Cover 9@9: Falcons’ rookie class stepping up

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Defensive lineman Zach Harrison talks about the performance of the Falcons' defense vs. the Colts.

1. The no-spin zone: In addition to the dynamic play of rookie running back Bijan Robinson, the Falcons are getting some major contributions from their rookie class.

Robinson and second-round pick Matthew Bergeron have been contributing from the start of the season.

But third-round pick Zach Harrison, fourth-round pick Clark Phillips and seventh-round pick DeMarcco Hellams have stepped up down the stretch. Also, guard/center Jovaughn Gwyn was active for one game.

“Well, that’s what you want,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Some of them, things get accelerated maybe by injury. You go into the season and think you have pretty good depth there. You want to bring them along the right way.”

Robinson and Bergeron are locks to the make the PFWA All-Rookie team.

Robinson has rushed 188 times for 873 yards and four touchdowns. He has caught 48 of 74 targets for 373 yards and three touchdowns.

Bergeron has started all 15 games and played 1,009 offensive snaps. He has helped to power the rushing and has not been a liability in pass protection.

Harrison has had three sacks over the past two games. Phillips, who did have a bad penalty in the Panthers’ 17-play, 90-yard march to victory, has generally held up in coverage. The Jaguars tried to attack him, but he held up well.

Hellams has come up to help stabilize the safety position. He took over Richie Grant’s starting spot after Grant got beat for the game-winning touchdown against the Bucs.

Gwyn played a snap on special teams in the loss to the Bucs on Dec. 10.

You’ve seen Zach and Clark play more lately,” Smith said. “Zach certainly is taking advantage of those opportunities. He’s doing a hell of a job. Obviously, you feel great every year after your draft class, but year after year, the type of players we’ve been able to bring into here, and you try to tweak that process, I feel really good about that class.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

2. Bears are hot: The Bears, who have won three of their past four games, have some momentum. The Bears have doubled their win total from three to six wins under quarterback Justin Fields, a former Harrison High standout who played at Georgia and Ohio State.

“Just in our overall play,” Fields said after the win over the Cardinals. “Everybody understands the offense more. We have more talented players, guys like Montez (Sweat) and Tremaine (Edmunds) on the defense. Our defense is way better this year. I think we’re just better overall as a team. We’ve learned how to win as this season has gone along.”

The Bears have leaned on their rushing attack. They average 142.7 yards rushing per game, which ranks second in the NFL. Fields (585 yards), running back Khalil Herbert (459) and running back D’Onta Foreman (425) all have rushed for more than 400 yards this season.

3. Ground and pound: In the 27-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, the Bears rushed 39 times for 250 yards. Herbert rushed 20 times for 112 yards and a touchdown in the win. Fields rushed nine times for 97 yards and a touchdown.

Fields, who’s still developing as an NFL passer, completed 15 of 27 passes for 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Cardinals. He had a 71.5 passer rating.

On the season, Fields has completed 196 of 322 passes (60.9%) for 2,146 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has a passer rating of 84.5.

“As long as we win, I’m not really a numbers guy,” said Fields, when asked his rushing and passing numbers were sustainable.

4. Field to the Falcons? With the Bears holding Carolina’s pick in the 2024 draft, there is speculation about Fields’ future in Chicago. Several pundits, including ESPN’s Harry Douglas, believe the Falcons would be a good landing spot if the Bears elect to trade Fields and perhaps draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

However, most don’t consider the fact that the Falcons’ current front office had a chance to draft Fields, but elected to select tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 draft.

However, the transition from quarterback Matt Ryan has not gone smoothly. The Falcons had Marcus Mariota as a placeholder until Desmond Ridder was ready. However, Ridder struggled this season and was benched twice because of his 16 turnovers.

So, maybe the Falcons will revisit Fields if he hits the open market.

“They’ve done a nice job,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Their rushing attack is rolling.”

The Falcons beat Fields and the Bears last season 27-24 on Nov. 20, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was Mariota’s last win with the team. He lost the next two, was benched and then left the team.

5. Bears weapons: Fields generally looks for wide receiver D.J. Moore, who has 83 catches for 1,141 yards and seven touchdowns. He had only three catches for 18 yards against the Cardinals while playing on a sore ankle.

Tight end Cole Kmet has 70 catches for 678 yards and six touchdowns. He had four catches for 107 yards against the Cardinals.

6. Bears defense: The Bears spent money and draft capital to improve their defense. They signed Edmunds to a four-year, $72 million contract in free agency and beat out the Falcons for defensive end Sweat, who played at Stephenson High, in an in-season trade with Washington.

“Certainly, their defense is really playing well,” Smith said. “They’ve made a lot of investments in that defense. Some of these younger pieces they’ve had in the secondary are playing well. Obviously, they added Sweat. They’re doing a good job of getting pressure with a four-man rush. I think (coach Matt) Eberflus is doing a hell of a job.”

Linebacker T.J. Edwards leads the Bears’ defense with 143 tackles. Edmunds has 98 tackles and safety Jaquan Brisker has 92.

7A. Series history: This will be the 30th meeting. The Bears led the series 15-14. The Falcons won the last meeting 27-24 on Nov. 20, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

7B. 2024 schedule: The Falcons are set to play the NFC East and AFC West next season.

The home games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Dallas, New York Giants, Los Angles Chargers, Kansas City and one each from the NFC West and the AFC North.

The away games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Las Vegas, Denver and one from the NFC North.

With Carolina having locked up fourth place, the Falcons could finish first, second or third. They will play the team from the NFC West, AFC North and NFC North that finishes in the same slot.

Arizona has wrapped up last place in the NFC West, so the Falcons could host either San Francisco, Seattle or the Los Angles Rams. The AFC North and NFC North slots will get sorted out over the final two weeks of the regular season.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

8. Where to watch, listen and livestream: What you should know about Sunday’s game between the Falcons (6-7) and the Chicago Bears (6-9), which is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

TV: CBS. Play-by-Play: Chris Lewis. Analysts: Jason McCourty and Ross Tucker. Sideline: Amanda Renner

Local radio: 92.9 The Game. Play-by-play: Wes Durham. Analyst: Dave Archer. Executive producer: Beau Morgan. Engineer: Miller Pope. Pregame/postgame show – Hosts: Chris Goforth and Mike Johnson, with Dylan Matthews and Orin Romain as studio producers at 11 a.m.

Satellite radio: SiriusXM NFL Radio. Falcons channel 85, 225 or the app Colts 137, 380 or the app. (Games also are available on the SiriusXM app. Fans can find their team’s channel under the “NFL Play-by-Play” tab or by searching for their team’s name.)

Livestream: Streaming inside the Atlanta market: Fans in the Atlanta market can stream the game on the Atlanta Falcons app, NFL app (subscription required). Out of the country: GamePass International.

9. Depth chart: Here’s the depth chart for the Bears’ game:

OFFENSE

WR Mack Hollins, KhaDarel Hodge

TE Kyle Pitts, John FitzPatrick

LT Jake Matthews

LG Matthew Bergeron, Jovaughn Gwyn

C Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RG Chris Lindstrom, Kyle Hinton

RT Kaleb McGary, Storm Norton

TE Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt

WR Drake London, Scotty Miller, Van Jefferson

FB Tucker Fisk

RB Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier

Joker Cordarrelle Patterson

QB Taylor Heinicke, Desmond Ridder, Logan Woodside

DEFENSE

DL Albert Huggins, LaCale London, Tommy Togiai

DL David Onyemata, Ta’Quon Graham

DE Calais Campbell, Zach Harrison, Joe Gaziano

OLB Bud Dupree, Lorenzo Carter

ILB Kaden Elliss

ILB Nate Landman, Andre Smith Jr.

OLB Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone

CB A.J. Terrell, Mike Hughes

S Jessie Bates III, Micah Abernathy

S DeMarcco Hellams, Richie Grant

NB Mike Hughes, Dee Alford

CB Clark Phillips III, Jeff Okudah, Tre Flowers

SPECIAL TEAMS

K Younghoe Koo

P Bradley Pinion

LS Liam McCullough

H Bradley Pinion

PR Dee Alford, Scotty Miller, Mike Hughes, Bijan Robinson

KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Hughes

The Bow Tie Chronicles

About the Author