At long last, we’ve made it to the season opener. We were treated to an excellent first game of the season on Thursday night (thanks for that, Chiefs), and the Falcons’ debut is now only a few days away. You can officially begin getting excited, girding your loins, and stocking up on the necessary amount of booze.
A common sentiment among many fans is that this game has all the makings of a blowout. I’d caution you against underestimating this Bears team too much—they have legitimate talent in their front-7 and interior OL, and Jordan Howard is a very good RB. However, they also have some pretty big weaknesses that the Falcons should have an opportunity to exploit.
Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting Falcons to watch heading into Sunday’s game against Chicago.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan is coming off a somewhat disappointing preseason performance against the Cardinals. I don’t believe that is anything to worry about, but nonetheless, Ryan will have a big role to play for the Falcons on Sunday. The Bears appear to be vulnerable in the passing game, as their secondary is a big weakness. Starting CB Prince Amukamara may not play, as he’s been unable to practice thus far.
It will be up to Ryan to orchestrate an effective aerial attack, as the Bears’ front-7 could create problems for the running game. In the same vein, the Falcons best opportunity to put this game away is to attack early and get out to a lead. If Atlanta can get up by two scores, the Bears will probably be unable to catch up. Let’s see if Ryan can be as dominant as he was last season with new coordinator Steve Sarkisian at the helm.
DT Dontari Poe and DT Grady Jarrett
The Falcons defensive line will be given a huge test on Sunday, as the Bears possess an excellent interior offensive line and a strong running game behind second-year RB Jordan Howard. Atlanta will be looking to its interior studs to shut down Chicago’s rushing attack and also to put pressure on QB Mike Glennon. This is exactly what Poe was brought in to do: stuff the run effectively and create chaos up front.
Poe and Jarrett have looked good next to each other so far. I’m excited to see what Jarrett can do now that he’s playing the 3T more frequently—I believe it will offer him better opportunities to blow up plays and get pressure on the QB. With the depth a bit thin at defensive tackle, Poe and Jarrett will need to both have strong games to keep the Bears from creating long drives on offense.
LB Duke Riley and LB De’Vondre Campbell
The Falcons might be playing their base defense more than normal against a Bears team with few intimidating weapons at WR. That means that the rookie Duke Riley will likely get extended time playing the WLB role, and that we’ll see second-year LB De’Vondre Campbell taking plenty of snaps at the SAM position. Both looked impressive during preseason, but this will be the first true test for them in extended time.
Riley will have his hands full trying to tackle Howard, and he may encounter dynamic rookie RB Tarik Cohen in coverage. Riley is one of the “weaker”, or at least untested, players on the Falcons defense—don’t be surprised to see the Bears target him often. Meanwhile, Campbell should have plenty of opportunities to make plays against Chicago’s mediocre offensive tackles.
FS Damontae Kazee
Even though the Bears don’t have much talent at the WR position, they may still line up in 3WR sets to force the Falcons to play nickel. In that case, we’ll likely see the Falcons deploy 3-safety “big nickel” sets to counter them. Rookie safety Damontae Kazee looked impressive playing as the third safety in limited action this preseason, before suffering an ankle injury.
It looks like Kazee is on track to play Sunday, and this might be an excellent opportunity to see what he can bring to the defense. Kazee is a strong tackler with excellent awareness and speed, and he’s also got plenty of experience at CB. He can do a lot of things well, and may be the perfect versatile chess piece the Falcons need against a team like Chicago. This could be a perfect first test for the rookie to show us what he can do early in his career.
G Wes Schweitzer
This will be Schweitzer’s regular season debut as a starting lineman for Atlanta. He looked pretty good in preseason action, with strong performances in the running game and competent ones in pass protection. Schweitzer won’t have it easy against a very formidable defensive tackle rotation for the Bears which includes Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks.
Schweitzer has the benefit of playing alongside two Pro Bowl-caliber players in C Alex Mack and RT Ryan Schraeder, so he won’t be thrown into the fire alone. Still, this is a good measuring stick for what we can expect from Schweitzer and the offensive line as a whole after losing veteran G Chris Chester this offseason. Hopefully he can rise to the challenge, and provide similar play (or maybe even an upgrade) to what the Falcons had at the position in 2016.
Who are some players you’re looking forward to watching? Match-ups you’re going to be observing closely? Any thoughts on the game?