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Falcons aim for improvement in season opener at Bears
Few people could argue that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off the best season of his career after he was named NFL Most Valuable Player and led his team to the Super Bowl in 2016.
Yet the 10-year veteran insists he still has room for improvement heading into Sunday's regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
"For me, I think there's a lot of things I can do a lot better," said Ryan, who threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions a season ago. "That has been one of the things that has been awesome this offseason is to try and attack a few of those things. Hopefully, I put in that work. I feel like I have. I feel like I'm in a really good place coming into this season."
That could spell bad news for the Bears, who are looking to bounce back from a miserable 3-13 season. The club retained coach John Fox but parted ways with lightning-rod quarterback Jay Cutler and backup Brian Hoyer. To replace them, general manager Ryan Pace signed Mike Glennon to a lucrative free-agent contract and traded up to draft Mitch Trubisky from North Carolina with the No. 2 overall pick.
Glennon has the edge as the starting quarterback -- for now -- and will make his team debut in front of a curious home crowd. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound signal-caller posted a 5-13 record in 18 career starts with Tampa Bay, and threw only 11 passes last season as the backup to Jameis Winston.
"I think competition is good, but I'm motivated by more than just that particular situation," Glennon told reporters this week when asked about Trubisky peering over his shoulder. "I want to help our team come out and win football games. That's ultimately what motivates me."
The Falcons have their own motivations to seek redemption. After an 11-5 campaign, the Falcons rolled through the NFC playoffs to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998.
As nearly anyone who owns a television knows, the Falcons built a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots and appeared headed for their first championship in franchise history. But the Patriots reeled off the final 31 points for a stunning 34-28 comeback win in overtime that devastated Falcons players and their fans.
A new season provides the Falcons with a chance to renew their focus. Much of the roster remains intact, with Ryan leading an offense that finished second in the NFL last year with 415.8 yards per game.
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing for each of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, the passing game is led by monster talent Julio Jones, who nabbed 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games last year.
Ryan said he and his teammates must be sharp versus Chicago's front seven, which is the strength of the defense. Bears pass rushers Leonard Floyd, Willie Young and Akiem Hicks each finished with at least seven sacks in 2016.
"Their pass rush is good," Ryan said. "They've got big, long guys on the outside. They've got some really good up-the-field speed rushing. It's certainly something we'll have to account for, but they're also stout in the middle, so they do a pretty good job all over."
The Bears' offense will feature a different look without Cutler and Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Glennon leads a passing attack that includes 2015 first-round pick Kevin White and veteran Kendall Wright, who spent the past five seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Partly because of a thin receiving corps, look for Fox and his coaching staff to emphasize the running game. That could mean another heavy workload for second-year running back Jordan Howard, who turned heads as a rookie with 1,313 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Atlanta returns several stellar playmakers on defense, including linebacker Vic Beasley (15 1/2 sacks in 2016), safety Keanu Neal (five forced fumbles) and linebacker Deion Jones (108 tackles). The Falcons registered 34 sacks, which marked their highest total since 2006.
Glennon is familiar with the Falcons from his days with the Buccaneers in the NFC South.
"They're really fast," he said. "Their linebackers move really well. They have found guys that fit the scheme really well. ... There's a reason why they got to the Super Bowl last year."
Updated September 6, 2017