At a stadium dedicated to the armed servicemen and women of the United States of America, one aptly called Soldier Field, the atmosphere on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was appropriately electric.
Every patron in the stadium found a miniature American flag in their cup holder, and many more (myself included) brought their own patriotic demonstration. Actor Robert DeNiro delivered a message of respecting our troops and continuing American endurance in the face of adversity.
A moment of silence was observed league-wide. Taps was played from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the site of the crash of United Flight 93. After panning to different stadiums across the league, a field-sized flag was unfurled.
Jim Cornelison, the Chicago icon who sings the national anthem to massive cheers at Blackhawks games, got an exceedingly exuberant reception this time. The stadium was loud, energetic, and ready to go. And then we were treated to some football.
Chicago Bears football. Despite being only the first week of the season, the game between the Chicago Bears and the Atlantic Falcons was treated as if it was going to define which path each team was going to follow this year. Let’s hope it does.
The Bears offense received the kick and started off effectively, with Jay Cutler connecting on passes to several different receivers. Mainly newcomer Roy Williams and running back Matt Forte. The first Bears drive ended with a field goal, and the Falcons promptly marched down and got one of their own. It looked like it would a tightly contested game.
“Looked like.” For the first few drives, the Bears defense was getting very little penetration into the Falcons backfield, and if this continued, it was going to be difficult to stop Atlanta Quarterback Matt Ryan. But Bears nickelback DJ Moore got into Ryan’s face on their second drive, and All- Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher made an athletic, diving interception of Ryan’s somewhat errant throw. On the ensuing drive, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz called for a screen pass, a play that the team has had trouble running in the past, to running back Matt Forte. It went a little better this time.
Forte gained some offensive linemen as blockers about ten yards down field, shook off the tackle of a Falcons linebacker, and left everyone in a cloud of dust. A 56-yards screen pass was the first Bears touchdown of the season. In the second quarter, a few more impressive drives led to several Robbie Gould field goals, and the Bears went into halftime with a 16 to 3 lead.
The Bears offense gained large chunks off yardage through the air, and that would continue. Against an Atlanta Falcons team that was picked by many to contend for the Superbowl title, the Bears looked impressive. The second half made them look even better. After Atlanta opened the second half with a drive resulting in a field goal, the Bears were on the move again. Wide receiver/kick returner/all-around fleet-afoot Devin Hester caught a screen pass from Cutler and displayed some of what makes him special. Making zig-zagging cuts and angling across the entire field, Hester gained 53-yards, being pushed out of play at the one yard line.
On the next play, Martz called for a play-action fake, and Cutler lofted an easy touchdown to newly acquired tight end Matt Spaeth. Less than a minute later, Bears defensive end/haunter of quarterback’s dreams Julius Peppers sacked Ryan. In the process of running away, Ryan just put the ball on the ground. Urlacher picked up the football and traipsed twelve yards for touchdown. The bullet-headed middle linebacker had a fantastic day on defense, making tackles everywhere.
He showed in this game that he continues to play at a high level, despite being at an age where many star defensive players begin to loose their talent. The rest of the game was just for fun. Atlanta did manage to score a defensive touchdown on a Kroy Biermann interception return that came off of a deflected pass, but this game was belonged to the Bears. In total, Ryan was sacked five times: Peppers had two, defensive tackle Henry Melton had two, and Amobi Okoye, also a defensive tackle, had the other. Urlacher led the defense with 10 tackles, while adding the aforementioned interception and fumble recovery TD.
In their own right, the offense had a day to speak of. Cutler was 22 of 32 passing for 312 yards and two touchdowns. Eight different Bears receivers caught a pass from Cutler. Forte had 16 carries for 68 yards but also caught five of those Cutler passes for 90 yards and one touchdown. Overall, the Bears had a solid team effort, and only left room for improvement in the form of the fact that they did not finish all their drives with touchdowns. By beating the Falcons by a score of 30-12, Cutler and the Bears reasserted themselves as a legitimate contender to be the conference’s representative in the SuperBowl.
This Falcons team was the regular season best in the NFC in 2010. Many critics this off-season discounted the Bears while focusing on the champion Green Bay Packers and the up-and-coming Detroit Lions as contenders from the NFC North. The Bears have the skills to be taken seriously at a national level, but coach Lovie Smith likes to use the “underdog” factor in motivating his players.
Despite the win against Atlanta, the Bears may still be underdogs. Let’s hope so.