6. Grady Jarrett in the middle of an improved defensive line
It is the one thing you have probably heard a million times this offseason: Grady Jarrett is going to be a beast this year. I’m not usually one to watch specific players on each play during a live action ball game, but keep your eyes peeled for #97 in white this Sunday. The last time we saw him in a game that meant something, he was sacking Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl and abusing Patriots offensive linemen. He has done the same in his limited action in the preseason, easily beating would-be blockers, disrupting run lanes and putting pressure on quarterbacks. The added talent and depth around him will only make it easier for him as well. While one of the few strong points for Chicago may lie along the offensive line, expect Jarrett to have a resounding impact on Sunday’s outcome.
5. How Taylor Gabriel is used
The Falcons and Kyle Shanahan found a secret weapon in “Turbo” about half way through last season and Gabriel became a focal point of the offense down the stretch. There is a new offensive coordinator in town, but that does not mean Gabriel will be any less involved. Gabriel was only on the field for 51% of the Falcons offensive snaps when active, but there was a concerted effort to get him the ball, and when he did, he usually electrified the Atlanta crowd. Sarkisian loves to find creative ways to get talented players in space. There is nobody on Atlanta better in the open field than Taylor Gabriel, but it will be interesting to see if Gabriel’s breakout season was just a flash in the pan or something he builds off last year’s breakout under a new offensive coordinator. There is a chance Sarkisian could utilize him more often.
4. The role of Falcons third-round pick Duke Riley
Riley might be the Falcons most NFL-ready player coming in out of the Falcons draft class. With Takkarist McKinley being injured for the majority of the offseason, it is actually Riley that should have a bigger impact in this game. He is currently listed at second on the depth chart at strong side linebacker behind De’Vondre Campbell. I love what Campbell brought in his first season with Atlanta, but Riley has serious talent, great instincts against the run and might have been the best pass defender among linebackers in this year’s draft class.
3. Matt Bryant’s kicking
Bryant has been one of the league’s best kickers ever since joining the Falcons in 2009. More than anything he has been clutch and deserved a chance to ice last year’s Super Bowl in the fourth quarter. So far, he has shown no signs of slowing down with age, but he is 42-years of age entering this season. It will be entering to see how consistent he can stay as he continues to get up there.
2. The presence of Dontari Poe
There is no doubt the Falcons’ biggest addition literally and figuratively was Dontari Poe. The now 330-pound defensive tackle was brought in specifically to help stop the run. The Falcons ranked in the bottom half of the league in that area a year ago. He is a couple seasons removed from his pro-bowl days with the Chiefs, but the big man looks a lot more motivated coming into a situation where he has a great opportunity to prove his worth and possibly collect some hardware. Not to mention, the Falcons snagged him on a one-year deal, giving him extra incentive to have a huge year and get paid like he probably should have last offseason. Poe is still just 27-years of age and in the best shape of his career, expect him to have an impact early and often in his Falcons career.
1. A Falcons win
This is all that really matters. The Falcons open up the season on the road, but this is a game they really need to win. They play a first place schedule, and Chicago will be among the worst teams they play all season. The Falcons offense should be able to take advantage of a weak Bears secondary, and the defense should be dominant against a Bears offense that projects to be pedestrian, starting at quarterback. Falcons will win big, and get used to it, they will be winning a lot this season.