As the Vikings look to put an end to their two-game losing streak, they face another stiff challenge from a well-rested opponent in the Atlanta Falcons. Fresh off a 56-14 thrashing of division rival Tampa Bay, the Falcons are heading to TCF Bank Stadium looking to improve to 3-1 on the season.
Few teams have experienced the highs and lows that the Falcons have over the past two seasons. In 2012, the Falcons finished 13-3 and had home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. In 2013, they fell hard, finishing 4-12 and posting one of the worst reversals of fortunes in league history over a one-year span.
The Falcons have the league’s top-rated offense, but a defense that is susceptible to being overrun by patient offenses.
The centerpiece of the offense is quarterback Matt Ryan. He has thrown for almost 1,000 yards in his first three games and has seven touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 105.1. Ryan has numerous deep threats, but the vast majority of his passes have been short routes designed to get players into space for yards after the catch. Of the 115 passes the Falcons have thrown, 68 of them have been of nine yards or less and only 16 of them have been of 20 yards or more.
A key to slowing up Ryan is to blitz him. When unblitzed, Ryan has completed 72.5 percent of his passes, thrown six touchdowns and has a passer rating of 116.0. When blitzed, he has completed just 55.6 percent of his passes, thrown one TD and has a passer rating of 71.4. The clear implication is that to provide pressure on Ryan can force him into making mistakes.
He has significant weapons at his disposal. Julio Jones has 23 receptions for 365 yards and three touchdowns, but he isn’t the only option. Veteran Roddy White missed last week’s game, but he has 10 catches and a TD in his two games. Harry Douglas, who is questionable for Sunday’s game, has 12 catches and a touchdown. Even former Bear Devin Hester has been incorporated into the passing game, averaging 18 yards per on seven catches. Along with tight end Levine Toilolo, who also has a TD reception, the Falcons are deep and talented, giving Ryan a number of viable targets to throw to, whether it’s Jones or White or one of their supporting cast.
The running game remains the domain of veteran Steven Jackson, who in his 11th season remains the top running back in the Falcons offense. He leads the team with 37 carries, more than twice as many as primary backup Jacquizz Rogers. Jackson is averaging 4.1 yards a carry, but he earns his money between the tackles. When asked to run outside the tackles, he has averaged less than 3 yards and a carry and struggles to turn the corner. Jackson is expected to carry the rushing workload, but the Vikings will have a good idea where he’s going – straight at them.
The key to the offensive line is going to be the play of the tackles. The Falcons have veterans on the inside – fifth-year players Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah and eight-year vet Justin Blalock at left guard – but they are young at the tackle positions. Right tackle Lamar Holmes is in his third season and left tackle Jake Matthews is a rookie the Falcons selected with the sixth pick of last May’s draft. If Matthews and Holmes can play at a high level, the Falcons can turn what was a liability last year into a strength.
The biggest concern the Falcons have in attempting to return to prominence will likely hinge on the performance of their defense. They are currently ranked 27th in yards surrendered but have many of the component parts to be successful.
The Falcons run a hybrid 3-4 defense that employs a rotation along the defensive line. It is powered on the inside by veterans Tyson Jackson, Paul Solai and Corey Peters and second-round rookie Ra’Shede Hageman, and on the outside by Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Babineaux, Malliciah Goodman and Osi Umenyiora. All of them rotate playing time and none of them with the exception of Babineaux has been on the field for more than 55 percent of the defensive snaps.
While the players can stay fresh, they haven’t had a big impact in disrupting opposing offenses. Teams are averaging 4.1 yards a rush and the Falcons have generated just three sacks. It has put more pressure on the back end of the defense to perform.
Perhaps the most unheralded player on the defense is the man in the middle – second-year pro Paul Warrilow. An undrafted rookie in 2013, he replaced an injured Sean Weatherspoon and led the team in tackles. He is at it again, recording 30 tackles in the first three games. Along with fellow second-year player Joplo Bartu, the Falcons have a pair of young players with big upside that will likely be the anchor of the defense moving forward.
While there are a lot of players coming in and out of the lineup on the front seven, the secondary is another story. Three of the members of the secondary – cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant and safety William Moore – have taken every defensive snap, and safety Dwight Lowery has been on the field for more than 90 percent of plays. With backups Robert McClain and Kemal Ishmael, who have the team’s two interceptions, give the Falcons a young core group that, while not familiar to casual fans, are going to be critical to Atlanta’s return to the top of the NFC South.
The Vikings need a win over the Falcons to get their 2014 season back on track, but Atlanta has plans of its own. It already has an offense that is capable of winning any shootout and a young defense that is coming together as a group and looking to hold up its end. It won’t be easy for Atlanta, which has lost eight of its last nine games on the road, but if the Vikings are going to make a statement that they’re back in the NFC North for the long haul, a win over Atlanta might be a requirement.
Preview: Shootout may be in order for Vikings
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