I’ve never really done any kind of in-depth look at opposing teams before, but I’m going to give it a shot. Between this, some of our talented readers’ FanPosts, a visit to Windy City Gridiron and our usual matchups to watch on Saturday, you should know the Bears pretty well by the time the game rolls around.
The big question with the Bears, of course, is whether they can repeat last year. Bolstered by sporadically dominant performances by quarterback Jay Cutler, a potent pass rush and excellent special teams play, the team made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately for Bears fans, the team then got soundly thumped by the Green Bay Packers.
The Bears followed that up with an interesting off-season. They jettisoned talented tight end Greg Olsen—tight ends are Mike Martz’s perpetual nightmare, after all—and drafted talented defensive end Stephen Paea to add potentcy to their already quality front seven. They picked up Brandon Meriweather off waivers to bolster the secondary—though I’ve seen Meriweather play, and he’s a bit overrated—and brought in Roy Williams to help the passing game. You can argue that these moves didn’t catapult the Bears up to the very tippy top of the NFC, but they certainly didn’t hurt the team badly, either.
For that reason and more, it would be a bad idea to take the Bears lightly. They’ve traditionally played the Falcons very close and have a nasty habit of coming up with a big play when they need it. In addition, they have a handful of dominant players at positions that can give the Falcons fits in this one, which we’ll touch upon more after the jump.
Read my questions for the game and my prediction, and weigh in with your own.
The Big Question
To me, this game hinges on Jay Cutler.
By now, you know Cutler’s reputation. He’s a sulky man-child who throws a pretty deep ball but also specializes in back-breaking picks. He’s a quitter, a guy who won’t play through injuries and doesn’t make his team better. Pieces of that are correct, especially the bit about interceptions, but there’s more to the story than that.
First off, Cutler is actually a pretty good quarterback. He has a career 104/79 TD/INT ratio and averages more than 7 yards per attempt, good for a career 86.4 passer rating. That’s nobody’s elite of elite quarterback numbers, but it’s undeniably quality, and Cutler also moves well when forced to run for his life. Given the relative strength of the offensive line, that does happen pretty frequently.
The one criticism that sticks: Cutler does throw too many interceptions. When he’s off, teams can feast on those mistakes, and that’s what the Falcons need to be ready to do.
The question becomes whether Cutler, who is streaky on his best days, shows up in a big way against the Falcons or not. If he’s accurate and his receivers help him out, he could have a big day. That opens things up underneath for Matt Forte, who runs well and is deadly as a receiver out of the backfield.
Alternatively, he could play poorly and get no help from a rapidly declining Roy Williams and Devin Hester, who was never my idea of a top-flight receiver to begin with. If Brent Grimes, William Moore and their counterparts in the secondary can grab a couple of errant passes, Cutler will have to catch up, and I like the defense’s chances. Particularly if Mike Martz stubbornly refuses to utilize Johnny Knox, the team’s most dangerous wide receiver.
The key, then, will be whether Cutler and his weapons show up, and what the Falcons to do to neutralize them. The linebackers need to be active to keep Cutler from taking off or finding Forte on outlet passes, and John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Ray Edwards need to apply constant pressure to rattle him. If that happens, a couple of game-changing turnovers are far from out of the question.
If they fail to do any of those things, of course, it’s going to be a very long day for the Falcons.
Three Smaller Questions
1) Will the pass rush prove too much for the Falcons offensive line? Big question, because Julius Peppers is elite and Henry Melton is an extremely underrated defensive tackle. Consider that we have a new guy at guard (Garrett Reynolds) and a second-year center (Joe Hawley) starting, and you can see why I might be a little worried about this. Ovie Mughelli will likely be chipping in on passing downs to help out in the middle.
2) Can the Bears cover Roddy White and Julio Jones? Frankly, I’m thinking no. White is incredibly skilled at getting open, Jones has shown considerable promise and the Bears secondary is nowhere near elite. The Falcons will get a chance to test out their new weapons, and with a healthy dose of Michael Turner, the Bears won’t be able to afford to drop everybody back.
3) Can the Falcons stop Forte? Even if Cutler is ineffective, Forte remains an underrated threat. He runs well in space, changes direction capably and really worries me as a receiver. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sean Weatherspoon or Stephen Nicholas was stalking him throughout the game.
With these two teams, you can bet it will be close. The Falcons will have to protect Matt Ryan and capitalize on any and all Jay Cutler mistakes. The Bears will need to neutralize Ryan and make heavy use of Matt Forte to walk away with a win. In the end, in my honest opinion, the Falcons are the better team and will ultimately win out. Again.
I'll say 27-21, Falcons. What say you?