The Bears enter the opener with little depth behind starting running back Matt Forte.
All Forte: After so much summer discussion about his contract, his strengths and his weaknesses, it appears Matt Forte will be the Chicago Bears' second-most important offensive player Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons and beyond. (Quarterback Jay Cutler is obviously No. 1.) Backup tailback Marion Barber didn't practice this week because of a calf injury, and the Bears' only reserve help could be little-used Kahlil Bell. Barber's primary role this season was likely to take some pounding away from Forte in goal-line and short-yardage situations, which has never been a strength of Forte's anyway. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Forte has managed only five touchdowns on 57 goal-to-go carries since the start of the 2009 season. Against a team like the Falcons, the Bears can't afford too many red-zone breakdowns. They'll either need Forte to convert or they'll have to take to the air. For what it's worth, Cutler has thrown more red-zone interceptions (13) than any other NFL quarterback over the past three seasons.
Unknown quantity: We didn't learn much this summer about the Bears' defense, which has moving parts at several positions and didn't make much of an impact on preseason games one way or the other. The Falcons are a power running team that made a big offseason splash to trade up in the draft for big-play receiver Julio Jones. If they're on task, that's a tough combination to defend. We still don't know who, other than Julius Peppers, can provide a pass rush for the Bears and we're awaiting a safety transition involving newcomer Brandon Meriweather. The Bears will have their hands full defensively, but keep in mind that the Falcons haven't come to Chicago and won a game since the 1983 season opener.
HotHotHot: Sunday's updated weather forecast for Tampa calls for a high of 91 degrees with 77 percent humidity at Raymond James Stadium. As we discussed during the week, it's been a hot summer in the upper midwest. I'm not sure the Detroit Lions practiced in anything quite like they're going to experience Sunday, but all NFL players should be in condition to play a hot-weather game in Week 1. To me, it's the less-expected hot weather you might experience in October or even November that can catch you off guard. The Lions will need to stay on top of their hydration to avoid cramping and the like, but I'm not sure this issue will impact the outcome of the game.
Matchup of young stars: This game will feature two of the top three quarterbacks in the 2009 draft, the Lions' Matthew Stafford and the Buccaneers' Josh Freeman. It also will put on display the Lions' good fortune in having the No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 draft rather than No. 3. The Lions chose defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, leaving the Bucs to take defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. As it turns out, McCoy has been a pretty good player. But Suh is ready to break out as one of the NFL's best. Suh and nose tackle Corey Williams will look to stuff Bucs tailback LeGarrette Blount, who gashed them for 61 yards on seven carries on runs up the middle in the teams' 2010 matchup.
Slow starts: Many observers have the Minnesota Vikings pegged to limp out of the gate this season, noting their offensive scheme transition, along with the presence of a new quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and left tackle (Charlie Johnson). But as it turns out, the Vikings on Sunday will face the NFL's most notorious slow starters over the past seven seasons. The San Diego Chargers have a combined 30-26 record during the first half of those seasons and a 46-10 record in the second half. For whatever reason, the Vikings are getting the Chargers at the proverbial right time. For what it's worth, the preseason showed us that if the Vikings struggle early in 2011, it will be because of their shaky personnel situation on defense. Their starting lineup Sunday will include three new defensive linemen, one untested linebacker (Erin Henderson) and a rotation at strong safety between Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson. On the other hand, their offense appeared relatively cohesive both in camp and in the preseason.