The Vikings head into their bye week beaten up, undermanned and looking more like a team that will be drafting high in April than playing deep into January. A trip to Atlanta to face a Falcons team convinced this is the year they can make it to the Super Bowl, the odds are going to be stacked against the Vikes – and for good reason.
If you were to ask fantasy football owners about Michael Vick, you would likely be told that he's an underachiever. But ask Ted Cottrell or any defensive coordinator the same question and you will get an entirely different answer. Vick's speed is his primary calling card. The only time he played the Vikings, he threw for 173 yards and a touchdown and ran for 173 yards and two TDs, including the game-winning TD in overtime.
Vick has been an intregal part of the running game nicknamed "DVD" – which stands for (Warrick) Dunn, Vick and (T.J.) Duckett. All three are key components to the Falcons rushing attack that has averaged 35 carries a game. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL with three players with 100-plus yards rushing – Dunn with 268 yards, Vick with 175 and Duckett with 108. Last week vs. Buffalo was almost a textbook version of the Atlanta rushing monster. Dunn rushed 15 times for 97 yards, Vick ran nine times for 64 yards and Duckett ran 12 times for 75 yards and a TD in a 24-16 win. The Vikings have done a successful job of bottling up Dunn. He has five TDs in 10 career games, but in two games with Atlanta, he has just eight rushes for 29 yards and a TD and six catches for 83 yards. Duckett has been a plowhorse in his two games vs. Minnesota, rushing 22 times for 106 yards. If the Vikings are to beat the Falcons, containing the running game will be critical.
With all the talent running the ball, throwing it hasn't been as much of a priority. Vick's go-to receiver has been TE Alge Crumpler, who has 10 catches for 142 yards. Considering the Vikings' lack of consistency in defending tight ends – allowing 15 TE touchdowns in the last 15 games – he will have to be a key player to watch Sunday. Aside from Crumpler, the receiver corps doesn't jump out at you. Michael Jenkins is a second-year player that the Falcons are convinced can develop into a go-to guy for Vick for years to come – so much so that the team released Peerless Price in the preseason to open up more opportunities. He has shown flashes of big-play ability, averaging 18.8 yards per reception. He's joined by possession receiver Brian Finneran, who leads the team in receptions, veteran Dez White and rookie Roddy White – the Falcons' first-round pick in 2005. Between them, they could develop into a solid crew, but have yet to show any consistency to take the passing offense to the next level.
The offensive line appears to be a product of its own system – better at run blocking than pass protection. Left tackle Kevin Shaffer is a dominant run blocker who forces DEs where he wants them, but is suspect in pass protection. Free agent guard signee Matt Lehr, All-Pro caliber center Todd McClure and fifth-year guard Kynan Forney give the Falcons a solid threesome up the middle, and right tackle Todd Weiner, who protects the left-handed Vick's blind side, has shown a lot of improvement. Their primary strength is their conditioning – they're expected to block on 40 or more running plays and wear down opponents – which could cause problems for a injury-depleted Vikings defensive front.
While the Falcons have made the playoffs in both of the last two full seasons Vick has played, it got where it was in large part to a strong defense. The Falcons have playmakers in DEs Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith and DT Rod Coleman, who leads the team with three sacks. But, the Falcons have struggled to consistently stop the run. In their only loss, Shaun Alexander ran 28 times for 144 yards and last week Willis McGahee tore them up for 140 yards on 27 carries. While Mewelde Moore isn't viewed in their league, you can bet the Vikings will look to establish the run if the opportunities present themselves.
The linebackers are the strength of the Falcons defense with tackling machines Keith Brooking, Ed Hartwell and Demorrio Williams. The three of them have been tackling monsters all year – combining for 25 tackles last week alone, but that is also viewed as an indictment of the defensive line, which has allowed a lot of running plays to reach the second level of the defense. The Vikings will try to keep this group off-balance and use their own aggressiveness against them with play-action and misdirection plays.
The secondary of the Falcons has been hit with injuries, but is expected to be at full strength Sunday. DeAngelo Hall is the headliner, a former first-round pick the Vikings had their eye on when was drafted last year. He is a shutdown type corner who will likely play the right side of the field regardless who is set out to that side of the Vikings offense. Corey Webster missed last week's game but is expected back, as is eight-year veteran Allen Rossum. The safeties are solid, but will make mistakes. Bryan Scott is being touted as the next big thing at safety for the Falcons, while Keion Carpenter had to fight off a strong training camp challenge to keep his starting job. The Falcons are deep in the secondary and will likely switch up players and coverages to keep fresh players on the field and confuse Daunte Culpepper.
The Falcons are not going to be a pushover, but it should be noted that the Vikings have never lost in the Georgia Dome and the road team has won each of the last six meetings. The Vikings have a chance to go into the bye and heal up on a two-game winning streak. A loss and there could be some finger-pointing as the Vikings finished the third of their four games with the NFC South. They're rightfully an underdog by six points and will come in limping, but this is the kind of game that could turn around the Vikings' season with a victory.
Running Game Key to Victory
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