By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (2-3) face the Falcons (2-3) on Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. Here are my keys to the game.
Through 20 quarters of football, the Bears offense has yet to find its 60-minute groove. Mistakes occur, but the timing of those mistakes has complicated their ability to be an efficient, high-scoring unit. The Bears have 32 negative plays this season, which include sacks and rushing attempts that lose yards. Throw in four fumbles and six interceptions, and that number swells to 42, reflecting an inconsistency that only execution will ease. Offensive penalties have claimed another 137 yards, which is eighth-highest mark in the league.
Conversely, the Bears have drawn the second-most penalties that have resulted in first downs, with 17 (or 3.4 first downs per game). There should be an opportunity to run the ball on the Atlanta Falcons, who are 28th in the league in allowing 147.6 per game. Atlanta has also allowed a league-high 10 rushing touchdowns and is giving up 6.0 yards per play. The Falcons defense’s sacks per pass attempt is the second-lowest in the league at 2.47 percent, and they one of only five teams permitting north of 400 yards per game.
For Chicago’s defense, nothing matters more than pressuring Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan into some mistakes. He’s thrown six interceptions, just like Jay Cutler has. Ryan has been hit and hurried at a high rate but sacked only six times. He’s tied with Cutler in attempts with 130, third-most in the league, but he’s one of only five quarterbacks averaging 8.0 yards per pass attempt or better this season.
Defending Julio Jones is complicated, too. He will get his yards; there’s no way around it. The plan likely is to just limit the impact of the damage. Jones is the NFL receptions leader with 40 and yardage leader with 552. Roddy White is still the Falcons’ No. 2 receiver, but he’s far behind Jones in targeted throws.
Ex-Bear Devin Hester is 23rd in the league with an average of 15.1 yards on his 14 catches and will be somebody to watch out of the slot and on gimmick plays. In the backfield, Steven Jackson is 14th in carries in the NFL but 19th in yardage and 34th in yards per carry at 3.8. His longest run this season is 17 yards.
The guy to watch is the diminutive 5-foot-9 Antone Smith, who has some big catch-and-run touchdowns and explosive runs out of the backfield. The Falcons are ranked third in yards gained, first in yards per play at 6.58, second in red zone touchdown percentage and third in points per game at 29.0. The Bears have to stop all of that without linebacker Lance Briggs (ribs) and possibly without linebacker Jonathan Bostic (back), all while choosing from a new inside nickel defender from a pool that includes Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis (if healthy) and Brock Vereen.
Don’t kick it to Devin Hester. It’s not worth the momentum swing if he breaks one. He has one of the NFL’s four punt return touchdowns this season and has picked up 14.4 yards on average on his eight returns. Hester is eighth in the NFL in kick return average at 24.2, with a long of 36 yards.
Bears coach Marc Trestman pronounced faith in the special teams unit this week, and over the long haul he feels the unit will come together. The first step in the that process is reducing the mental and physical errors that are plaguing this unit. The Bears are one of three teams with double-digit penalties on special teams with 10.
Ex-Bear Eric Weems is a fiery competitor running down on kicks and punts for the Falcons, and he tends to “mix it up” to and through the whistle. On Sunday, he will no doubt be in the business of doing that against the team that released him. The Bears’ younger players on special teams have to be ready for it and not jump in the fray, which could result in a retaliation penalty.
The Bears need to treat this like a playoff game. Three-game losing streaks in the NFL are dreaded. Both teams are staring at one if they can’t finish in the fourth quarter. And the Bears have to finish Ryan, who leads the NFL since 2008 with 18 fourth-quarter comebacks and 25 game-winning drives, including a 22-20 win in 2008 over the Bears another in 2009 by a 21-14 score.
After what happened in the last two games in the fourth quarter, the Bears must show some killer instinct if and when they have the Falcons on the ropes. No lead is safe in Atlanta. The Falcons are a big challenge in the Georgia Dome. And this season, five teams have already rallied from 17 down to win games, the most in the NFL since 1970.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.