Statistically speaking, the Falcons offense will be one of the toughest challenges the Bears defense faces all season. Atlanta ranks third in the league in both yards (434.6) and points (30.2) per game, and has talented weapons all over the field that Chicago must combat. Playing in the Georgia Dome makes matters even tougher, with the Falcons averaging 46.5 points in their two home games this year.
What makes the Atlanta attack so difficult to handle is the various ways they can exploit a defense. With a wealth of talent at the wide receiver position, a quartet of versatile running backs and an ever-improving offensive line, it is a lot for opponents to manage. Then there is quarterback Matt Ryan, one of the league's most accurate passers and leader of the Falcons attack.
"He's very cerebral as a quarterback," Atlanta coach Mike Smith told Chicago-area reporters on Wednesday of Ryan. "He has very good vision of the field and understands pre-snap reads. The majority of the time, he puts the ball to the receiver that the read tells him to go to. It helps that we have some good people around him as well."
Ryan shares the ball and finds the open man, but more often than not, that man is wearing jersey number 11. Fourth-year wide receiver Julio Jones is the top target for the quarterback and has emerged as one of the league's best at his position. Jones has hauled in 40 catches on the year – more than 30 percent of Ryan's completions on the season have gone to him – and he leads the NFL in receiving yards with 552.
At 6-3, 220 pounds to go along with sprinter speed, stopping Jones completely is a nearly impossible task. The Bears know that in order to beat the Falcons, they must at least contain the big-play receiver and force Ryan to look elsewhere.
"Contain is the right word to use," Chicago defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said of Jones. "We have to make sure we know where he is at all times, we have to be sound in coverage, whatever that coverage is. Nearly perfect in coverage when he's a target to have a chance to contain him. And it's going to take rush and coverage working together to try and limit his explosiveness."
Jones is not the only-big play threat in the Atlanta passing attack. Fellow wide receiver Roddy White is a playmaker in his own right, with six seasons of more than 1,100 receiving yards in his career. Slot man Harry Douglas has missed the Falcons' last two games because of a toe injury, but he is a matchup threat if he returns to the field. And then there is Devin Hester, the team's fourth receiver and a talent Bears players and fans know all about. The Falcons are using Hester in a variety of ways on offense and will need to be accounted for.
On the ground, the Falcons use four different running backs, all in unique ways. The physical Steven Jackson is the team's starter and leads the group in carries by a wide margin. Rookie Devonta Freeman is undersized at just 5-foot-9, but has proven to be tough to tackle both as a runner and receiver. Jacquizz Rodgers brings terrific speed and is used as a change-of-pace runner. And Antone Smith is the big-play threat of the group, as he is averaging 16.3 yards per touch both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
"We have a quarterback who knows how to distribute the ball and what we feel like what we have to do is rush the ball efficiently," Smith said. "I think we've done a much better job than we did last year. I still think there's room for improvement, we have four running backs that have different skill-sets."
Knowing the personnel and figuring out who is in the game each play will be key for the Bears. So too will be dealing with an improved Falcons offensive line that has helped create room for the running backs to run through. The Falcons spent the sixth overall pick in the draft on left tackle Jake Matthews, a selection that has improved the team's run and pass blocking.
"(Matthews is) an athletic kid, big kid, but their overall blocking scheme doesn't really isolate a lot of people," Bears defensive end Jared Allen said. "We'll see a lot of max-protection type looks."
Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, a former offensive coordinator of the Bears, has simplified the team's blocking scheme, giving Ryan more time to throw and the runners a better chance of finding a lane. Atlanta is averaging 4.69 rushing yards per play, up from 3.88 last year.
All in all, from the dynamic passing game to multi-faceted running attack to strong blockers up front, it's a difficult task the Bears have on their hands, facing a Falcons offense that can do a lot of things well.
"As an offensive unit, we're pretty good," Hester told reporters on Wednesday. "We are having fun out here."