Here is my write-up on the Falcons-Bears game from Sunday, September 11th. For those of you who read my blog consistently you may know that I am a Falcons fan. I feel that I was relatively objective when writing this post, but knowing a team as well as I know the Falcons is sure to create some bias. Hopefully you enjoy the post in spite of this, as I took pages of notes on this game as I watched it live. Enjoy!
The Falcons offense was ineffective at best today. Matt Ryan passed for 319 yards but had to do it with 31 completions on 47 attempts, which is never a good sign for an offense that prides itself on ball control and effectively running the ball. The Falcons only ran the ball 14 times today and while it was for 110 yards they got 53 of them on a huge run by Turner up the middle where he was largely untouched before he was caught from behind. Ryan averaged 6.8 YPA, which is not bad but not great either, and threw an interception on a forced pass to Tony Gonzalez that Brian Urlacher made a terrific play on to bring in the pass. There were a number of dropped balls in this game additionally. Roddy dropped at least two, I believe Harry Douglas had at least one, perhaps two drops, and Turner and Snelling each had a drop if I remember correctly.
The Falcons offensive line was also clearly overwhelmed by the Bears pass rush and it showed as they tallied 5 sacks, 14 QB hits, 9 hurries and forced two turnovers courtesy of Ryan (one INT and one fumble recovery). Early in the game Ryan was willingly taking shots to deliver catchable passes, but he was getting pressured and hit so consistently that he gradually became more and more uncomfortable in the pocket and started fading away from his throws which led to less precise ball placement, more air under his passes and therefore became less effective passing the ball.
When he had time the Bears were usually only rushing four (though they regularly applied significant pressure with four down linemen rushing) which meant Ryan was looking to pass against seven defenders dropping into coverage. That led to a lot of check downs which was frustrating to watch considering how much emphasis the Falcons front office and coaching staff placed on creating more explosive plays downfield. Julio Jones flashed the ability to help in this department by showing the ability to get vertical and make catches in traffic as well as taking shorter passes and getting yards after the catch which is something the Falcons have been sorely lacking.
However, despite spreading the ball around fairly well, Ryan still checked down a lot to his running backs and at times forced the ball to Tony Gonzalez which is something he really needs to stop doing. At times he will key on one receiver (frequently Gonzalez) and throw the ball to him despite the coverage keying on his eyes, which is how Urlacher was able to make that interception on a pass intended for Gonzalez. But I also recognize that he was checking down because of the lack of separation the Falcons’ wide receivers were creating downfield, which is equally as frustrating. The Bears were playing quality coverage on all of our receivers, our offensive line couldn’t slow down their pass rush, and Ryan was forced to dink and dunk all day. That meant we needed to string a lot of plays together with no mistakes to get a potential scoring drive, but we had so many penalties (9 penalties for 65 yards) on the offensive side of the ball such as false starts and holds that a number of promising drives were killed as a result of them. It seemed every time the Falcons fought their way into Bears territory they had an unnecessary penalty such as a false start, hold or penalty after the play ended that either led to a field goal attempt or to a punt looking to pin the Bears back in their own territory.
The Falcons have a lot to clean up before next week on the offensive side of the ball. Most notably they have to find a way to keep Ryan upright because if they can’t give him time and room to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside pass rush (which was a problem today with Joe Hawley and Garrett Reynolds making their first career starts at Center and Right Guard respectively) it is going to be a very long season and there won’t be time to stretch the field as those routes take longer to develop. As a result of their defense’s poor play and their inability to score a single offensive touchdown against the Bears the Falcons’ run game was abandoned which is never a good sign for Atlanta, and re-establishing that despite Michael Turner’s clear lack of explosiveness and burst is going to be critical.
Overall I thought the offense struggled mightily today, only managing six total points. We didn’t see more explosive plays thanks to limited pass protection for Ryan and limited separation downfield from the receivers, and the offense overall was inconsistent at best. When they did finally seem to have something going a penalty or sack would derail the promising drive, leading either to a punt or a field goal.
The Falcons defense was very underwhelming to me. I was hoping to see a much improved pass rush and hopefully some better pass coverage, but I was not impressed with either. John Abraham provided the majority of our pressure as usual, but I did not hear Ray Edwards’ name called once. I was hoping that he, along with Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, would create more consistent pressure. I think the pass rush was better than last year for the most part, however the Bears offensive line is a group we should have handled pretty easily, and far too often I thought deep completions downfield were a result of Cutler having plenty of time to survey the field and plenty of space to step up and deliver a catchable ball. So, while Abe impressed me (and drew a number of uncalled holding penalties as usual) I was underwhelmed by our defensive tackles and outside of some pressure from Biermann, Edwards and even some flashes from Sidbury I was not impressed by the defensive line from a pass rushing standpoint.
The secondary was our biggest problem area in my opinion, and that really hasn’t changed much since last year. I think it should be pretty clear to everyone that Dunta Robinson got vastly overpaid and really is not a #1 corner type of player. At times I wonder why he is even a starter. I thought he might just be best in a man coverage type scheme, but routinely he struggles whether in zone, man, press or off coverage. He opens his hips the wrong way, he doesn’t recover well once he’s made a mistake, he doesn’t close on the ball well, he lets running backs break contain when his only job is to force them inside to the pursuing defenders, and he misses tackles in the open field far too often. What exactly is the upside to playing him? I have to ask, because I don’t know. He’s better than the other corners we would start, which explains why Cutler was picking us apart (especially in the first half), but I think he is definitely upgradable and I don’t think he should be on our team in another two years. Thankfully, Brent Grimes makes up for some of his inadequacy with great plays on the ball, great instincts, better tackling, and amazing athleticism to recover, close and make plays on passes. He was one of the bright spots for the Falcons yesterday.
One problem I saw yesterday was not that the defense wasn’t getting any opportunities for turnovers, but rather that they weren’t capitalizing on them. I counted three dropped interceptions yesterday (Two by Thomas DeCoud and one by Sean Weatherspoon) and if DeCoud had brought in both interceptions it would have prevented a field goal and Matt Forte’s touchdown on a screen pass, which occurred just two plays after DeCoud dropped an interception if my memory serves. That is a serious problem, because if the pass rush rattles Cutler enough to make a mistake (which they did at times, even if it wasn’t as consistent as Chicago’s pressure) then the pass coverage needs to take advantage of it. Because they didn’t, 10 points went up on the board that could have been avoided, and instead of being down 30-12 late in the game it could have theoretically been a 20-12 game with only one possession necessary to tie the game. That is a huge difference, and it was one of the main reasons why the Falcons were unable to keep this game close.
One positive on the defensive side of the ball was the Falcons run defense. I thought it looked quite good for the majority of the game. I still think that the Falcons have issues tackling, as evidenced by Sean Weatherspoon when he attempted to shove Matt Forte when he was running down the sideline for an eventual touchdown instead of even attempting to wrap him up, but they were swarming to the ball, gang tackling at times, and they played fundamentally sound run defense for the majority of the game. That was great to see, because at least the front seven was doing its job and taking Matt Forte out of the game from a running perspective. Forte had a solid game running the ball accounting for 68 yards on 16 carries (4.3 yard average) with 27 yards coming on a single carry. Excluding that for curiosities sake, the Falcons only allowed him to run for 41 yards on his other 15 carries (an average of only 2.73 per carry) which is definitely good. The Falcons only gave up 88 yards on the ground (a 3.3 yard per carry average) and allowed no touchdowns on the ground which was good to see. However, Matt Forte shredded the defense catching passes out of the backfield with 5 catches, 90 yards and a touchdown. So while they slowed him down as a runner he showed his value as a pass catcher.
Long story short, the Falcons have a lot to work on. Their pass coverage was largely atrocious and there were plenty of big holes for receivers to take advantage of in zone coverage, and rarely were many Falcons in position in man coverage. The Falcons like to run zone, and that really proved to be problematic for Dunta Robinson and Chris Owens from what I was able to see. The pass coverage is going to have to come a long way, and an improvement in the pass rush will help that. But the pass rush isn’t going to be collapsing the pocket on every play, and I think it was better than it was last year even if it was less consistent than I would have liked in the first half. The secondary needs to hold up their end of the bargain, especially when it comes to capitalizing on turnovers. That didn’t happen, and it resulted in a pretty pathetic defensive display and an eventual loss.
Chicago Bears Offense:
The Bears offense looked like a juggernaut in the first half as Jay Cutler was carving up the Falcons secondary for significant chunks of yardage, he regularly had plenty of time to throw and this was all happening without much of a running game from Matt Forte and the offensive line. I thought Roy Williams looked great as he was making tough catches away from his body and providing Jay Cutler with a nice, big target that only needed the ball in his general area for the pass to be completed. A lot of people were skeptical about Williams and whether or not his addition would be significant, but I think he had a good game even if his stat line (4 catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns) wasn’t earth shattering. He did his job and each of the four times the ball was thrown to him he caught it. That’s all you can ask of a wide receiver.
I thought the Bears used Devin Hester more effectively yesterday. I don’t think you need to throw to him 5-10 times a game (they targeted him 5 times) but using him on bubble screens, a reverse and maybe a fade and post route would be how I would deploy him. He’s just so dangerous that if he can make a guy miss and get into the open field you never know what will happen, which is exactly what he did on a screen against the Falcons. He made a guy miss, got into the open field and just kept working back across the field, using his blockers and avoiding tacklers until he was pushed out at the one (though I personally thought he scored) which led to an easy 1 yard touchdown pass on play action from Cutler to Matt Spaeth in the back of the end zone. 53 of his 60 yards came on that one screen play, but that is what Hester brings to the table. He might get tackled four times for a total gain of seven yards, but he only needs one touch to change the landscape of the game.
Matt Forte continued to impress me which is nothing new. I’ve loved watching him play since he was at Tulane and I thought he was going to be a great back. I actually wanted the Falcons to draft him in the 2nd round instead of signing a free agent running back (like Michael Turner). That’s not to say that Michael Turner hasn’t been an effective back for the Falcons, but I thought Forte’s game would have been a great compliment to a quarterback like Ryan who is very smart and usually knows when to check down to his running back. I also thought his value was significant because even on a day when he was bottled up as a runner (save one 27 yard run) he was able to dramatically change the game as a pass catcher. Add it all up and he had 158 total yards rushing and receiving plus a touchdown, which is production you would take any day of the week from your running back. I really love watching him play and I think he is really the guy that makes this offense go.
Jay Cutler may have gotten a lot of grief for how he handled his injury in the conference championship game, but regardless of that he is still a quality NFL quarterback. Maybe he is lacking in toughness, and I am still personally bewildered by his footwork at times, but the guys arm is special. He has great arm strength, zip and there are times when he throws an off balance pass down the seam in perfect stride with his receiver and you just can’t help but marvel at how he made that throw. I personally think he could be one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league without much debate if he improved his footwork and his mechanics from that standpoint, but even still he is very effective especially when he gets in a rhythm which the Falcons allowed him to do in the first half. He was very efficient as he completed 22 of his 32 pass attempts for 312 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception that was returned for Atlanta’s only touchdown of the game. It was a bit of a fluke interception, but I still think it was on Cutler for throwing it instead of taking a sack, etc. I have always been a supporter of Cutler because he was the guy I thought would turn out the best of the trio of QB’s in his draft class. It’s hard to say he didn’t end up the best of the trio he was compared with considering the problems Vince Young and Matt Leinart have had in the NFL, but he could still be much better. But he didn’t have a very consistent rushing attack to take pressure off of him in this game and he was still efficient and effective which warrants mentioning in my opinion.
The Bears offensive line was better than I expected it to be, but considering the seemingly random assortment of parts that make up their offensive line that still isn’t saying a lot. It’s a definite testament to Mike Tice’s ability to coach up offensive linemen that the group played so well as a unit, only surrendering four sacks and 6 additional QB hits according to the stat sheet I’m looking at. In contrast, the Falcons offensive line allowed 5 sacks and 14 QB hits, plus 9 hurries and it is widely considered the better unit. They didn’t provide a lot of running room for Forte and Bell to run through, but I think that is something that might improve as the season progresses if the offensive line can stay healthy and mesh together as a unit. It will never be a good or a great unit in my opinion, but I think it can be solid.
Chicago Bears Defense:
The Bears defense continues to be the staple of their team. For years the defense has been responsible for dismantling powerful offenses to keep their lackluster offense in the game as long and often as possible. Now, with a potentially more dangerous passing attack and a running back who can threaten defenses just as well with the run as he can with the pass, the defense doesn’t have to win games by themselves. Their pass rush yesterday was as terrifying as ever, and Rod Marinelli continues to prove just how good of a defensive line guru he really is. The Bears cut Tommie Harris and brought in Amobi Okoye to replace him as he had not been effective for the Texans and no longer fit their scheme, and he provided some pressure along with Henry Melton at defensive tackle to collapse the pocket, and even ended up with a sack. Melton had an astronomical 5 tackles, 2 sacks and an almost unbelievable SEVEN hits on the quarterback. While they obviously played well from a statistical standpoint, I think part of the reason they were creating so much pressure was because Peppers was causing so many problems off the edge for Sam Baker and the Falcons offensive line. He forced Ryan to step up a number of times and a few times there just wasn’t any room to step up because the defensive tackles got such good penetration. The Bears defensive line was fantastic in this game, and that is a testament to their front office, their scheme, their personnel and definitely to Rod Marinelli.
The Bears run defense was more problematic than their pass defense was, but their team is built to stop the pass (especially deep passes) more than it is built to stop the run in my opinion. This was demonstrated by giving up 110 yards on only 14 carries to the Falcons. 53 of those yards came on one huge run by Michael Turner, but even still they gave up 57 yards on only 13 carries (an average of 4.38 per carry). So, their run defense could use some improvement, but they weren’t terrible in my opinion.
The real strength of the Bears defense was their pass defense. Their defensive line was nasty, but their secondary was also quite good. I think they look better than they actually are when you consider the personnel they are employing (I’m not a huge fan of Tim Jennings or Major Wright), but with that pass rush and some corners who can play man to man coverage (especially if they do it as well as Charles Tillman does) or zone coverage then they can be very effective. They caused a lot of problems for Matt Ryan because the pass rush applied pressure so quickly that the secondary was still covering the Falcons receivers effectively, meaning he had to either check down, take a sack or force a throw against good coverage. Being a pretty smart player, Ryan regularly elected to check down or take a sack. The Bears are very good at taking away big plays, but a big test for them will be seeing how well they do when they are forced to take away big plays from a team like the Packers. They have so many weapons in their passing game (Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones, to name a few) that I think it will be hard to eliminate all of the big plays like the Bears did with the Falcons. The Falcons have Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas, but unlike the Packers they don’t get vertical nearly as well as the Packers’ offensive weapons do. That was one reason the Bears were able to take away so many vertical plays: there just weren’t that many legitimate deep threats beyond Roddy and Julio.
Overall I was impressed with the Bears. A lot of people thought that they were going to finish in 3rd in their division and that there was no way they would see the playoffs having to go against the defending Superbowl Champion Packers twice a year plus deal with the up-and-coming Detroit Lions team in their same division. But they showed that while their offense is still a work in progress at times they can still play defense effectively. I don’t know exactly how their season will play out, especially since I don’t know if their pass rush will always be as consistently effective as it was against the Falcons yesterday, but I do think that they have a great shot at 8-9 wins which is more than a lot of people expected them to get based on what I read.
Sorry this post was so long, I had pages and pages of notes on this game. Hopefully you enjoyed the read, and thank you for reading! I’ll have my Missouri-Arizona State post up next.