CHICAGO -- If you were looking for an emphatic statement, something that screamed, “We are onto a new season and we will destroy all inferior souls who attempt to stand in our way,” this wasn’t it.
They were too many penalties. Too many missed blocks. Some poor tackling and a chaotic ending (sound familiar). Offensively, the same team that crushed opponents for 540 points in 2016 struggled to punch it over the goal line against a Chicago team that has been struggling to escape mediocrity for a decade.
In the final possession that mattered, the fact the defense stared at an opponent led by Mike Glennon (5-14 career record) and not Tom Brady likely made the difference. One game, one bullet dodged.
“It wasn’t even close,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said.
He joked, of course. It was too close for a team whose bar has been significantly raised. But in a league that doesn’t care about style points, the Falcons opened the season with a 23-17 win over the Chicago Bears. They won because the suddenly scrambling defense, which looked good much of the game, managed to keep Chicago out of the end zone in the final minute.
The Falcons have often said they've mentally moved past the Super Bowl. But pardon everybody else if they were flashing back to a late-game fizzle in February.
Robert Alford helped break up a pass at the one-yard line intended for Jordan Howard (though Howard may have been in the process of dropping it). Brooks Reed sacked Glennon on fourth down from the Falcons' five-yard line with :03 on the clock.
Exhale. Celebration. So the ending was different than it was seven months ago.
“This is a different team,” Julio Jones said. “This is only the first game. We’ve got 15 more. We can’t worry about expectations of others. We just have to go out and win games.”
Their record is as good as it can be, even if the team we saw Sunday obviously wasn’t. But the Falcons are good with that.
As Matt Ryan, who threw for 321 yards but led an offense that struggled to find a running game or a rhythm, said later: “We won the game and at the end of the day that’s why we prepare all week. Can we play better? Absolutely. Are we going to try to work on that? Absolutely. But we’ll take a win every day.”
Often it takes something weird to win games like this. So the Falcons added a new play to the offense: It’s the one were Ryan stumbles while avoiding the pass rush, nearly falls to one knee, then steadies himself enough to heave it down field to his inexplicably wide open tight end.
It wasn’t a play, it was a cartoon. The Falcons led 13-10. They were backed up to their own 12-yard line. Chicago sent the house at Ryan, collapsing the pocket and nearly the quarterback.
The only problem with the defense was nobody covered tight end Austin Hooper. So when Ryan stepped around the rush, then stumbled, then recovered, he heaved it 40 yards from his own seven-yard line to midfield to a wide open Hooper.
Ryan: “Sometimes you think you’re already too late (with the pass) when you look up in those situations.”
Hooper: “I feel like I lived a lifetime in my head when the ball was in the air. I’m not even kidding. I think I blacked out for part of it.”
Ryan: “He should black out more often.”
Hooper must have come to, because he raced 50-plus yards to the end zone – an 88-yard touchdown -- but not before stiff-arming Chicago safety Quintin Demps to the ground at the 30. Demps may want to burn the game film before anybody gets to the Chicago practice facility Monday. Hooper? He may let it play on an endless loop.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “I might go back to that one.”
Hooper will get opportunities this season because when you play on a unit with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel, a defense can’t cover everybody. The Bears knew they couldn’t keep pace with them offensively so they approached the week with the only realistic strategy of winning: 1) Run the ball often to take time off the clock and keep the Falcons’ offense on the sideline; 2) Be as physical as possible against the Falcons’ offensive line.
Some will criticize new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian because he's new and the Falcons scored only two touchdowns. But problems go deeper than play-calling. Chicago kept its safeties deep during Ryan’s pre-snap reads, prompting Sarkisian to avoid down-field passes.
“They were playing with us,” Jones said.
But the biggest issue was the Falcons were beat up front. They couldn’t run the ball (64 rushing yards, including 2.8 per carry), so they lacked balance and couldn’t run play-action effectively. Ryan had the team’s longest run of the day: 13 yards. That’s not good.
Chicago’s Akiem Hicks dominated the Falcons’ new starting right guard, Wes Schweitzer. Hicks had two sacks. Chicago was credited with hitting Ryan five times, but it seemed like more. Ryan also was hurried frequently.
“We knew it would be a challenge for sure,” Quinn said. “But certainly we didn’t know they’d be that strong.”
Quinn said recently that because the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl, “The next year you’re not sneaking up on anybody. You better mentally put yourself right into the next season because if you look too far down the line ... you can get your ass kicked."
There's nothing to suggest they were looking down the line Sunday. They just didn't play well. They'll need to get better, otherwise "down the line" will be a shorter line than they're hoping for.
From late Saturday: Georgia flawed but win could prove to be big moment in their season
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