No one will confuse Chicago's defense with a young squad. Their roster boasts a lineup of tried and true veterans that have the notoriety and accolades necessary to say they can hold their own with anyone.
For a team that in past years has liked to feature a heavy dose of the run game, the Bears offer up an imposing test. Last season the Windy City's defense was second in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The Falcons aren't giving up any game plan ideas, but they know yards on the ground will be at a premium and they must adjust accordingly.
"When you go against a defense that's stout against the run, it forces you to be effective in the passing game," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We'll prepare that way. We'll go whichever way the game dictates. If we need to run the ball, we'll run the ball. If we need to throw the ball, we'll throw the ball. We'll see how the game plays out."
Atlanta faced some tough defenses in the preseason and some of those tests will only help as they enter Week 1 of the regular season. Their impressive first-half performance against one of the other stingiest defenses in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the third week of the preseason gives them reason to be optimistic.
Against the Steelers' stout run defense, the Falcons opted to air out the offense, allowing Ryan to throw 42 times, gaining 220 yards in one half of work. The Falcons have said they'll look to take what the defense gives them this year and recognize that a tough run defense means plays must be made elsewhere. Against the Steelers, they made those plays and it may have given them a blueprint on how to proceed.
"Maybe Pittsburgh did set us up for that," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I think we had some success throwing the ball that day. If we can carry it over, I'm sure things will go well for us."
The veteran experience on the Bears defense means what they do isn't much of a secret, but it's something the Falcons still have to be able to beat. Knowing what your opponent is going to do and still being unable to defeat it can be frustrating for an offense. Ryan thinks the familiarity helps with what they're trying to do, but it's still going to come down to how well Atlanta does what it chooses to do well on Sunday.
"You have a lot of tape on guys that have been in the league for a long time, but there's also a reason they've been in the league for a long time because they're very good players," Ryan said. "Certainly when you look at the Chicago defense, they've got some talented guys, some perennial Pro Bowlers, especially at the linebacker position and really in the front four as well. We'lll have our work cut out for us. It's been tight games every time we've played them, come down to the wire. We're going to need to prepare well all week and do what we do during the week to give ourselves a chance to play well on Sunday."
The Bears sport a tough defense. That's the bottom line. Wide receiver Roddy White will always keep it real and when asked how to beat the Bears, he didn't hesitate to say that touchdowns must be in the equation. In short, they have to finish drives.
"It's going to be the type of game where we have to get 12- and 14-play drives and score touchdowns," he said. "We can't go out there and kick field goals. When we do get those long drives, we've got to execute at the end and score."
Game Day Ready:Rookie wideout Julio Jones gets asked a lot of questions and he doesn't always give a lot of answers. He keeps his answers short and to the point and is often the exact opposite of how he is on the field: vanilla.
The Jones hype machine reached a fever pitch during the preseason and some rookies could take the opportunity to gloat in the spotlight. He knows he's got expectations of his own and of those who put him in this position. All he's trying to do is a be a good teammate. The rest, it seems to him, will take care of itself.
"You can't get complacent with that," he said. "We're here as a team and we're going to play as a team. It's good to get hype ...but at the same time, I'm just a a team player and I want to benefit the team."
The team around him expects him to pick up where he left off in his exciting preseason, making plays in a variety of ways. The mystery of what Jones can add to Atlanta's already dangerous offense in four quarters of a football game is there. It's leading coaches like Chicago's Lovie Smith to break out the Alabama film.
"I think there's enough film on him," Smith said. "Everybody has a history. You have to take some of the college history into play."
Smith, who interviewed Jones at the NFL Scouting Combine, calls Jones a wide receiver with a defensive mentality. He expects Jones to make an impact quickly in the NFL.
Chicago's defense is physical and it could be an intimidating draw for a rookie on offense in the first game of his career. Jones is taking everything in stride, leaning on the words of wisdom from his teammates from the beginning of training camp.
Asked if he was nervous about his first big league game, he responded in a way that would've given the Falcons' brass chills. He looked straight at the indidivual from which the question came and responded flatly and with confidence.
"Not at all," he said.
Back Burner:Entering the final season on his current contract with the Falcons, tight end Tony Gonzalez has whispers of retirement all around him.
At 35 and entering his fifteenth season, the end is likely closer than the beginning for the future Hall of Famer, but he's not looking ahead to anything right now.
"I want to see how Chicago goes, honestly," he said. "It's one of those things that I don't want to get caught up thinking about it. It is hard, I can't lie about that. It's hard not to think about if I should come back. ... It's one of those things, I'm trying not to let it be a distraction, although it does come up every once in a while. We'll see."
A typical season like Gonzalez is used to would place him second all time in the NFL in receptions, behind 49ers great Jerry Rice. Much like his future in the league, he doesn't get too caught up in the records he's breaking seemingly almost every season, but he appreciates his place in history.
"I'd be lying if I told you I think about it because people tell me," he said. "The way I've dealt with it since the beginning, approaching these milestones, I'm just going to go out there and do what I do and things will fall into place. Being behind Jerry Rice is not a bad thing. Hopefully it does happen."
Three Out of Five:The Falcons feature two new starters on the offensive line in Week 1. Garrett Reynolds assumes the right guard spot and center Joe Hawley takes over for the injured Todd McClure.
While much has been said about the two newbies, little has been said of the fact that Atlanta returns three starters from the last three seasons. The experience of Sam Baker, Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo will do nothing but help Reynolds and Hawley. Offensive line play is about continuity and the two have been around the squad long enough to gain that. The Bears head coach Lovie Smith thinks one particular coach as well will help get the offensive line up to speed.
"It's hard to keep a group together for an extended period of time," Smith said. But as long as you keep the core in place you'll be okay and for the most part the Falcons have kept the core in place. It's the first game of the season so no one knows for sure what you're going to get. We hope they haven't gotten it together yet, but any team that Paul Boudreau is coaching is going to pick it up pretty quick."
Hawley credits his mentor, McClure, with being a big reason he's got the confidence to go into Chicago this week and be the centerpiece of the offensive line.
"I've been prepared well by the coaches and my teammates," he said. "I've been studying the playbook and the film. Hopefully there's no change between me and Todd."
Matt Ryan, the player who will receive the exchange of the ball from under center, has seen the work Hawley's done to prepare for this moment.
"I think Joe will do a good job," he said. "Joe's been here preparing hard for the last couple of seasons and put in his time. I think he's studied the way you need to study so when this opportunity presented itself, Joe will do a great job. Obviously we'd like to have Todd out there, there's no question about that; he's a veteran guy. I think Joe steps in and does what he needs to do."
Trust abounds for the entire Falcons on the two new additions to their offensive line, one of the strongest components to what the Falcons do successfully. They know the success of Reynolds and Hawley will help them a long way. Just as Ryan's been shown, much of the team sees what they've done to get themselves ready.
One of the players with the potential to feel an impact by how well they play is running back Michael Turner. He said he's not worried about how well they'll play. He speaks from the standpoint of a player who knows something about taking advantage of your opportunities.
"I just have to trust they'll get the job done," he said. "They've been working three or four weeks now at it. It's not like it's something new that they've been thrown. They've known they'd have to start for a while now. Hopefully they'll be mentally prepared and we'll help them any way we can to make them feel comfortable and able to do their job."