While no one with the Falcons will openly admit it, it's not an unrealistic thing to say that one of the key ways to stop the Chicago Bears offense is by stopping the talented and versatile running back, Matt Forte.
Forte can run the ball, gaining over 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons in the NFL, but he's especially dangerous as a pass-catching back. His 571 yards receiving last year was a career high and he became only the second running back in Bears history to rush for over 1,000 yards and receive for over 500. His company is Walter Payton, which most would say is pretty good company to keep.
Forte's 571 yards was second on the club last season. They have other pieces, but Forte is the engine that makes things go. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz tries to use him in similar ways that he did Marshall Faulk during his time with the Rams. The Falcons know Forte can beat them in many ways.
"Matt Forte is a heck of a football player," head coach Mike Smith said Wednesday. "He tied for the team lead in receptions and he was their leading rusher. He had 1,000 yards rushing and over 50 catches so he and (Johnny) Knox were their two leading receivers. They get the ball to him out of the backfield. ...Matt is a guy that you'll see move around. They'll move him around and he'll line up at wide receiver in Coach Martz's offense. They try to get the ball in his hands."
Forte is the key Sunday. Atlanta's linebackers and the two safeties will need to know what the running back is doing at all times.
"We just need to know where he is and know what they like to do," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "They like to get him out if the backfield and get him on mismatches on linebackers and stuff like that. We know what he does well and we want to keep him from doing that."
It'll be tough to completely take Forte out of the game because the Bears have enough talent at wide receiver to make things happen on the outside. Limiting Forte's damage may be the better objective for Atlanta. No matter what the Falcons game plan is, it's safe to assume many eyes will be on No. 22. If his production is reduced, there's a good a good chance the outcome will be positive.
"I think we'll take away one of their main threats if we can limit what he does and limit his touches and carrries," DeCoud said. "If we can limit the things that he does, it'll give us a good leg up."
Stopping 'Da Hess:While Forte is the focus of the defense, the special teams unit draws an unenviable task Sunday of stopping Devin Hester, arguably the best return man in the game.
The task of stopping him will first fall on a rookie, kickoff man and punter Matt Bosher.
Often when discussing how to take Hester out of his game, the topic of directional punting and kicking comes into play. Directional punting, while relatively successful, is an art form. If a kicker can't do it well it makes no sense for him to do it. It's been said that Bosher has little experience directing his kicks. No matter that, the Falcons want Bosher to do what he does well.
"Matt is approaching this like we tell all of our guys; just do what you've been doing your whole career," Smith said Thursday. "That's what's gotten you here and that's what we want you to continue to do. Matt's an outstanding kicker and punter and we're not going to change anything for him."
The onus will fall on Bosher to pin Hester inside the end zone on his kickoffs and achieve good hang time on his punts to allow his coverage to get down the field. After that, it'll be up to the coverage units to defend Hester.
"You've got to be able to run and not give him a whole lot of head start," Smith said. "That's the biggest thing. Then again, when you get down there, you have to put your pads on him and that's not an easy thing. He's a very elusive player. He's gone to the Pro Bowl and I believe he had three punts returned for touchdowns last year. It's going to be a challenge for us. He's a guy that when he gets the ball in his hands, he has a chance to take it the distance every time. I think he's a premier punt returner in the game but I think we've got a good, solid game plan in terms of our preparation this week with (special teams coordinator) Keith Armstrong and the special teams and I know they're up for the challenge."
What happens on special teams is always critical though often overlooked in the grand scheme of a football game. Sunday will be an exception. Hester is a player than can single-handedly defeat the Falcons with what he does in the return game. If Hester is kept in check, by the time the game ends Sunday afternoon, Bosher might need to be considered for player of the game.
All Eyes On Them:The Falcons are not a secret.
Listen to national sports talk radio, read the pundits' picks around the Web; the Falcons are a popular pick to do big things this year.
After a few seasons flying under the radar, the Falcons are not only poised to do big things this season, many expect them to. That's what a 13-3 season will do for you.
Many of the players say they believe they're just as confident as they've been in recent years and they have the talent to back it up. There's no air of arrogance or entitlement in the locker room though. From coach Smith down to the final man on the roster, the mood is more about taking things as they come and dealing which each step as best as you can.
"We're a team that takes everything one day at a time, one snap at a time," DeCoud said. "Coach Smith preaches that every day so we can't get too far ahead of ourselves and get into what people are projecting for us to do."
Yes, there's an unspoken distaste for what happened to end last season and they want nothing more than to erase that memory. But first there's 17 games to play before they get that opportunity. If they don't take care of business in that phase, the opportunity for a do-over will not come.
The players embrace the expectations. They appreciate the respect but realize it's based off last season. Expectations are high, but to keep them there, they've got to earn it on the field.
"We still play for respect," safety William Moore said. "We just want to go out there and get the respect we deserve. We had a great season last year but that's the thing about us, we put that to the past and coach does a great job focusing on this year. If you look at the past you'll end up not right. We're just trying to look forward. We're not under the radar, we're one of those teams you've got to respect. We look forward to going out and having other teams' respect."