathing down his neck, I'm sure he will have lots of butterflies for this start. However, he will need to settle down quickly to avoid the type of jitters that would doom the Bears by resulting in bad throws.
Win the Time of Possession Battle
You hear all the time that the team that controls the clock usually wins the football game. But for the Bears, this is much more than a cliche—it is absolutely essential that they keep Atlanta's high-flying offense off the field as much as possible.
Long, sustained drives by running the rock will eat up the clock and before you know it, nine minutes will have passed and the Bears will have controlled the ball on offense for the majority of a quarter in just one drive. That's a recipe for success, especially with this Bears offense.
With weapons like Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel, it won't take the Falcons long to put up points. But they can't score when they're on defense, so if the Bears can keep pushing the chains forward, with little dink and dunk passes and strong running, the Falcons will tire out on defense.
Offensive Line Needs to Protect Glennon
We said that Glennon needs to minimize his mistakes, and for that to happen the Bears offensive line, which was pretty good last season, will need to protect him. One key is the health of Kyle Long. I don't see how he can be ready for week one. I'm also concerned about Charles Leno at LT, protecting the blindside of Glennon.
I'd also prefer to see the very good Cody Whitehair under center, but instead it will be Grassu. Still, all in all, it's a decent line that has a chance to be even better than that if all goes well.
Meanwhile, all-Pro LB Vic Beasely, who led the NFL in sacks, will need to be stopped in order to keep Glennon upright. He will be the biggest test for the Bears line in this game.
Someone Has to Catch the Football
Sure, it's largely the running game that will have to propel the Bears offense, but look, someone has to catch passes once in awhile for the Bears not to be so predictable. Ever since Cam Meredith went down for the season and they surprisingly cut slot receiver Victor Cruz, the Bears have looked extremely vulnerable at the position.
The good thing is they don't need a lot of long passes, except to stretch the defense once or twice. They just need someone to catch some short passes so that they aren't one dimensional on offense.
It would be very nice if former first round draft pick Kevin White would suddenly show up and take advantage of this opportunity to show the world that he isn't a bust. If that could happen, and Glennon keeps the ball away from Atlanta's defense, the Bears could conceivably sneak out a surprising victory in their home opener.
Prediction: Bears 24, Falcons 21. Call me a homer here, but if everything goes right—and I know that's a BIG "if"—it's not incomprehensible that Da Bears could pull this one out. But I wouldn't bet the house on it, that's for damn sure.
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