The Chicago Bears don't get the luxury of an easy start this year.
That makes the Bears' Week 1 confrontation with Atlanta even more important.
The Bears can hardly afford a weak start. They won the battle in 2010, bringing the division crown home to Chicago for the third time in Lovie Smith's coaching tenure. But they lost the war, losing the NFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Winning the division will be a daunting task—and it all starts on Sunday in Atlanta.
In order for the Bears to start down the path of success, certain players will have to step up their games. Football is a team sport, but there are players that the Bears need to give their top performances this Sunday to begin the season with a win.
So, let's jump forward and take a look at six Bears who will have to step up against the Atlanta Falcons.
The free safety position is one of the three key positions in the success of Lovie Smith's defense. As of now, the Bears look to be starting second-year player Major Wright at that spot.
Wright's preseason play was uninspiring to say the least. Poor pursuit angles and lackluster coverage were not what the Bears expected from the former third-round draft pick when they moved Chris Harris back to his natural strong safety position and allowed Danieal Manning to escape via free agency.
The Bears acquired former Patriots free safety Brandon Meriweather immediately after he was cut this week, but the two-time Pro Bowler comes with his own set of problems and shouldn't be expected to start this soon after being brought in.
His signing, however, will hopefully light a fire under Wright, who could be looking at the bench sooner rather than later with a former two-time Pro Bowler waiting to swoop in should Major fail.
With Matt Ryan and the Falcons being fully capable of airing out the ball, Wright will have to step up his game if the Bears are to win and he is to keep his starting job.
Last year and this preseason, the Bears red-zone offense was terrible. If the Bears are to repeat as division champions, this has to change.
Enter Marion Barber. Marion the Barbarian was brought in to correct this problem. Last season the Bears rushing attack was near useless inside the 5-yard line. This allowed defenses to focus on the passing game in the red zone and subsequently shut down the Bears' scoring efforts, with the Bears ranking 24th in the league in red-zone efficiency.
Barber's destructive running could change that; his punishing rushing style tends to get the tough, short-yardage gains.
The Bears need Barber to perform near the goal and make the Falcons play honestly in the red zone. If he can, the passing game will open up inside the 20 and the Bears could be looking at a significantly higher red-zone efficiency
The Bears receiving corps gave us cause for concern. Dropped passes were the story of the first-string offense, especially from Roy Williams.
Williams was brought in because of past success in the Martzfense system. While in Detroit, Williams played well in the intricate offense Martz runs. But he built a poor reputation after Dallas gave the farm to acquire him from the Lions during the 2008 season.
Williams escaped being part of the 0-16 Lions, but ran into his own disaster, dropping his way to two-and-a-half poor seasons in Dallas.
But now he's back with "Mad" Mike and big things are expected—certainly bigger than catching just 2-of-7 passes thrown his way in the preseason.
If the Bears are to succeed against the Falcons, they will need the receiving corps to show up, particularly in the red zone—an area that Williams has excelled in previously—and on third downs. Williams must make his presence felt in a positive way for the Bears to succeed against the Falcons.
Just as important as the free safety position is to Lovie Smith's defensive scheme—and maybe more so—is the 3-tech defensive tackle.
Smith's defense has never been more dominant than when a healthy Tommie Harris was scaring the hell out of guards everywhere.
The Bears first-string defense failed to register a sack in the preseason, and that has to change. The catalyst for that change has to be Henry Melton.
The Bears' defensive scheme's success is predicated on the 3-tech DT creating enough havoc in the middle for the defensive ends to break free and create pressure without having to rush extra defenders.
Last season, the Bears supplemented the lack of a dominant 3-tech with Julius Peppers, but Pep isn't used to his fullest in that role. His dominance is held in check when other defensive linemen aren't able to capitalize on the extra attention he is drawing.
The Bears defense will need Melton to stir things up in the middle, forcing the Falcons to pay enough attention to him to give Peppers a chance to work his magic and create opportunities for the rest of the line. If the Bears have to send extra defenders on the blitz, it will be a long day for Chicago as the Falcons' high-powered passing attack carves up the secondary.
The Bears made the right move in cementing first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi in at the right tackle spot, despite criticism to the contrary. Carimi has the skill set to be a star right tackle for the next decade or more, and being forced to cover the left tackle spot when his skill set is more suited to the right would have diminished his impact and wasted his talents.
That being said, it was a gamble for the Bears to trust J'Marcus Webb on the left side.
Nobody is suggesting that the Bears should have started Frank Omiyale, who led all NFL tackles in sacks allowed last season. But the decision by the front office not to seek a reliable left tackle in free agency was questionable.
It's not that Webb doesn't possess the physical abilities to perform well at left tackle. On the contrary, he is a physically gifted and highly athletic tackle, which is why the Bears so badly want him to work out at the position.
Webb's problems are mental. He came into the league very raw and needs a lot of coaching to get to where he needs to be. Mike Tice believes he has the ability to grow into a solid left tackle and there is no reason to doubt that.
On Sunday, the Bears need to see that Webb is taking steps forward. The Falcons have two solid defensive ends in John Abraham and Ray Edwards and if Webb can't hold his own, Jay Cutler and the Bears offense will be in for a very long day.
And the buck stops here.
In order for the Bears offense to succeed, Jay Cutler will have to make it happen.
What has to happen?
Jay has to improve in the red zone, where he has had problems since coming to Chicago. Some of that is attributable to having just Greg Olsen as a strong red-zone target. But some of it is attributable to Jay making poor decisions near the goal line. Again, the Bears ranked 24th in the league in red-zone efficiency in 2010 after ranking 27th in 2009.
He'll also need some help from his receivers, which we covered earlier.
Jay worked his butt off—literally—this offseason, and the improvement in his mechanics is evident. But he will have to show some improvement in his decision-making and in the amount of time he holds on to the ball if the Bears are to top the Falcons.
And now it's your turn, ladies and gentlemen. Step up to the soapbox below and tell us what you think about who needs to step up this Sunday. Sound off!