When the Vikings saw the Atlanta Falcons on their 2003 schedule, the first thought had to be doing a better job of controlling star quarterback Michael Vick. However, a broken fibula has taken Vick out of the equation, putting a completely different complexion on this year's matchup than last year's overtime loss.
At quarterback this time around is Doug Johnson, who has been somewhat erratic in his crash course as an NFL starter. Johnson is being asked to keep games under control and not to make critical mistakes. That, however, has been easier said than done. After looking very solid in a season-opening win over Dallas, Johnson was pressured and intercepted often in losses to the Redskins and Buccaneers. Look for the Vikings to pressure Johnson just as often to try to create the mistakes that will lead to turnovers.
With Johnson playing up and down, the running game for the Falcons has become even more important to solidifying the offense, and Atlanta has the weapons to get the job done. They don't have a full-time featured back, rather what Dan Reeves has called co-starters. Warrick Dunn is familiar to Vikings fans from his years with Tampa Bay. A speedster who is also an adept receiver, Dunn can create big plays from anywhere on the field. He is joined by second-year pro T.J. Duckett, who is more of a mauler and short-yardage man. While Reeves typically lets one of the two do the majority of the carrying in a typical week, he will mix and match them by situation, so the Vikings will have to be prepared for both.
The receiver corps was a big problem for the Falcons a year ago. Worse than thinking the team didn't have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, they didn't have a wideout that would start for many other teams in the league. That changed when the Falcons swung a deal with Buffalo to obtain Peerless Price. While he was never a pure go-to receiver in Buffalo, he is a huge step up for the Falcons. He is still adjusting to being the focus of defensive coverage, but his speed makes him dangerous at all times. However, Price missed practice time this week with an injury, and he too has a chance at missing time on Sunday. He is joined by lesser-known players around him, including third-year man Quentin McCord — starting in place of injured Brian Finneran — and first-year pros Jimmy Farris and LaTarence Dunbar. The key to the passing game has become tight end Alge Crumpler. An excellent receiving TE, Crumpler has become one of Johnson's favorite targets and a player the Vikings will have to monitor all game long.
Up front, the Falcons have experience on the outside but lack the same on the inside. At the tackles, Bob Whitfield and Todd Weiner are both solid veterans, but the interior linemen are still a little suspect. Guards Kynan Forney and Travis Claridge and center Todd McClure are all young veterans with starting experience, but their time together has been shortened by various injuries. They're learning to work as a unit and will be better by year's end, but this is a group that can be overwhelmed up the middle with a push from the DL and interior blitzing, so expect to see both from the Vikings.
Defensively, the Falcons run a 3-4 alignment, which, if not seen often, can be frustrating for many teams when they do encounter it. The Falcons have a decent 3-4 because they have the personnel up front to make it work. Nose tackle Ellis Johnson is flanked by ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith. Johnson has been splitting time with Ed Jasper after being wooed out of retirement by Dan Reeves, but with Kerney and Smith — two of the best sack men in the NFC — on the outside, the Falcons can get away with a nose tackle platoon.
The linebacker corps is the strong point of the defense. It is anchored in the middle by Keith Brooking and Chris Draft. Brooking was second in the NFC in tackles last year and Draft has better speed than most interior linebackers. On the outside, veteran Sam Rogers and Matt Stewart offer differing strengths. Stewart is a strong run stopper while Rogers is an adept blitzer who had 6.5 sacks last year. Combined, all four of these players do an excellent job in stopping the run and pressuring the passer in blitz situations, which could create some recognition problems for the Vikings.
While the linebackers are assets, the secondary is the biggest concern of the Falcons defense. Once viewed as one of the league's best corners, Ray Buchanan has earned a bulls-eye this year as teams have thrown at him often. An 11-year vet, he has lost a step and speedy receivers have beat him in and out of breaks. He was joined by former Packer Tyrone Williams at corner, but after a mid-week rant he was suspended by Dan Reeves. Instead, nickel back Kevin Mathis will step into Williams' spot, leaving the Falcons very thin in the secondary and the Vikings ready to roll out multiple-receiver sets. Keion Carpenter and Cory Hall were the safeties, but another injury to Hall may have an inexperienced safety roaming the middle. This is a mix of young and old that can be exploited.
The Vikings likely will be an underdog traveling to Atlanta, but, with the problems the Falcons have on offense and defense, this is a team that can be upended and, as long as No. 7 isn't taking the snaps, the Vikings have a good chance of winning.
MATCHUP OF THE GAME
Warrick Dunn vs. Henri Crockett/Chris Claiborne — Over the years, the Vikings defense has had problems with speedy running backs. Players who can get to the corner and find themselves in space have always been a problem for the Vikings to stop. While their recent efforts have been much improved, the ability of the Vikings' outside linebackers to contain Warrick Dunn will be the matchup to watch.
With Michael Vick out of the Falcons' lineup, Dunn has taken on a bigger role as the team's game-breaker from the backfield. While teammate T.J. Duckett is more of a plow horse up the middle, Dunn is a player who will line up both in the backfield and split out as a wide receiver. More than likely, the responsibility to contain him will fall on Crockett and Claiborne.
Dunn isn't your typical type of game-breaking back. In his years at Tampa Bay, he split time with Mike Alstott. Much the same is true in Atlanta, but Dunn is one of those players who is known for three or four dynamic games a year, as the Vikings well know. He's scored two touchdowns in his last three games vs. the Vikings and has posted a pair of 100-yard rushing days, thanks to being able to break off long runs.
For the Vikings to succeed against Atlanta, they must stop the run defensively and force erratic QB Doug Johnson to beat them. While the team is confident it can handle the bullish style of the improving T. J. Duckett, Dunn will be the player they must slow down on the edges. He will be running sweeps and catching swing passes to get open in space. If the Vikings can shut him down, they can go a long way to making the Falcons one-dimensional. If that happens, Atlanta's chance of winning diminishes greatly.
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