The Falcons can ill afford an 0-3 start and their only hope to avoid it is for the offense to score points in bunches against this Bears defense. While this Chicago defense isn’t the 1985 unit, they have playmakers that could cause Atlanta some major headaches on Sunday. Let’s look at how these two units match up.
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line is a mixed bag right now. So far, they are a very good pass blocking unit, as emphasized by the lone sack they gave up to a stout Dallas pass rush. However, the running game remains a weakness. With Kaleb McGary likely to miss the game with an MCL sprain, Matt Gono will start at right tackle ... unless Jake Matthews, who missed the Wednesday practice, doesn’t play. Gono was excellent in the Dallas game, so there doesn’t appear to be a downgrade when he’s in. Even James Carpenter is having a strong overall season after being on the bubble with the team heading into 2020. Overall, this unit has played well in the passing game, which remains the lopsided strength of this offense.
While the Bears defensive interior includes good players like Roy Robertson-Harris and Akiem Hicks, the unit revolves around pass rusher Khalil Mack, who remains one of the best in the league. Barkevious Mingo on the other side is capable, but has been inconsistent throughout his career. In nickel sets, veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn rounds out the unit. These guys can get to the QB when needed.
Right now, this match up hinges on the health of Jake Matthews. While I believe he will play, if he’s hobbled or misses the game, the Bears get a significant advantage. If he plays, it’s still a tough match up. The combination of Mack, Quinn and Hicks is formidable, though the Dallas game showed this unit could be up to the task.
The skill positions
Ryan has had a decent start to the season, especially compared to his horribly slow start in 2019. He’s been far from the problem, though he has had some issues with downfield throws coming up short. Overall, he’s playing well. Calvin Ridley is having the big season many thought he’d have, leading the league in yards and racking up 4 touchdowns in 2 games. He is quickly becoming the WR1B (and quite possible the true WR1) that many thought he could be. Julio Jones health is a major concern right now and if he misses the game, it could hamper this offense. Russell Gage has been a revelation as WR3 and Hayden Hurst is beginning to show why the team was so excited to trade for him. The running game is still dreadful, with Todd Gurley being a bit of a disappointment in the first two games.
For the Bears, the combo of CB Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson are a legit Pro-Bowl capable set in the back part of the defense. Rookie Jaylon Johnson has looked good early, but hasn’t yet faced a Jones or Ridley in his first two games. On paper, Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan are an excellent LB duo, though both have struggled early on. Veteran safety Tashaun Gipson is not the player he once was.
As mentioned above, the health of Julio Jones looms large. If he can play - even at just 80% his normal self - he will demand attention from the defense and free up opportunities elsewhere. With the running game still mostly a joke, Atlanta needs all of their aerial weapons in two. Without them, they’ll struggle.
Right now the health of key players like Jake Matthews and Julio Jones will ultimately determine how this one plays out. Losing Jake would mean potentially starting 2 backup offensive tackles, even if Gono looks promising. Julio missing the game would put a lot of pressure on Ridley, who will undoubtedly get far more double-teams in this game. If these guys both play, Atlanta will get a slight edge. Otherwise, this one could go either way.