The Atlanta Falcons’ defense mounted a goal line stand as time wound down Sunday to seal a 23-17 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, 2016’s NFL MVP, continued his dominance, completing 21 of 30 passes for 321 yards and one touchdown. He did not throw an interception and posted a passer rating of 119.1.
But, the Falcons settled for field goals on two trips deep into Chicago territory, and the Bears’ rushing attack—which accounted for 125 (41.5 percent) of the team’s 301 total yards—coupled with an impressive final drive by Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, kept the game close until the final buzzer.
The Falcons, who committed an average of 6.5 penalties per game a season ago, netting an average of 53 yards per game, saw eight penalty flags fly Sunday, costing 73 yards.
The Bears, by contrast, committed just four penalties for 40 yards.
Free safety Kemal Ishmael committed the first of Atlanta’s miscues on the opening kickoff, bringing a 63-yard return by Andre Roberts, which would have put the Falcons’ offense on Chicago’s 32-yard-line, back to Atlanta’s eight.
The Falcons gained 62 yards on 11 plays to penetrate beyond the Bears’ 30-yard line. But, after a seven-yard pass from Ryan to Mohammad Sanu set up second down and short, a pair of rushing attempts failed to yield a first down.
So, kicker Matt Bryant recorded the Falcons’ first points of the year with a 48-yard field goal.
Later, the Bears drove 41 yards in 10 plays to set up a 54-yard Connor Barth field goal which tied the score at three as the second quarter began.
With 11 and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter, Ryan and company engineered an 11 play, 83-yard drive Freeman punctuated with a five-yard touchdown run. Ryan and wideout Julio Jones connected twice for 43 yards on the drive.
But the Bears answered with a seven play, 75-yard drive that took over four minutes off the clock. Six of the seven plays were runs, including a 46-yard gallop by Tarik Cohen. After a defensive holding penalty by Vic Beasley negated a third-down stop which would have likely forced a field goal, Jordan Howard, who shares the Bears’ rushing duties with Cohen, found the end zone.
Midway through the third quarter, Atlanta drove 76 yards on 13 plays and took over six minutes off the clock before stalling at the Bears’ ten yard-line following an offensive holding penalty by left guard Andy Levitre which set up first and 20. Bryant nailed a 28-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 13-10 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
After Chicago stalled out at the Falcons’ 39-yard line, punter Pat O’Donnell pinned Atlanta at its own five. Ryan connected with Sanu to create some breathing room, then found second-year tight end Austin Hooper out of Stanford for an 88-yard touchdown strike. Bryant added the extra point to put the Falcons on top 20-10.
Hooper caught two passes for 128 yards on the day, posting over one hundred receiving yards in a game for the first time in his career. In Sunday’s performance alone, he recorded almost half as many receiving yards as he did in all of 2016. That year, he had 271 yards on 19 receptions in three starts and 14 appearances and caught 70 percent of the balls thrown his way.
The ensuing Bears possession saw the team go 75 yards on 9 plays in four and a half minutes. Cohen scored on a pass from Glennon, and Chicago pulled within three with seven and a half minutes to play.
On the following possession, the Falcons drove 56 yards—40 of which resulted from a connection between Ryan and Hooper—in nine plays and over four minutes, but stalled at Chicago’s 19. The team settled for a 36-yard Bryant field goal and a six point lead.
The Bears took over at their own 18 with 3:18 to play. Glennon tore through the Atlanta defense, completing nine of his first 12 passes for 77 yards to set up first and goal from the Falcons’ five.
Then, he threw three straight incompletions—one of which Alford batted down—to bring up a deciding fourth and goal from the five.
Brooks Reed broke into the Chicago backfield on a loop rush to sack Glennon and end the game.
“Oh man, it was huge,” Reed said of the play. “It’s what we preach about. It came down to the end against a very good team.”
Reed, whom the Falcons picked up from free agency prior to the 2015 season, spent the prior four years of his career as a linebacker for the Houston Texans. He has vacillated between linebacker and defensive end for Atlanta.
Sunday’s game was his best since joining the Falcons. He recorded two sacks—twice as many as in all of 2016—three tackles for losses and two quarterback hits, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes.
Coach Dan Quinn said of Reed’s game-clinching sack, per the AJC: ““You’ve heard us talk about pass rushing and the finish is what counts. It was good to see him get off to a good start today and have that game winner at the end.”
As for the Falcons’ pass rush as a whole, there were plenty of white Falcons jerseys swarming around in the Bears backfield Sunday. Atlanta sacked Glennon four times; Reed did so twice, Beasley—who led the league in sacks a year ago—once, and Brian Poole once. The Falcons held Glennon to 26 completions on 40 attempts for 213 yards for one touchdown.
But Reed said the defense has some kinks to iron out before the team’s home opener against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay next Sunday night.
“There are a lot of mistakes that we have to correct and we’ll try and get that done this week,” he said, per the AJC.
“Everyone [i.e., the Falcons’ pass rushers] did a good job of squeezing the pocket,” he added. “They [the Bears] did a good job of getting the ball off quick to their second and third options. They made a lot of plays. They ran the ball pretty well. We did just enough.
The Falcons will need to shore up their run defense as the season continues. They will also need to cut down on penalties.
Head coach Dan Quinn told the AJC he planned to take a look at the game tape to assess the preponderance of flags against his team.
“The one for Alford, I’m going to look down the sideline,” he said in a postgame press conference “I know why they called the one on the [kickoff] return early against [Ishmael] so we’ll go back and take a look at it. It did feel at times too many fouls.”
Of the Falcons’ eight penalties, the AJC notes, three came on special teams (Ishmael, Alford, C.J. Goodwin), two on offense (Levitre and left tackle Jake Matthews), and three on defense (Beasley, Alford, Deion Jones).
Ishmael’s cost the team 60 yards on the opening kickoff, Beasley’s gave Chicago new life after a third-down stop by the Falcons, and Levitre’s dug a first-and-20 hole for Atlanta on a red zone possession.
Ryan recorded in excess of 200 pass yards for an NFL-record 56th straight game, the AJC points out. Julio Jones had 66 yards on four receptions—the third of those catches was the 500th of his career. He joins Anquan Boldin as the second receiver in NFL history to reach the 500-reception milestone in just 80 games.
The Falcons’ season continues next Sunday night when they will take the field for the first time at their new home, Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, to face the Packers, who beat the Seahawks 17-9 at Lambeau last weekend.
The Bears will take on Tampa Bay in Florida (or, given Irma, perhaps elsewhere) Sunday.
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