The Atlanta Falcons barely got to try out their new offensive identity Sunday. The Chicago Bears' bend-don't-break defense forced the return of something like the old one, now with more turnovers.
Watching the Michigan Wolverines' absurd comeback against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, one thing kept striking me. New coach Brady Hoke spent the whole offseason talking about playing with toughness and grit and Midwestern harrumphing, the Michigan way. But when the Wolverines needed scores, Hoke unleashed freelance assassin Denard Robinson to do what he does.
While he'd wanted to turn Michigan back into Michigan, Hoke had no other choice but to let Denard be Denard. Things revert. Sometimes for good, and sometimes for bad.
The offseason doctrine emphasized by Atlanta Falcons brass, from Arthur Blank to Thomas Dimitroff on down: explosiveness. The word explosive was used with such frequency that you almost expected to see pictures of mushroom clouds on season tickets.
Thus, the rationale behind trading major chunks of two drafts for Julio Jones. And you know what? Jones had a great first day, catching five balls for 71 yards. But the Falcons only managed 12 points to Chicago's 30. These aren't explosions; these are tremors.
What happened? Is the ordinance faulty, or, even worse, has the Falcons attack already scrapped its new weapons systems and reverted back to blunt object assault?
Michael Turner had only 10 carries on the day, so we're definitely talking about tactics that have been altered one way or another. The problem is that they didn't work.
Here's where we note the Bears defense might be the NFL's best at bunkering in defense of bombardment.
Let's call a 30-yard gain an explosive play. Last year, the Chicago Bears defense didn't give up a play of more than 30 yards until Week 9. They didn't allow multiple players to break off 30-yard gains in a single game until Week 13. Check their box scores: the Bears' Cover 2 defense is designed to never give up big plays, and it pretty much never does.
Sunday, three Falcons players -- Turner, Jones and Tony Gonzalez -- each gained 30 or more yards on single plays. The explosions were there, if you pressed your ear to the ground, but they failed to result in points. Twelve points doesn't sound like an explosive half, let alone a season opener that was supposed to be the grand unveiling of Atlanta's new Doomsday Device.
We got peeks, but the weapon didn't have enough chances to fire due to three stolen possessions.
Falcons coaches can't be blamed for this loss. The game plan was solid. Matt Ryan looked for breakdowns in deep zone coverage before checking to wide-open running backs for easy, easy gains. (Ryan did this when he wasn't being battered around the pocket, at least.) The Falcons won the yardage battle (386 to 377), gained more first downs (20 to 17) and ran the ball far more effectively (110 to 88, averaging 7.9 vs. 3.3), even while accounting for the fact that almost half of their total came on Michael Turner's 53-yard lope.
Seven Falcons receivers each caught multiple passes. In past seasons Ryan's been criticized for locking onto Roddy White and Gonzalez, and that wasn't the case Sunday.
But it all came down to turnovers. Chicago's defense is perfectly suited to squat on a lead, and if Jay Cutler isn't being pushed to even up the turnover battle, the Bears can ride out the slimmest of advantages. It's hard to say an 18-point game could've gone either way, but look at how those points came about.
You can't take away excellent plays made by Brian Urlacher and others that helped to produce the final score, but Ryan isn't going to place the ball on the ground like a UPS delivery at any other point this season. Turner might not fumble more than once the whole rest of the way. Very few middle linebackers on Atlanta's schedule will be able to make that diving interception.
And the next time the Falcons' opponent fumbles three times, the odds say Atlanta will recover at least one. Thomas DeCoud probably won't drop two picks in another game this year. (Yes, I know the Falcons got a defensive touchdown of their own. You're bumming everybody out.)
Of course I'm trying to talk myself back into feeling good about this team, and yes, I'm worried that the run of luck that contributed to a 13-3 season is all gone. And goodness yes, Atlanta's defense is a whole 'nother story.
But it's far too early to start calling the team's attempt to enter the NFL's offensive arms race a failure.