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4 things to watch: Bears-Falcons

Posted Sep 9, 2017

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four things to watch in Sunday’s season opener against the Falcons, including quarterback Mike Glennon’s first start for the Bears.


The Bears will open their 98th season Sunday when they host the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:

(1) How will quarterback Mike Glennon fare in his Bears debut?

Slated to start a season opener for the first time in his five-year NFL career, the free-agent acquisition will look to pick up where he left off in the preseason. Glennon showed steady improvement during the exhibition games, posting passer ratings of 78.2 and 102.5 in his final two starts against the Cardinals and Titans, respectively.

Known for his preparation and football intelligence, Glennon excelled versus Tennessee in the one preseason contest that followed a week of game-planning. He was sharp from the outset, completing 7 of 9 passes for 84 yards including a one-yard touchdown to tight end Dion Sims on the Bears' first possession.

"He's a pro," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. "He knows what to do. He does it. He played well. That's how we kind of anticipated him playing. That's how he practiced. When you study and learn and do all those things, he knew what the defense was going to do and made good decisions."

Mike Glennon
Mike Glennon is 4-1 against Atlanta.

The Bears are hoping that Glennon does the same thing Sunday against a speedy Falcons defense led by outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who was named first-team All Pro last season after leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks.

(2) Will a seemingly improved Bears defense be able to contain an explosive Falcons offense?

The Bears defense played well throughout the preseason but will be challenged by a Falcons offense that features reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback as well as receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.

"You want to try and get them one dimensional, but the problem is when you get them one dimensional that dimension is pretty good, and that's their passing game," said coach John Fox. "They do a good job of spreading the ball around. Julio is the guy that everyone is aware of, but they do spread it around to backs out of the backfield. And their tight ends are complementary receivers. They do run the ball well. We have our hands full for sure. Getting into passing downs and winning on third down will be key."

The Bears are determined to generate more takeaways than they did last year when they mustered an all-time franchise-low 11. But it won't be easy against Ryan, who threw 38 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions while posting a league-leading 117.1 passer rating last season in leading the Falcons to the NFC championship.

(3) Will the Bears be able to rely on their running game?

The best way to keep the explosive Atlanta offense off the field is by establishing the run, and the Bears boast one of the NFL's best young backs in Jordan Howard. The 2016 fifth-round draft pick from Indiana started last season third on the depth chart and concluded it as the first Bears rookie running back in the Pro Bowl since Gale Sayers.

Howard set the Bears rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards last season and is primed to pick up where he left off behind an offensive line that returns all five starters in tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie, guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton and center Cody Whitehair.

The Bears ground game was bolstered in the draft with the selection of dynamic running back Tarik Cohen in the fourth round. The diminutive 5-6, 181-pounder earned the nickname "The Human Joystick" for his video game-like moves at North Carolina A&T and demonstrated the same elusiveness in training camp and the preseason.

Cohen also proved that he can break tackles and figures to be utilized to complement Howard as what the Bears refer to as a third-down "joker" back.

(4) Who will fill the void created by the loss of receiver Cameron Meredith?

Replacing their No.1 receiver will require a group effort for the Bears, who were already thin at the position before Meredith sustained a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Finally healthy after missing 28 of 32 games in his first two NFL seasons due to injuries, Kevin White will need to develop into the player the Bears envisioned when they selected him with the seventh pick in the 2015 draft.

But other receivers such as Kendall Wright, Deonte Thompson and Joshua Bellamy must also step up for the Bears. Speedy free-agent acquisition Markus Wheaton is listed as questionable for Sunday's opener as he recovers from pinkie surgery. His return—whenever that occurs—will provide a huge boost for the offense because of his ability to take the top off the defense.

The Bears should also be able to rely on a revamped tight end position to help pick up the slack in the passing game. Veterans Dion Sims and Zach Miller and rookie second-round pick Adam Shaheen are viable receivers and possess the ability to create mismatches with the defense, especially in the red zone.