(TSX / STATS) — CHICAGO — The Atlanta Falcons piled up points last season as if they were playing a video game on “easy” mode.
In Sunday’s regular-season opener, the Falcons’ high-powered offense lacked its typical potency. But the reigning Super Bowl runners-up were able to hang on anyway for a 23-17 win over the Chicago Bears.
“We won the game,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said with a shrug when asked about the offense’s struggles. “At the end of the day, that’s why we prepare all week is to come away with a win.
“Can we play better? Absolutely. Are we going to try and work on that? For sure. But we’ll take a win any day.”
A couple of big plays unlocked the Falcons’ offense in the fourth quarter. Ryan found tight end Austin Hooper for an 88-yard touchdown and connected with him again for a 40-yard reception to set up a field goal.
The Falcons’ defense preserved the lead — barely — as the Bears’ comeback bid fizzled inside the 10-yard line. Atlanta escaped with a road victory after defensive end Brooks Reed sacked Bears quarterback Mike Glennon on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
“We needed every snap in that game to get the job done,” Ryan said.
The Falcons outgained the Bears 372-301 and did not commit a turnover. For now, at least, any discussion of a Super Bowl hangover has been tabled.
“Last year was last year,” wide receiver Julio Jones said. “This is the 2017 Falcons football team. We’ve got to build our own legacy this year.”
Several early-season themes emerged on both sides:
–Atlanta averted an upset thanks to a relentless pass rush that features speed and athleticism. Some good fortune did not hurt, either, as Bears wide receiver Josh Bellamy and running back Jordan Howard dropped back-to-back passes that could have been go-ahead touchdowns in the waning moments. The Falcons finished with four sacks, including two by Reed, one by Vic Beasley Jr. and one by Brian Poole. Atlanta has a sack in 16 consecutive games.
–Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen is going to cause headaches for opposing defenses. The diminutive 5-foot-6, 181-pounder out of North Carolina A&T racked up 113 yards from scrimmage (66 rushing, 47 receiving) and notched his first career touchdown on a 19-yard pass from Glennon. Cohen also returned three punts for 45 yards. He finished with 158 all-purpose yards, which marked the most by a Bears rookie in his debut. “He’s a baller,” Bears tight end Zach Miller said. “Ain’t no denying the fact that the kid is special.”
–Hooper’s big day (two catches, 128 yards, one touchdown) could reflect a sign of things to come for the second-year tight end out of Stanford. Some critics have doubted Hooper’s speed, but he looked plenty fast as he sprinted down field and delivered a menacing stiff-arm to Bears safety Quintin Demps on his long touchdown. “We’re pretty pumped for him,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “It was a terrific play. … When you find those opportunities and you nail them, it’s such an important part.”
–Glennon was serviceable in his Bears’ debut and will remain ahead of top draft pick Mitchell Trubisky on the quarterback depth chart for at least another week — and probably a lot longer than that. Glennon completed his first five passes and finished 26 of 40 for 213 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating was 86.8. However, the Bears’ passing game frequently looked tepid as Glennon snapped a slew of safe, dink-and-dunk passes rather than stretching the field.
“I thought the guys responded pretty well to him,” Bears head coach John Fox said. “It wasn’t always smooth. Like all opening games, they aren’t oiled up really well. You have a lot of new people. In our case, we had our quarterback’s first time in the offense. I think he operated the team very well.”
–The Falcons are not too concerned about a quiet day from running back Devonta Freeman, who rushed 12 times for 37 yards and a touchdown. Freeman’s longest gain went for only 6 yards. He had 30 rushes last season that went for 10-plus yards. “They’ve got a big, strong front,” Quinn said. “We knew it would be a challenge, for sure.”
–Bears wide receiver Kevin White is fragile or unlucky or both. The former first-round pick injured his shoulder in the second half and did not return. White has appeared in only five games since the Bears selected him No. 7 overall in 2015 out of West Virginia. If he is out for an extended period, the Bears will have to scramble to bolster a receiving unit that already has lost Cam Meredith for the season to a knee injury.