The Atlanta Falcons pulled off a nail-biting 23-17 road victory over the Chicago Bears to open up their 2017 season and were finally able to begin exorcising a few of last year’s demons with the win.
The team nearly had a late-game collapse reminiscent of their last game from February, but managed to come through in the clutch thanks to a fourth-down sack by defensive end Brooks Reed on Bears quarterback Mike Glennon.
Having such a close victory given that the Las Vegas expected the Falcons to win by one of the largest margins on the opening Sunday of the 2017 season was certainly not the way the Falcons preferred to draw it up. But a win is a win, as it is often said. And now the Falcons are fully aware that whatever goals they seek to achieve this season aren’t going to come easily.
Call it a “Super Bowl hangover” or complacency, the Falcons were able to answer the avoid it on their first attempt so far this year. Now only time will tell how their next 15 tries will fare.
It was also a bit poetic that 2016’s worst red-zone defense also managed to pull off their first victory in 2017 by getting a stop in that same area of the field. It marked the only time on Sunday that the Falcons managed to stall the Bears offense inside the 20-yard line, but perhaps the team was saving the best for last.
The team’s ability to get stops in the red zone was a pivotal key if the Falcons defense was going to make the leap this season to go from an afterthought to a unit that would be critical to the team’s ability to win on Sundays.
The Bears had made two previous trips in the red zone and seemingly had caught the Falcons sleeping both times. Their first trip in the second quarter saw Chicago draw up a “wildcat” play where rookie running back Tarik Cohen handed the ball off to teammate Jordan Howard, the latter sprinting to the sideline for a four-yard score. It was clear that the Falcons were ill-prepared for this play as a number of defenders looked hesitant trying to read it.
A quick twitter search tells me that the Bears did run a wildcat play in their Week 17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings last season with running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (neither of whom suited up for the team on Sunday). Kudos to Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains by adding a new wrinkle with Cohen running a “read option” in addition to taking the shotgun snap from the center, keeping the Falcons defenders even further at bay.
That extra moment of hesitation prevented middle linebacker Deion Jones from chasing Howard down from behind. Lack of recognition also kept cornerbacks Brian Poole and Desmond Trufant frozen for a few too many beats trying to decipher what was happening in the backfield. That allowed Bears wideout Kevin White and Glennon (of all people!) to make effective blocks, allowing Howard to score once he had slipped past Jones’ diving tackle.
Credit deservedly goes to the Bears play-calling to give them momentum heading into halftime by tying the score 10-10.
Chicago’s next red-zone opportunity saw them draw up another impressive play for a 19-yard score to Cohen. The Bears had tight end Dion Sims and wide receiver Deonte Thompson run vertical routes, drawing man coverage from safety Keanu Neal and Trufant down the field. Cohen released into the flat and found nothing but open space. Perhaps weak-side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was responsible for picking up the back out of the backfield or at least switching off with Neal or Trufant so that either could get there. But Glennon did a very effective job holding the second-year linebacker in the middle of the field with his eyes before dumping it to Cohen, who with plenty of room to build up some steam, lowered the shoulder and bowled over Trufant into the end zone.
That marked annother red-zone breakdown by the Falcons defense that could be chalked up to smart play design by Loggains. The only thing that could’ve really stopped the play was an effective pass rush, which the Falcons did not generate. Cohen’s score cut Atlanta’s lead to 20-17 with 7:26 remaining on the game clock. The Falcons were able to respond with a field goal to push their lead to six points remaining before the Bears got one final chance to win it.
Which brings us to the final red-zone opportunity by the Bears, coming at the tail end of a long drive that saw them drive 64 yards in 11 plays. That drive had every reason to succeed, but thanks to the divine hands of the Football Gods, fate refused to do Chicago any favors.
With 26 seconds left on the clock, the Bears had a 1st-and-10 from the Falcons 16-yard line. Glennon hit tight end Zach Miller for an 11-yard gain thanks to another vertical stem from Thompson drawing rookie linebacker Duke Riley’s attention. Riley’s assignment was supposed to be covering Miller in the flat and let cornerback Robert Alford take Thompson’s vertical route, but the Falcon rookie showed his inexperience and Miller had an easy 11-yard catch and gain to put the Bears down at the five-yard line.
Then on the next play, Glennon had an open Josh Bellamy in the end zone on an out route where Bellamy got tangled up with Alford trying to create that last-second separation. Despite being handsy, Alford didn’t draw a flag likely because Bellamy was equally guilty with a several push off and the refs rightly swallowed their whistles (although good luck convincing a Bears fan of such). The timing was thrown off and Bellamy couldn’t make the diving grab in the end zone that would have won the Bears the game.
On the next play, Alford showed up again by providing a thump on a wide-open Howard in the flat that helped separate the ball from the receiver. Howard saw Alford approaching out of the corner of his eye and started making his move upfield rather than focusing on securing the catch. It was another play where the flat was uncovered thanks to vertical route by the outside receiver. Fortunately this time Alford was quick to release from his initial assignment and provide a potential game-saving pass breakup.
Then on third down Glennon’s timing with Miller was off on a simple curl route over the middle, where the Bears tight end slipped and was unable to properly adjust to the low throw.
That brought everything to a head for a fourth-and-goal play that would decide the outcome of the game. So far the Falcons had been somewhat lucky that the Bears offensive timing and concentration had been off ever-so slightly, preventing the latter from capitalizing on their three opportunities to win the game.
Yet with everything coming down to this final play with only eight seconds left on the game clock, it was a bit perplexing to see the Falcons utilizing their base personnel. The team’s four-man front consisted of Derrick Shelby, Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe and Brooks Reed. The team’s best pass-rushers: Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley, were nowhere to be found after getting pulled before the third-down incompletion to Miller. How could the Falcons possibly create pressure if their best players were on the bench?
Clayborn and Beasley had created that pressure just a few plays before on a play that nearly led to a turnover. Beasley got in Glennon’s face on a stunt, forcing the Bears quarterback to hold onto the ball, shrug off a potential sack from Poe, which then allowed Clayborn the time needed to loop around the pocket and hit him from behind. Glennon’s arm was in the act of throwing and the ball hit the turf. The booth reviewed whether or not it was a fumble, but the ruling of an incomplete pass stood.
Before being pulled on third-and-goal, Beasley had played seven consecutive snaps and Clayborn eight. The Falcons coaching staff didn’t pull them from the game for the final moments because they figured Shelby and Reed were superior options, they did so because both starters needed a breather.
Thus the Falcons’ deeper defensive line rotation was also critical to the team’s season-opening win. Both Reed and Shelby stepped up on the fourth down, with Shelby utilizing a bull rush to push Bears left tackle Charles Leno back into the pocket. This initial pressure forced Glennon to try and flee the pocket to buy his receivers more time to get open. That caused the Bears starter to keep the ball a few moments too long as Reed was able to loop past right tackle Bobby Massie to tackle Glennon from behind with the game-sealing sack.
It was the Falcons’ fourth sack of the game and marks only the third game of the Dan Quinn Era in which the Falcons dropped an opposing quarterback four or more times. Their other two instances came against the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos last season. The Falcons defense hit Glennon a total of 10 times, matching their 2016 season-high when they dropped Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer the same amount of times.
With the Bears missing starting left guard Kyle Long and having question marks at offensive tackle, it was certainly encouraging to see the Falcons pass rush take advantage and harass Glennon throughout the day. While the pressure wasn’t adequate enough to stall the Bears final two drives before they reached the red zone, it certainly came through in the end.
It certainly would be easy to say that the Falcons red-zone defense caught lucky breaks thanks to drops nullifying would-be touchdowns. But lucky or not, the Falcons can now build off this success in future outings.
They can at least have more confidence in their pass rush and defensive-line rotation so that when push comes to shove, this team is convinced it’s capable of finishing games, even if that culmination isn’t as elegant as they would prefer.
Not to mention the team was able to make a nice adjustment on that fourth down with their coverage. Instead of letting the Bears running backs continue to get free releases into the flat, the Falcons opted to kick Jones out of the middle and man him up on Cohen out of the backfield. That prevented Glennon from having an easy outlet, also compelling him to hold onto the ball long enough to allow for Reed’s sack.
While the coaching staff will have a litany of things to pick through in their post-game film review to try and improve upon for next week’s matchup against the Green Bay Packers, this win over the Bears should give them and their players some confidence that unlike this past February, this defense isn’t going to go down without a fight.
That by no means indicates that the NFL should be shipping the a Lombardi Trophy to Flowery Branch just yet, but it does give this year’s Atlanta Falcons team a fresh start to their 2017 campaign. For a team that has been endlessly peppered with “hangover” concerns, a game-sealing defensive stand at the goal line is good way to begin to put the past behind them.