By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, first stop: Atlanta.
(CBS) The 2011 season kicks off in grand fashion for the Chicago Bears, as they welcome the defending NFC South Champion Atlanta Falcons to Soldier Field. There’s a lot of buzz and expectations surrounding the Falcons and rightly so, this is a very talented team on both sides of the ball that will be a huge test for the Bears. Let’s take a look at the Falcons’ schemes, strengths, weaknesses, and key match-ups in what should be one of the most entertaining games of Week 1.
“All in” is a phrase most Chicago sports fans are familiar with, and judging by the off-season moves made by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, it applies perfectly to the 2011 Atlanta Falcons. Dimitroff definitely showed his cards on day one of the draft, giving up a staggering five draft picks — first, second and fourth round picks in 2011, and first and fourth picks in 2012 — to move up to select Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones.
At first glance this looked like a move for the future, giving quarterback Matt Ryan another toy to work with, but in reality it was an admission by Dimitroff that the Falcons opportunity to win is now. I admire calculated risk taking, but I think in the end Dimitroff would’ve been better served by keeping the picks and filling other holes on the roster.
The acquisition of Jones should have a cascading effect on the Falcons’ offense. It should decrease the amount of double coverage star wide receiver Roddy White sees, relegate tight end Tony Gonzalez to the third option in the passing game, limit the number of eight-man fronts employed to stop bowling ball running back Michael Turner, and should transform Ryan from caretaker to risk-taker. For a team that piled up 13 wins and scored 25 points a game in 2010, the Falcons were near the bottom of the NFL in 20+ yard passing plays, so offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey should be able to add some explosiveness to the Atlanta offensive attack.
Like any offense, overall function and success is predicated on effective offensive line play, which is an area of concern for the Falcons. Heading into free agency the Falcons stood to lose three starting lineman, but in the end only right guard Harvey Dahl left for the St. Louis Rams. Despite the continuity, the line is vulnerable, especially on the blind side where left tackle Sam Baker is nothing more than an adequate starter. Center Todd McClure will miss the beginning of the season with a neck injury, so the Falcons depth will be put to test very early in the season.
Defensively, the Falcons are anchored by rush specialist John Abraham, who led all NFC defensive ends in 2010 with 13 sacks. Abraham will be paired with free agent acquisition Ray Edwards, forming a very formidable pair of edge rushers. In the middle, the Falcons are stout with defensive tackles Justin Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry. The Falcons should get a strong push with their front four, and defensive-minded head coach Mike Smith has installed several zone-blitz packages from base fronts, typically using outside linebackers as blitzers.
Aaron Rodgers completely shredded the Falcons secondary in the 2010 playoffs to the tune of 366 yards, three passing touchdowns, and a mere five incompletions. 2010 big ticket free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson hasn’t lived up to the $57M contract he inked, but his presence alone last year forced teams to look at the other side of the field at Brett Grimes, who definitely met the challenge with five interceptions and 23 passes defended. Strong safety William Moore is a thumper but offers little in coverage, and free safety Thomas DeCoud isn’t the ideal ball hawk you want patrolling the deep secondary. Recent signings of Kelvin Hayden and James Sanders illustrate the fact that the secondary is still an area of major concern for the Falcons. If the Falcons can’t generate a pass rush, their secondary will be the Achilles heel all season.
The Falcons almost certainly won’t replicate their 13 win total from last year, but they will be a major player in the NFC. If Julio Jones has the impact he’s capable of and Ray Edwards is the complimentary edge rusher they envision, the Falcons will be dangerous. Look for the Falcons to end up around 10-6, give or take a win, and be a factor in the NFC playoffs.
What to watch when the Bears have the ball:
Bears Offensive Tackles vs. Falcons Defensive Ends. Tackles J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi will be tested early and often by Abraham and Edwards. Look for Webb to get a fair amount of help early in the game from tight ends and chips from running backs.
What to watch when the Falcons have the ball:
Julio Jones vs. Tim Jennings. It will be interesting to see if the Bears choose to match Charles Tillman up with Roddy White in man coverage, leaving Tim Jennings to cover Julio Jones. Either way, look for Matt Ryan to target Tim Jennings all game long, just like the Packers did in the NFC Championship game.
Julius Peppers vs. Sam Baker. Sam Baker simply cannot block Peppers 1-on-1, so the Falcons will be forced to keep a tight end in or chip with running backs. Look for the Bears to allow Peppers to flip from the left to right side to get the best match-up.
My NFL picks will be out Friday, but if you’d like to pick against me each week, check out the Pro Football Challenge. You can sign up here.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.