Few teams in the NFL this season have ridden the emotional roller coaster quite like the Atlanta Falcons. In mid-October, the Falcons were in the discussion of Super Bowl contenders. At 5-0, the Falcons were being viewed as a team that could make a deep playoff run, despite four of their five wins coming against the NFC East, which the rest of the league has found relatively easy to beat.
In their last five games, the Falcons have lost four of them, including losses to Tampa Bay and San Francisco – teams they were prohibitive favorites to beat. The Falcons have fallen hopelessly behind Carolina in the race for the NFC South title and are clinging to the second wild card spot at this point.
One steady influence has been quarterback Matt Ryan. A complete quarterback from Day One, Ryan has consistently led the Falcons to the playoffs and kept them in games by having big-play ability. He is averaging almost 300 yards a game, has thrown 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and has a passer rating of 89.6. He has been counted on to run the offense and keep it productive, which will be even more important Sunday because of a critical injury.
The Falcons announced Friday that they will be without running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman wasn’t supposed to be the starter, but when rookie Tevin Coleman went down in Week 2, Freeman took over and became the featured back. He became the most versatile back the Falcons have had in years. Not only is he fifth in the league in rushing with 764 yards, he is second among all running backs with 48 receptions, making him a dual threat that needed to be accounted for on every play. But after sustaining a concussion early in last week’s game against Indianapolis, Freeman has been ruled out, re-opening the door for Coleman, who has rushed 59 times for just 231 yards and one touchdown in part-time duty.
With changes coming in the running game, the Falcons will also find themselves shorthanded in the receiver corps. While All-Pro Julio Jones (89 catches, 1,189 yards and six touchdowns) is clearly the main man in the passing game, Leonard Hankerson, who was No. 2 in receptions among Atlanta wide receivers (26), yards (327) and touchdowns (3), has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Veteran Roddy White has seen his production drop significantly (21-254-1 through 10 games) but may be forced to step up to fill the void. At tight end, former Colt/Bronco Jacob Tamme has been a pleasant surprise, catching 39 passes for 446 yards. He has supplanted Levine Toilolo as the guy with the daunting task of replacing Tony Gonzalez as a playmaking tight end. Tamme will be looking to stretch the Vikings defense down the seam and will require attention because he is capable of big plays at any time.
The Falcons don’t have a dominant offensive line but have taken steps to tighten things up. They used their first-round pick in the 2014 draft to select bookend left tackle Jake Matthews and traded for Pro Bowl guard Andy Levitre. The right side of the line isn’t as strong with tackle Ryan Schraeder, guard Chris Chester and center Mike Person, but they play very well as a unit. They have opened holes for Freeman often and have allowed Ryan to be sacked just 18 times. They may not be household names, but they’re getting the job done.
The biggest difference the Vikings will notice from the Falcons team they saw last year is on defense. Atlanta had the worst-rated defense in the NFL last season, allowing more than 385 yards a game. It prompted the Falcons to hire Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and the change has been nothing short of amazing.
The Falcons have moved from the 32nd-ranked defense all the way up to 10th in Quinn’s first season in Atlanta and, when you watch film of them, they look surprisingly like the Seattle defense that he ran with the Seahawks.
One of the biggest investments has been on the defensive line. The team used premium picks on two line starters – Vic Beasley, the first-round pick of the Falcons this year, and former Minnesota Gopher Ra’Shede Hagemen, a second-round pick in 2014. The team went outside the organization to sign former Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Solai and former Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson. With veterans Adrian Clayborn and Jonathan Babineaux providing depth, the Falcons have quickly transformed a defensive weakness into a strength.
The team also went outside the organization to build up the linebacker corps. Quinn brought weakside linebacker O’Brien Schofield along with him from Seattle to join Justin Durant and Paul Worrilow as the starters. With former Texan Brooks Reed and Phillip Wheeler providing depth, the Falcons linebacker corps has shown dramatic improvement and they have embraced Quinn’s attacking style.
The biggest question mark is in the secondary. While the team has invested free agent dollars to improve the front seven, it has a young core of players that make up their defensive backs. The team used the 2013 draft to address cornerback in a big way, using its first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and its second-round pick on Robert Alford, both of whom are starters. At the safety position, they have William Moore, a savvy seven-year vet, and second-year pro Ricardo Allen. They remain a work in progress but have the athleticism Quinn demands and are embracing his system in which they are often left alone on an island charged with taking away a team’s best receivers one-on-one.
One major difference the Falcons will be facing is being without kicker Matt Bryant. He injured a quad muscle last week and has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. The team went out on the open market to sign veteran Shayne Graham to fill the void until Bryant returns.
When the Vikings faced a Packers team that had lost three straight games heading into last week, they found themselves matched up against a desperate team that was in dire need of a win to keep their season on track. You get much the same feeling with the Falcons. They’ve taken some heavy punches over the last month and a half and can’t afford to drop another home game. The Vikings will have to bring their best effort Sunday, because it seems clear that the Falcons will be bringing theirs.