The most important play of Atlanta’s 2017 season may have already happened. With eight seconds left in regulation, the defending NFC champions were clinging to a 23-17 lead, the Bears driving and facing a fourth-and-goal. Five yards and the Falcons’ season begins the same way last year’s ended: a touchdown allowed on the game’s final play (PAT pending). The Super Bowl hangover narrative that dominated their offseason thickens. They were lucky they hadn’t lost the game already; on two of the previous three plays, Chicago’s Josh Bellamy and Jordan Howard had dropped would-be touchdowns (a problem that plagued the Bears in close home losses to the Titans and Packers last year).
Mike Glennon had gotten the Bears in this position by doing exactly what Tom Brady did last February: dinking and dunking. The Falcons stayed in their foundational Cover-3 zone throughout much of the game and Chicago’s weaponless passing attack came to life in the fourth quarter. But on the final play the Falcons went man-to-man—something head coach Dan Quinn likes to do in game-deciding moments. Off the snap, right defensive end Derrick Shelby, back from a torn Achilles, got underneath of left tackle Charles Leno, moving him into the backfield. Glennon was forced to relocate and wound up in the arms of left defensive end Brooks Reed. Just like that, the Falcons had perhaps the perfect Super Bowl hangover remedy: a scrappy road win.
That’s what Quinn can call it on Sunday, anyway, as he tries to replenish his team’s confidence. On Monday, in private with his staff, he might re-label it an ugly road win. The defense had held on, while the offense, one of the most prolific in history a year ago, had merely gotten by. It produced 372 yards and 23 points, but those numbers were skewed by tight end Austin Hooper’s 88-yard touchdown, which was the game’s biggest play and purely a product of a Bears coverage bust. (Linebacker Jerrell Freeman played zone when everyone else matched up. Free safety Quintin Demps, believing the ball would come out quickly since it was an empty set on third-and-3, abandoned the middle of the field to double Julio Jones. Hooper was uncovered down the seam.)
The rest of the day, with the exception of a second-quarter touchdown drive, the Falcons toggled between long field-goal drives and three-and-outs. With Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio playing his characteristic two-deep safety coverages, Matt Ryan kept throwing underneath.
An offense must punish a two-deep safety defense by running the ball and working the middle with in-breaking routes. The Falcons prospered here under previous offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who masterfully married his outside zone ground game with play-action. On Sunday, however, Atlanta’s O-line could not get the necessary movement against Bears defensive linemen Eddie Goldman, Mitch Unrein and especially Akiem Hicks, who one day earlier signed a four-year, $48 million contract. New right guard Wes Schweitzer, a 2016 sixth-rounder, struggled, but so did many of the O-line’s four returning starters. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for just 53 yards on 20 carries.
One of the most-asked questions among football people this offseason was: How will the Falcons offense look under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian? Aside from 2004, when he was a quarterbacks coach with the Raiders, the former University of Washington and USC head coach had never worked in the NFL. He was hired because Quinn wanted a proven play-caller and someone who could occasionally act as the de facto offensive head coach.
The Falcons knew the Bears would play two-deep coverage, but they still didn’t generate chunk plays from designer passing concepts against it. Their dynamic two-back packages, which killed opponents in 2016, was uninspiring. (Fullback Patrick DiMarco, now with the Buffalo Bills, was always a big component here. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff may come to regret letting him walk in free agency; new fullback Derrick Coleman, who was out of the league in 2016, was not great on Sunday.) If not for Ryan’s improvised playmaking from the pocket, the Falcons would be 0-1.
Judging coaches is dicey, and it certainly can’t be done fairly after only one game. Coaches are dependent on too many factors out of their control. Plus, reactions to Week 1 inherently slip into hyperbole. It is only one game, and the Falcons did win. In the NFL, that’s always hard to do, particularly on the road. That being said, the notion of a Super Bowl hangover may be shelved for now, but the more important question about how the offense will look without Shanahan still lingers.
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