When the Atlanta Falcons added Matt Gono as an undrafted free agent out of Wesley College, they saw a developmental prospect filled with potential.
In a display of how highly they thought of the player Gono could become, the Falcons chose to keep the 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive lineman on their 53-man active roster to prevent any teams from poaching him off their practice squad. As a rookie, Gono was inactive for the first 15 games of the 2018 season, but he was receiving plenty of opportunities to improve as a player in practice.
With Kaleb McGary questionable for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, Gono could be in line to make the first start of his NFL career. Up first for Gono, the starter? Khalil Mack and a talented Bears pass rush.
Gono's ability to hold up against one of the league's top pass-rushing groups will be important for a Falcons team seeking its first win of the season. After seeing the strides he's made throughout his career, and the way he played after taking over for an injured McGary in Week 2, Matt Ryan is confident Gono can do what the team asks of him.
"I don't think the moment is too big for him," Ryan said. "Last week, coming into the game and just operating the way that he's been trained to do, I was impressed seeing that. He's definitely got the athleticism. He's got the power and he's certainly shown that he's capable of handling the moment. I've been impressed with him."
The Bears have recorded five sacks through two games, tied for the 14th-most in the league. They are an incredibly stingy defense, allowing just 18 points per game – the third-best mark in the NFL. Against the Cowboys, the Falcons scored 39 points and did so with both quick-strike plays and long, sustained drives.
Providing Ryan with better protection was a major priority for Atlanta entering the season, and it's been a reason why the Falcons have looked crisp on offense. Instead of Ryan needing to overcome his offensive line, he's now using the increased time they are affording him to surgically carve up defenses. After Week 2, Ryan was second in the NFL with 723 passing yards and six touchdown passes.
Ryan has been sacked just three times in two games this season, the lowest total through the first two weeks for Atlanta since 2015. Gono kept the level of play high for the offensive line when he filled in against the Cowboys, and he may have to do so again against the Bears.
"I was pleased with Matt and the performance that he had," Quinn said. "Kaleb was knocked out fairly early on. You saw good energy, good toughness from Matt. You certainly expect that from him, but we'll have a better feel as the week goes on where Kaleb's at and if called upon, we certainly have a lot of trust and faith in Matt."
It's no longer just Mack that opponents of Chicago have to worry about. The Bears added All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn, who has 81.5 career sacks and is fresh off of an 11.5-sack season in Dallas. In his first game with the Bears, Quinn recorded a sack and a forced fumble, showcasing the level of play he brings to an already excellent front.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, a former Pro Bowler, himself, currently leads the Bears with two sacks. Despite the extra attention he receives on virtually every snap, Mack already has a sack this season, and the three-time All-Pro is looking to bounce back after a relative down year in 2019 in which he had 8.5 sacks. Few players command the respect Mack does off the edge, and Ryan believes that's for good reason.
"He's up there, there's no question about it," Ryan said when asked about the top pass rushers he's faced. "I think he's continued to develop as a pass rusher, too, during his time in the league. I think as an edge-type rusher, he's long, he's explosive, he's powerful, he's got multiple moves which makes it tough."
After a heart-breaking loss to the Cowboys, the Falcons must beat the Bears in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to avoid falling to 0-3. With the defense banged up coming off of that loss in Dallas, a good showing by the offense early can help Atlanta take control of the game.
It's truly a clashing of strengths when the Falcons' offense lines up against the Bears' defense. Nowhere is that more represented than on the line of scrimmage, where an offensive line that has been a pleasant surprise to start the season will square off against a defensive front that forms the teeth of this Bears squad.
The Falcons are confident that, if needed, Gono can step into the "next man up" role and help the group not miss a beat. It's not an easy draw for the third-year lineman, but he's prepared to rise to the challenge.
"If I start this game, I'm going to be ready to play just like usual," Gono said. "I prepare myself to go in at any spot. Whoever is starting, whatever happens, I'm just going to treat it like usual."