NFL Preview - Chicago (2-3) at Atlanta (2-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Chicago Bears never quite figured out how to best use the explosive Devin Hester in their offense.
The Atlanta Falcons are making it work.
Hester gets his first crack at his former team on Sunday as the Falcons host the Bears in a matchup of 2-3 teams at the Georgia Dome.
Hester was a second round pick of Chicago in 2006 and set a number of records during his stay with the Bears. That includes 18 kick return touchdowns and 13 punt return touchdowns and he also set franchise marks with 3,241 punt return yards and 5,504 kickoff return yards.
Of course, that doesn't include his 92-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI in an eventual loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Hester added 217 catches for 2,807 yards and 14 touchdowns with Chicago, but asked not to play offense last season under new head coach Marc Trestman. He then wasn't offered a contract this past offseason by the Bears and inked a three-year, $9 million deal with Atlanta in March.
"It's going to be fun, kind of exciting," Hester told the Falcons' website of the matchup. "I'm so used to going against those guys in practice; it'll be the first time for me to go against them live. (I've) been around those guys for a long time; so, it's kind of like playing against your brother."
Hester was held to just two catches for 16 yards and ran once for another three yards in last Sunday's 30-20 loss to the New York Giants. The Falcons led by 10 late in the third quarter before New York reeled off 20 straight points, 13 in the fourth frame.
Matt Ryan threw for 316 yards and a touchdown with one interception, while Julio Jones caught 11 passes for 105 yards. Running back Antone Smith added a 74-yard touchdown catch as the Falcons fell to 0-3 on the road this season compared to 2-0 at home.
"We couldn't get anything going offensively there in the second half and we couldn't get the stops that we needed," Falcons head coach Mike Smith remarked. "We are extremely disappointed in the way that the game finished."
The same could be said for the Bears in their 31-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers last weekend.
Turnovers doomed Chicago as it failed to hold three-point lead with six minutes with less than five minutes to play. Quarterback Jay Cutler was intercepted and the pick was returned 35 yards to the Chicago 32.
That set up a game-tying field goal by the Panthers' Graham Gano with 4:29 to go and Matt Forte fumbled on the first snap of the resulting possession. Carolina recovered at the Chicago 23, setting up a six-yard go-ahead TD pass for the Panthers with 2:18 to go.
"I've got to take accountability for our failure to get things done in the second half," said Chicago head coach Marc Trestman. "We didn't have any significant drives and failed to convert third downs. We just didn't get it done."
Cutler passed for 289 yards and two touchdowns while adding a rushing score, but was also picked off twice. Forte ran for 61 yards and added 105 receiving on 12 catches.
Following their second straight setback, the Bears will play their fourth road game in five weeks. They have won four of six and nine of their last 12 against the Falcons, including a 30-12 win at home in the last meeting in 2011.
Cutler threw for 312 yards and two scores, including a 56-yard touchdown pass to Forte, who ended with 158 yards from scrimmage. Ryan had 319 yards passing, but was sacked five times.
Chicago remains one victory shy of becoming the first team in NFL history to reach 750 wins.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
All eyes will be on Hester and how he torments his former team. He comes in as the only player in the league to post a rushing, receiving and return touchdown this season.
While never fully breaking out on offense in Chicago, Hester is third on Atlanta with 14 catches behind only standouts Jones and Roddy White and is also averaging 24.2 yards per kickoff return and 14.4 yards on eight punt returns.
"I think everybody knows how great a player he is. I don't think there's any question about that. I think the biggest thing is we just have to have a good plan going in for him," said Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
"A lot of people say you can't punt it to him. ... There are a lot of things that go into that. Otherwise, everybody would do it."
Hester did not practice on Wednesday due to a hamstring injury, but expects to play in this game.
"I'm sure it'll be different for Dev this week," said Ryan. "Obviously, played a long time in Chicago and has a lot of friends and former teammates that he played with up there, and I'm sure that'll probably be on his mind a little bit, but I'm think once the ball kicks off and you start playing I think he's such a competitor week-to-week he's going to give you his best regardless."
Ryan's counterpart, Cutler, will try to shake off another costly turnover. He has thrown 12 touchdown passes on the year, but has been picked off six times and lost a pair of fumbles.
Cutler and Trestman know they need to get wide receiver Brandon Marshall involved along with Forte and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Marshall has five touchdown receptions, but only one in the past three games since hauling in three versus San Francisco in Week 2 despite an ankle injury. He has made just six catches in the past three games, three of those coming versus Carolina for 44 yards.
"He's been targeted certainly. But we're going to go back and do some work on that to make sure we're doing all the right things in that regard," noted Trestman.
"We targeted him (Sunday). He had a lot of calls and they took it away and Jay did the right thing by going other places. But we want (Marshall) to have more productivity. When he touches the ball good things happen and over the last couple of weeks we haven't been able to get that done. It's certainly something we have to continue to work on to get him back involved where he can get more touches that will result in bigger plays."
The Falcons have countered a defense that ranks 29th in both total and scoring defense by posting the league's third-ranked offense at 434.6 yards per game and 30.2 points.
Antone Smith has become a big play threat with four touchdowns on the year. He has caught a 54-yard score in addition to his recent 74-yarder and has also found the end zone on the ground from 38 and 48 yards out.
Now the back and the rest of the Falcons need to figure out how to translate their home success to road games, but that is a problem best saved for next Sunday in Baltimore.
"I wish we could figure it out to be more consistent week-to-week, but I think when you're at home, obviously from a communications standpoint it's a little bit easier," noted Ryan. "It's not quite as loud, and that helps us to a certain extent, but across the board I think home or away we need to be more consistent."
The Bears will certainly need to be focused on an energized Hester, but he isn't the biggest concern on the Falcons offense. Smith and Jones have big- play potential and Chicago is giving up 26.2 points and 262.4 yards per game.
Atlanta has had its own struggles playing defense, but the secondary needs to only sit back and wait for Cutler to make a mistake in a tough Georgia Dome environment.
"I think every week is important, certainly when we get back at home I think that's a good thing for us," said Ryan. "(Coach Smith) talks about it all the time, we want to be tough and defend the dome every chance that we get."
Don't be surprised to see Hester bring the crowd to its feet with some big plays and leave Cutler and company again searching for answers.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 34, Bears 27
10/12 07:38:36 ET