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Bears’ defense dominates against Falcons

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Updated: November 9, 2011 3:50PM

The newest Bears defender stood on the sideline, marveling at the frenetic pace and play of his teammates.

“The way everyone runs to the ball,” safety Brandon Meriweather said, “and the way everyone is into the game and feeds off of each other.

“That’s what impressed me the most about the defense.”

The numbers can be misleading: The Atlanta Falcons had 386 net offensive yards Sunday, and North Chicago native Michael Turner rushed for 100 yards. But most of that came on a 53-yard gain, and the Bears’ defense dominated on key downs and produced in key situations.

Namely, the Falcons converted only four of 13 third-down attempts, and quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked five times and pressured 11 other times — only once by a defensive back or linebacker.

All of that, of course, points to the strength of the 2011 Bears defense.

“It’s our defensive line,” safety Chris Harris said. “That’s all that needs to be said. You saw them.

“We had a good defensive line last season, but we’re even better, so I think that definitely makes [the defense] much better.”

The Falcons did all they could to wear down the Bears. Game-time temperatures were in the low 80s, and the Falcons used a no-huddle offense.

“They were trying to wear us out,” defensive end Israel Idonije said. “But we’re well-conditioned, and we have a good rotation.

“That kept our legs fresh.”

The Bears dressed seven defensive linemen, and all of them played, including Nick Reed. After a slow start, the Bears notched four of five sacks in the second half.

That production may have been a surprise because the Bears had only seven sacks in four preseason games. They also were counting on breakout seasons from players who are hardly household names such as Henry Melton, Matt Toeaina and Amobi Okoye, a former No. 10 draft pick who was outright released by the Houston Texans.

But as they showed throughout training camp, Melton, Toeaina and Okoye can be counted on to help more-proven players such as Peppers, Idonije and Anthony Adams. Melton had two sacks, two tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. Toeaina had two tackles and one quarterback pressure, and Okoye had a sack, a tackle for loss and a hurry.

“We like the depth,” coach Lovie Smith said of his defensive line. “We have to feel comfortable playing all of them, and we do.

“When a team goes no-huddle, it really stresses the defensive line. But they kept standing up, and they were strong at the end of the game.”

The star of the defense clearly was middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who had a key diving interception as the Falcons were moving the ball in Bears territory late in the first quarter. Urlacher also recovered a fumble and scored from 12 yards out.

But the latter play was generated by Peppers, who sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and forced the fumble.

“The defensive line got great pressure,” Urlacher said. “They played their butts off.”

The Bears’ defense didn’t need to blitz because the defensive line was handling the line of scrimmage. But nickel cornerback D.J. Moore did pressure Ryan once, resulting in the forced pass that Urlacher picked off.

So try as they might, the Falcons couldn’t get behind the Bears’ defense.

“We had plays called aggressively, trying to get the ball down the field,” Ryan said. “They executed their game plan very well.”

The Bears weren’t thrilled that rookie receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez hauled in 30-yard passes. But, by and large, the Falcons were handcuffed, with Roddy White averaging only 7.6 yards per catch and running back Jason Snelling getting targeted for seven passes.

One of the keys was dictating third downs.

Three of the Falcons’ four third-down conversions were from three yards or less, including Turner’s 53-yard gain.

The only other one was on a 14-yard catch by White early in the third quarter.

But five of the Falcons’ third- and fourth-down attempts were from 10 or more yards, and four of them ended in incompletions and another in a sack.

“Across the board, it was a really good show up front,” Idonije said. “It’s game one, and there are some things we got to shore up. But, overall, we got off to a good start.”

Meanwhile, an X-factor continues to acclimate himself to the Bears’ defense, one that ranked ninth overall last season. Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, rotated into the secondary with Major Wright in the second half, finishing with two tackles.

“I still got a lot of things to correct,” Meriweather said. “But, for the most part, I felt good.”

And if he can make the sort of impact his résumé suggests, then the Bears’ defense might boast another playmaker.

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