The Bears visit the Atlanta Falcons Sunday seeking their third straight victory to start the season. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) Will the Bears' resurgent running game continue to shine?
The Bears have hit the ground running this season, rushing for 149 and 135 yards in wins over the Lions and Giants, respectively. In the process, they've started to establish an identity and create balance on an offense that lacked both last season. Another strong outing on the ground Sunday against the Falcons no doubt will help the Bears pick up first downs, sustain drives and keep Atlanta's explosive offense off the field.
Second-year running back David Montgomery leads the Bears in rushing with 146 yards on 29 carries. His 5.0-yard average is a big jump from the 3.7 yards he averaged as a rookie last year when he ran for 889 yards and six touchdowns on 242 attempts. The Iowa State product has also shown impressive toughness. He started against the Lions after being sidelined during training camp with a groin injury and returned to play the entire second half versus the Giants after missing most of the second quarter with a neck injury he sustained when he landed on his head on a run play.
"This year, he's kind of doing it all," said coach Matt Nagy. "He's practicing really hard. He's prepping all week for those carries that he gets, and I really appreciate his attitude, the way he handles his day-to-day deal. I think he's going to be a really, really good football player in the end."
(2) How will quarterback Mitchell Trubisky fare against a Falcons defense that ranks 31st in the NFL in passing yards?
Trubisky demonstrated excellent improvisational skills against the Giants, going off script to extend plays that resulted in touchdown passes of 28 yards to Montgomery and 15 yards to rookie receiver Darnell Mooney, as well as a clutch 12-yard scramble that picked up a key first down.
The Bears are hoping for more of the same against the Falcons, who entered Week 3 allowing an NFL-high 78 points and ranked 31st in the league in pass defense, permitting 372.0 yards per game. The first two NFC offensive players of the week have been the quarterbacks who faced Atlanta, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott.
Trubisky did an excellent job of spreading the ball around last Sunday against the Giants, completing passes to 10 different receivers. Trubisky has been better so far this season, but he isn't satisfied. "I'm trying to improve in every aspect," said the fourth-year pro. "As a quarterback, you try to play a perfect game. You know you're never going to get there, but that's what you're striving for. I still need to improve every single week."
(3) How will the Bears defense perform against a potent Atlanta offense led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan?
Don't let the Falcons' 0-2 record fool you; they can put points on the board in bunches. With Ryan operating the offense, Atlanta entered Week 3 ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring, fourth in total yards and second in passing yards. The Falcons are the first NFL team since the 1994 Patriots to score at least 64 points while losing their first two games of a season.
"We're going to have to play lights out," said Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "These guys can score points; as many as anyone in the league right now. They've got a ton of weapons. They've got a great quarterback. He sits in there, sits in there, sits in there. He's not afraid to take a hit. He keeps his eyes down the field."
The Falcons aren't sure whether seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones will be able to play Sunday due to a hamstring injury; he's expected to be a game-time decision after being unable to practice all week. But the Bears will have to face Atlanta's other star receiver, Calvin Ridley. The older brother of Bears receiver Riley Ridley entered Week 3 tied for the NFL receiving lead with 239 yards and topping the league with four touchdown receptions on 16 catches.
"He's a game-wrecker," Pagano said. "He's fast, he's elusive, he's a great route runner. He can set you up. He's turned around every corner he's played so far. I mean, he's just a phenomenal football player. He's definitely a guy that we are going to have to do a great job with discipline, covering with your feet and your eyes. He can get you thinking one thing and go the other way like that. And he catches the ball; if the ball is anywhere near him, he's going to go up and make a play."
(4) Will the Bears finally play a complete 60-minute game?
In winning their first two games of the season for the first time since 2013, the Bears have played very well at times and not so great in other stretches. They struggled through the first three quarters of their opener in Detroit before outscoring the Lions 21-0 in the final period to turn a 23-6 deficit into a thrilling 27-23 win. In last Sunday's 17-13 victory over the Giants at Soldier Field, the Bears led 17-0 at halftime but were held scoreless in the second half and didn't clinch the win until the game's final play. What could have been a laugher turned into a second straight nail-biter.
The Bears are determined to put together four quarters of consistent football for the first time this season Sunday in Atlanta. That will entail an efficient, balanced offense that moves the chains and scores touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, as well as a defense that limits Atlanta's running game and generates consistent pressure on Ryan. The pass rush improved from Week 1 to 2—tallying four sacks against the Giants after being limited to one versus the Lions—but needs to take another leap Sunday.
"I think we made a big jump," Pagano said. "We talked about it from Week 1 to Week 2, so I loved where it was last week. We got pressure on the quarterback, got some sacks, affected the quarterback. I like where it's at and we'll continue to improve. We're going to need it big-time come Sunday."