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Keys to the Game

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Keys to the Game: 3 things that will help Bears beat Falcons

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The Bears (6-9) will host the Atlanta Falcons (7-8) Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are three things that should increase their chances of winning the game:

(1) Contain running back Bijan Robinson

The eighth overall pick in this year's draft is tied for 10th in the NFL and leads all rookies in rushing with 873 yards and four touchdowns on 188 carries. He's also an adept pass catcher, having compiled 48 receptions for 373 yards and three TDs.

Last Sunday Robinson helped the Falcons generate their highest point total of the season in a 29-10 win over the visiting Colts by rushing for 72 yards on 12 carries and catching a season-high seven passes for 50 yards.

"I think the best way to defend him is population," said Bears safeties coach Andre Curtis. "He tests leverage of defenders. He can stress the edge. He can stick his foot in the ground. He can make an abrupt cut. The first guy has got to make a secure tackle, and then you've got to have population with the other guys swarming to the ball. Our goal is to get seven-plus guys on the screen in any given play. If we hold true to that, we'll be OK. He's a special player and he's going to be hard to stop, but we're up for the challenge, I think."

The Falcons ground game, which ranks eighth in the NFL, also features running backs Tyler Allgeier (175 carries for 646 yards and four TDs) and Cordarrelle Patterson (45-161-0), who spent two seasons with the Bears in 2019-20.

The Bears rank No. 1 in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 80.7 yards per game and holding 10 of their last 12 opponents under 100 yards.

"In run defense, it takes everybody," said coach Matt Eberflus. "It's all 11 of us. We have no houseguests on defense. Everybody tackles, everybody hits and everybody plays the right way."

(2) Play efficiently and mistake-free on offense.

When Justin Fields returned to action Nov. 19 after missing four games with a dislocated right thumb, he was asked by Eberflus to visualize the number 200—representing two touchdowns, zero turnovers and zero sacks.

"That's pretty much my goal every game," Fields said. "Sacks, they put us behind the sticks, and you never want to turn the ball over to give the other team a short field. So definitely trying to avoid the turnovers and sacks."

Not counting the two Hail Mary passes that were picked off at the end of both halves in Cleveland two weeks ago, Fields has thrown just one interception in 160 pass attempts in the five starts he's made since returning from his thumb injury.

Avoiding mistakes Sunday will continue to be crucial for the Bears, who are 4-0 this season in games in which they did not commit a turnover and 2-9 when they've given the ball away at least once.

Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has seen improvement from Fields in several key areas throughout the course of the season.

"There's been a lot of them," Getsy said. "His ability to progress is better. His footwork is better. The protection part of it is outstanding. The completion percentage part of it is good. He's throwing the ball accurately. The extended-play part of it has been a lot of fun to see him progress through that. So there's been a lot of areas. I'm leaving other stuff out. But I think there's been a lot of really cool stuff that Justin has grown [at] through this year."

On Sunday, Fields and the Bears will face a Falcons defense that ranks ninth in the NFL in total yards, 15th against the run and eighth versus the pass. Safety Jessie Bates III is tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, one of which he returned 92 yards for a touchdown.

The Bears were back on the practice fields at Halas Hall in advance of Sunday's New Year's Eve battle with the Atlanta Falcons.

(3) Pressure quarterback Taylor Heinicke

In winning four of their last six games, the Bears have generated 14 takeaways and 17 sacks after producing nine takeaways and 10 sacks in their first nine contests. They hope to continue that trend Sunday against Heinicke, a nine-year veteran who supplanted Desmond Ridder as Atlanta's starting quarterback last Sunday.

Heinicke has appeared in four games with three starts in his first season with the Falcons, throwing for 727 yards with four TDs, one interception and an 88.8 passer rating. Before joining Atlanta, he played for the Texans (2017), Panthers (2018) and Commanders (2020-22), starting 15 games for Washington in 2021 and passing for 3,419 yards with 20 TDs and 15 interceptions.

The Bears have allowed an average of 14.8 points in winning three of their last four games after permitting an average of 26.0 points in their first 11 contests. The defense is led by star pass rusher Montez Sweat, who has registered 6.0 sacks in seven games since being acquired in a trade with the Commanders Oct. 31.

Sweat played with Heinicke in Washington and the two remain close friends.

"Heinicke is a great teammate, probably one of the best teammates I've ever had," Sweat said. "He's a gritty guy. He's really tough as nails and he's smart. Before he started back playing, he was actually thinking about getting into coaching.

"Taylor is a really good friend of mine. We both are from the Atlanta area. He's going to be a hard guy to deal with honestly. He brings a lot to the table. People rally around him, so he's a great leader."

X Factor

Can the Bears take advantage of their home-field advantage in their final game at Soldier Field this season? In his press conferences, Eberflus has lauded the crowd for helping the Bears win four straight home games for the first time since 2018.

On Sunday, they'll face a Falcons team that has struggled away from home this season. Atlanta is 2-5 on the road and is averaging more than 10 fewer points per game (13.6-24.0) and more than 120 fewer yards per game (266.4-390.3) away from home versus in Atlanta.

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