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With the run game stifled, Falcons rely on explosive plays to Austin Hooper to beat Bears

CHICAGO -- The Falcons' season-opener against the Chicago Bears was a much closer game than many expected, and while Atlanta's offense came up with enough big plays to secure the 23-17 victory, it wasn't the same high-powered performance fans became accustomed to in 2016.

This is, by no means, a reason to hit the panic button.


For starters, the Bears' defense is better than their 3-13 record last season might indicate, and they proved as much on Sunday. And the statistics indicate that Atlanta put together a good offensive performance, but issues in a few key areas kept it from being great.

The Falcons (1-0) gained 372 yards against the Bears (0-1) and averaged 6.8 yards per play, which is .1 yard more than their average last season. Although they moved the ball, Atlanta struggled in the run game, the red zone and didn't generate many explosive plays.

Bears' run defense tougher than expected

Let's start with the run game. Part of what makes Atlanta's offense so effective, is the versatility that running back Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman offer. They are great assets in the passing game and allow the Falcons to run pass plays out of the backfield that are essentially pseudo-run plays.

For Atlanta's offense to be at its most effective, however, it still needs to produce on the ground. A consistent running game opens up the play-action passes that Matt Ryan can use to devastating effect.

Against the Bears, the Falcons gained just 64 yards on 23 carries – an average of just 2.8 yards per carry.

"We knew it would be a challenge for sure," Quinn said of running the ball against Chicago. "They're stout and they square so we were hopeful. I didn't anticipate that much of a challenge. We thought we would get it going eventually, the more reps, the more turns, because often times the benefit of that is the play action that goes along with it.

"Usually when we get the play action going it softens up the run a little bit, and today we just didn't have the space we'd hoped we'd have. So, it'd be worth us going back and looking and getting right back to it. We knew it would be tough, but we didn't know certainly it was going to be that strong."

Freeman led the way for Atlanta with 12 carries for 37 yards and a 5-yard touchdown run, while Coleman finished with 16 yards on eight attempts but caught four passes for 42 yards. The longest run of the afternoon actually came on a 13-yard scramble by Ryan, which highlights the level of resistance the Falcons faced on the ground.   

Falcons limited in the red zone

Atlanta converted just one of its three trips to the red zone into touchdowns. Quinn placed an emphasis on the red zone throughout the preseason and in recent weeks, but the Bears defense mostly limited the Falcons to field goals when backed up against their goal line.

There were offensive line penalties on two of the three trips into the red zone. Atlanta was able to overcome one of them and score on Freeman's touchdown run, but the other one negated a 4-yard run that would have moved the ball to Chicago's 6-yard line, instead backing the Falcons up to the 20-yard line.

Atlanta was much better in this aspect of the game last season, scoring a touchdown on 64.56 percent of its trips to the red zone, which was the eighth-best mark in the NFL.

Not a lot of big plays, but just enough

Last season, the Falcons were one of the most explosive teams in the NFL. With 69 pass plays of 20 yards or longer and 51 runs of 10-plus yards, Atlanta generated 120 explosive plays in 2016.

On Sunday, the Falcons produced just five explosive plays.

"We just got to continue to keep working in game. Just getting better," wide receiver Julio Jones said. "They did a great job on defense, early on limiting us early in the game not giving up explosive plays. We got to continue to work on us, and when those plays present themselves, we got to hit those plays."

The most notable explosive play – and the most notable play of the game, period – was Ryan's 88-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper. Facing third down and backed up at the 12-yard line, Ryan kept the play alive in the pocket and found Hooper, who had slipped behind the second level of the Bears defense and was wide open.

"They left me uncovered," Hooper said after the game. "Matt Ryan saw me uncovered and threw to me. I just ran as fast as I could."

Hooper's 88-yard touchdown catch was a big turning point in the game, and a breakthrough for the Falcons offense. He followed up that touchdown with another explosive 40-yard reception on a crucial third-down to extend Atlanta's drive, which resulted in a field goal that pushed the lead to six.

The Falcons' first offensive performance wasn't what we've come to expect from this group of talented players, but there is no immediate cause for concern. Regardless of what occurred last season, it's a new year and it may take a week or two for them to find their groove.

Forget how it looks, a win is a win

"I mean we won the game," Ryan said of scoring 23 points. "And 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.

The win broke a six-game losing streak for the Falcons in the city of Chicago. Atlanta's last victory in Soldier Field was a 20-17 victory on Sept. 4, 1983. In that game, quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns, while running back William Andrews gained 95 yards on 22 carries, eight yards fewer than Chicago's running back, Walter Payton.

The NFL regular season is officially here, which means winning is the only thing that matters. Even if the Falcons didn't have their usual offensive explosion, one thing remains true: Atlanta has too many weapons and too much experience on offense to be subdued for long.

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