By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) It’s a matchup of 2-3 squads desperately in need of a win Sunday when the Bears and Falcons face off in Atlanta. Here’s what is on my mind heading into the matchup.
One of the players who has come the furthest since the offseason program started is rookie defensive tackle Ego Ferguson. Drafted to be a run-stuffing big guy, Ferguson is expanding his game with every confidence-building snap. In a six-play sequence in the second quarter against the Panthers last Sunday, Ferguson blew through his gap to stop Chris Ogbonnaya for a one-yard run. Shortly after, Ferguson rushed with his arms up and broke up a short pass over the middle intended for tight end Brandon Williams, then did it again with a deflection that Lance Briggs intercepted.
Ferguson has played 98 snaps on defense and has two sacks. At nearly 6-foot-3 and 315 pound, he’s beginning to play with a lower pad level and better knee bend as opposed to playing high and bending at the waist. He’s also improved his hand fighting since the start of training camp, something he and fellow rookie defensive tackle Will Sutton try to enhance daily. Ferguson was a four-star recruit coming out of Miami, Fla., but started only 12 of his 38 games at LSU in never fully realizing his potential.
At 22, he’s got a long way to go, but he’s a promising young player.
The trickle-down effect of cornerback Charles Tillman’s season-ending triceps tear is significant in both good ways and bad. It opened the door for rookie Kyle Fuller to get full-time snaps, and he’s playing like a No. 1 cornerback. His performance Sunday on fellow rookie Kelvin Benjamin was a gem, allowing just three catches on 11 throws while breaking up three passes.
Fuller did that against size that’s comparable to what he will see in the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Julio Jones on Sunday in Atlanta. In the 4.39-second range for a 40-yard dash, Jones has a lot more speed than Benjamin, so that will be fun to watch.
The bad trickle-down occurred in the nickel package. Tim Jennings, who was still adjusting to the inside slot, moved back outside ,and Isaiah Frey initially reclaimed his starting job inside. However, Frey didn’t do the job and was released. Now it’s probably back to Jennings, with Sherrick McManis presumably coming back from a three-week quad injury to play outside in nickel.
Criticism of Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and in particular ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston is rampant. Everybody wants sacks, but the importance of when those sacks are made can’t be understated. You want the Bears to win the fourth-quarter sack battle. You want third-down sacks. You want sacks that force fumbles. You want pressure that leads to errant throws that are intercepted.
Of course, having a second-half lead helps and changes the mindset and rush of the line. Production from the front four in Carolina produced 24 tackles, one tackle for loss, six quarterback pressures, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three tipped passes from six defensive linemen. That’s good production for a unit that’s also being hounded to make sure they stop the run first.
No quarterback has more 20-plus yard completions this season than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan with 24. Eighteen percent of his completions fit that description, which is reflected in a yards per pass attempt average of eight yards.
On top of that, the Falcons are ninth in the league in yards after the catch with 556. Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game are dangerous in the Georgia Dome. Even though the Falcons rushing attack isn’t tearing it up, veteran Stephen Jackson affords Ryan play-action snaps with the former Rams star an asset blocking up the defense.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.