Just two teams trying desperately to claw their way back to .500 to contend in weak divisions. Nothing to see here, y'all.
On the Falcons' side, this game represents a great opportunity to reverse a short but awful losing streak, show some tangible improvement on the defensive side of the ball and capitalize on a home game. It's fair to suggest the Falcons have to win about 75% of their home games this season to even dream of sniffing the playoffs, so each and every one of them will be critically important.
On the Bears' side, it's a chance to claw back to .500 and stay afloat in a division that features the Jekyll and Hyde Lions, a Packers team that features Aaron Rodgers and his merry band of receivers alongside the flaming wreckage of a defense and, of course, the depleted Vikings. Both teams could benefit from winning this one, in other words.
To actually win, a pair of largely lackluster defense will need to stop potentially potent offenses. That's easier said than done, and that's why all four matchups this week revolve around that very question.
Let's get down to brass tacks.
Falcons Defense vs. Matt Forte
I may be on an island here, but I still think the Falcons' brilliant idea to mask their pass rushing woes by controlling the ground game and forcing opposing offenses into a one-dimensional focus could work. It's just that they, you know, haven't stopped opposing ground games.
They could start this week against Matt Forte, who is off to a slow start on the ground but looks like himself when Jay Cutler needs an easy pass completed. If you can slow Forte on the ground and, through some sort of diligent coverage and/or dark magic force Jay Cutler to look elsewhere, you may well be able to force a couple of turnovers and slow down a pretty potent offense. There's no guarantees, obviously, because the Bears have legitimate offensive weapons all over. But the team has not been wrong this week to suggest that Forte is the key to all of that, and given the way pass-catching backs with good agility have destroyed the Falcons in 2014, it's critically important.
Stopping Forte isn't going to be easy, but his potential to break this game wide open scares me even more than Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery going nuts, and that is a strong statement coming from someone who loves Alshon Jeffery as much as I do.
Antone Smith vs. Bears Defense, His Own Coaching Staff
While we are a combative people who still manage to find something to argue about despite the fact that every living Falcons fan and most of the dead ones think Antone Smith deserves more touches, we are absolutely united in our desire to see more great things from 'Tone. The coaching staff isn't necessarily on the same page.
Smith can absolutely score against the Bears. Smith can absolutely throw the Bears off their game plan when he's on the field, and the Falcons should absolutely be working him into the game plan to compensate for a lack of Harry Douglas and a potentially limited Devin Hester. Screens, quick passes to the flats, jet sweeps...whatever works. Ultimately, forcing the Bears to account for Smith's game-breaking speed does the offense some favors.
Let's hope the Falcons are willing to give Smith at least five or so more touches than he's gotten in recent weeks, and let's hope the Bears simply can't deal with his sideline speed.
Bears Pass Rush vs. Falcons Offensive Line
If Justin Blalock returns, it drastically improves left guard, makes life easier on both Jake Matthews and Peter Konz and returns the offensive line to instant competence. Such is the power of Blalock.
If he doesn't return, the Falcons are once again going with Harland Gunn, a perfectly competent run-blocker who was miserable in pass protection. Having him next to Matthews and Konz almost certainly dragged both down a bit, but it's fair to argue that neither are world beaters on their own. The Bears, meanwhile, have scuffled in rushing the passer to do have some promising rookie tackles, Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston.
Despite Young's fluky sack numbers—he's never had more than 3 in a season before this year—he's a threat, and Houston is the guy I'll be watching most nervously given his obvious talent. If the line can't protect Ryan better than it did a week ago against the Giants, there's little question the offense will be more limited and mistake-prone. Given that we all expect this to be a shootout, that could be the issue that ruins this week for the Falcons.
Robert Alford vs. Alshon Jeffery
You knew we'd be talking about this. Alford was a nightmare a week ago, getting burned deep, committing costly penalties and just generally looking like a train wreck in coverage. Alford is someone I believe in, so I think the Giants game will prove to be more of a blip on the radar than the start of something ominous.
That said, Alford's got one hell of a matchup this week. He'll likely see some Marshall, which is difficult on its own, but Jeffery is a fast, huge receiving threat who is lethal in the red zone. Alford's going to have his hands full, and if he can't avoid penalties and keep up with Jeffery early, it could get very ugly.
Desmond Trufant against Brandon Marshall (and Jeffery, when sides are switched) isn't going to be easy, either. I trust Tru's coverage instincts and ability to take away Marshall for long stretches to a much greater extent, however.
What are the matchups you'll be watching for?
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