If the Chicago Bears want to have a chance at starting 3-0 for the first time since 2013, they cannot let the Atlanta Falcons receivers get loose. This is a supremely talented group that can score from anywhere on the field. Even if they catch (another) break, this week will require a more complete effort than they have put forth over their first two games.
Falcons Receivers the Priority for Bears
Strength vs Strength
No one would have referred to the Bears secondary as a ‘strength’ before the season began. You would have gotten the front-seven as the answer to that. The secondary was probably only behind the offensive line and quarterback on the worry scale. With 50 percent of it in flux, it made sense not to think too highly of a group that still boasted two All-Pros in Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller.
Maybe that should make the Bears allowing the fourth-lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks less surprising. The fact they are 10th in net air yards allowed per attempt shouldn’t be surprising either. And this is despite hurrying the quarterback just 1.1 percent of the time; the lowest rate in the league.
Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson was drafted in the second round of last April’s NFL Draft to bookend Fuller. But the expectation was that the Bears would ease him into the role. The timeline changed when free-agent signee Artie Burns went down with a torn ACL and sped up even more when the Bears cut Kevin Toliver. Johnson is allowing just 42.6 percent completion percentage. That’s tied for fourth in the NFL among defenders with at least 10 passes thrown into their coverage. He’s also deflected five passes; second in the NFL.
Kyle Fuller is putting forth a strong effort in his own right. He’s tied for the lowest completion percentage allowed among players with 10-plus passes in their coverage at 42.9 percent. He also has the lowest passer rating allowed (same criteria) at 28.9 percent. Both numbers would be career-bests for the two-time Pro Bowler. He’s also allowing the fewest yards per completion while facing the highest average depth of target of his career. Some felt Fuller had slipped last season. He allowed over 70 percent of the passes thrown at him to be caught in 2019. He has bounced back stronger than ever.
The duo has held up well considering they have faced the sixth-most passing attempts in the NFL. But they are about to face their stiffest challenge yet.
Birds of Prey
Fun fact: Calvin Ridley, not Julio Jones is the current receiving yardage leader in the NFL and is fourth in catches; both numbers are tied with Stefon Diggs. The third-year man out of Alabama is on pace for 176 catches and 1912 yards. The catches would shatter Michael Thomas’ record set last season and the yardage would be second only to Calvin Johnson. He’s also on pace for 32 receiving touchdowns which would blow Randy Moss’ mark from ‘07 out of the water too.
He’s not likely to hit any of those final numbers (more on that in a bit) but it goes to show how far an already good player might be ascending to greatness right before our eyes. Ridley is setting career-highs across the board including hauling in over 72 percent of his looks after averaging around 68 percent over his first two seasons.
Jones gets second-billing here. That’s proof positive of the jump we’ve seen from Ridley that. But don’t forget his fellow former Crimson Tide. Jones, now in his 10th year, has a higher average depth of target and yards per reception. But he has just 20 more yards than Atlanta’s third receiver, Russell Gage. Much of that is due to his (Jones) having a hamstring injury entering the contest and then tweaking it during the game. He ended up with just two catches for just 24 yards. More concerning for the Falcons, as of Thursday, he isn’t practicing. Still, even at less than 100 percent, he presents a unique challenge for the Bears corners.
Speaking of Gage, he has seemingly taken on the role of Mohamed Sanu but absorbed some of the targets vacated by Austin Hooper that Hayden Hurst doesn’t. That’s led to Gage being on pace to shatter all of his career numbers. He’ll draw Buster Skrine in coverage and it’s a matchup he should be able to win his fair share of times.
The Falcons have been slinging the pill; they’re currently first in pass completions and are second in the league in pass attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Their fourth in total plays ran so the Bears better be ready.
Bears Must Ground Falcons Receivers
It’s a tall task for any secondary to slow down this passing attack. It’ll be even tougher if they Bears can’t generate more pressure than they did against Daniel Jones in Week 2 and even Matthew Stafford in Week 1. Getting a heavier dose of Robert Quinn would go a long way to fixing that but they could also benefit from the Falcons pass-catchers dropping 8.0 percent of the passes thrown to them.
Matt Ryan has been getting good protection and had 300-plus yards on 70 percent completion in 2017. Atlanta won that game, all the way back in 2017, by scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Bears have had to hold off fourth-quarter rallies at the goal line in back to back weeks. That might be living too dangerously against the Falcons.
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