By Jeff Joniak —
CHICAGO (CBS) — The Bears host the Falcons in their season opener Sunday. Here are my keys to the game:
— Controlling the clock, possessing the ball, avoiding turnovers and finishing drives will be the best defense against the Falcons’ explosive offense. Coach John Fox proclaimed the Bears are a run-oriented outfit, so offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains figures to dial up a high-volume running game featuring 2016 Pro Bowl back Jordan Howard. His downhill power between the tackles and the shifty quickness of rookie Tarik Cohen will be key in moving the chains. They will likely have to run against an eight-man front with Falcons safety Keanu Neal coming down into the box playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The Bears are bigger, but the Falcons are faster. If the Bears could stick to the running game, it might wear down the Falcons defense.
— New Bears quarterback Mike Glennon makes his first NFL start in 2 1/2 years and will need to make some key, clutch throws on third down and take advantage of situations that leave the Bears receivers in man coverage. Patience will be critical against a young, aggressive, and opportunistic Falcons defense. Consistently blocking linebacker Deion Jones, pass rusher Vic Beasley and defensive lineman Grady Jarrett will be of utmost importance.
— Atlanta’s offense blew up in 2016, riding the accurate arm of quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons led the league in scoring, and Ryan’s MVP season impressively included using 13 different players to score touchdowns. The coordinators have changed, but the mission remains the same. For the Falcons, variety is the spice of life. Ryan’s top target is superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. When defenses roll coverage to Jones, it opens everything up for the Falcons, and Ryan will take advantage of it. When Ryan likes his matchups, look for the Falcons to go into a hurry-up attack. A year ago, they flourished when the tempo went up.
— With a front seven blending experience and promising youth, the Bears are strong at the point of attack. They should matchup well with the Falcons offensive line, which ranked 24th in both tackles for loss permitted and opponent sack percentage last season. The Falcons have one new starter on a unit that played all 19 games together. Look for the Bears’ Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Leonard Floyd, Willie Young and Pernell McPhee to keep the heat on Ryan, supplemented with the blitz when defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wants to challenge Ryan.
— Stopping the Falcons’ running game is job one for the Bears defense. Atlanta is proficient using outside zone and stretch runs. Devonta Freeman is a two-time Pro Bowl selection with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 22 rushing touchdowns. He’s dangerous on the cutback while also catching a combined 127 passes the last two seasons. Freeman’s complementary back is Oak Forest High School product Tevin Coleman, who scored 11 touchdowns combined on only 149 touches last year.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.