When Atlanta lost its first two games of the season — heartbreakers to the Packers in overtime and to the Bears when a missed field goal cost them a win — many thought the Falcons would be an also-ran in the NFC.
How far from the truth has that become? When the Vikings meet the Falcons at the Metrodome Sunday, they will be facing one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Argument could be made that the Falcons should be coming into the Metrodome with a 10-1 record — including the two opening losses and a tie with Pittsburgh that again was denied victory by a missed field goal.
The Falcons have a much different look from the last time they came to the Metrodome — when they beat the Vikings in overtime in the 1998 NFC title game. The biggest change is at quarterback, where Mike Vick is making believers that he could be the most exciting quarterback this league has ever seen. With the arm strength of John Elway, the quick release of Dan Marino and the running ability of a Pro Bowl wide receiver, Vick demands a spy be kept on him at all times. He is one of the few quarterbacks who can hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs. Some may look at the stats and think that perhaps Vick is more hype than substance. In the first 10 games, he had just seven TD passes, but he can keep drives going with his running ability — 613 yards and six TDs. Stopping Vick is Job One.
The next problem is going to be stopping the running game. The Falcons completely overhauled the position in the offseason, signing free agent Warrick Dunn and drafting T.J. Duckett. Dunn has been incredible when not sharing time — Duckett has been out of the lineup with injuries twice this year. When both are healthy, Duckett has been a bruising runner like the man Dunn shared time with in Tampa, Mike Alstott. Both bring their own skills to the table — a 21st century Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris.
The receiver corps is far less intimidating. The Falcons are still trying to add depth to a weak position, going with Shawn Jefferson and Brian Finneran at wideout, and Reggie Kelly and Alge Crumpler at tight end. After letting Terance Mathis go, free agent Willie Jackson didn't work out, so Trevor Gaylor steps in as the No. 3 receiver. However, these options don't scare defensive coordinators.
Assigned to protect Vick and create for Dunn and Duckett is an offensive line that is pedestrian but improving. With vets on the outside in tackles Bob Whitfield and Todd Weiner and youth on the inside — guards Travis Claridge and Kynan Forney and center Todd McClure — the Falcons have a mix of youth a veteran savvy. While Whitfield is perhaps the only known player of the group to many football fans, this was seen as a team weakness heading into the season but with time and health could become a position of strength.
The defense has been up and down this season. Allowing three of their first 11 opponents to score 34 or more points, seven of the others have been held to 17 or fewer. It is a defense that can be burned by the pass, allows too many rushing yards, but doesn't give up many TDs on the ground.
The difference comes up front, where Dan Reeves installed a 3-4 defense that is being modified on the fly. Patrick Kerney has been moved from his anticipated spot at linebacker to defensive end, joining Brady Smith, who was expected to be a backup this season. The only guy still in the mix from training camp to now is nose tackle Ed Jasper, who is undersized at 292 pounds but strong and effective.
The key to any 3-4 is the active linebacker corps. Again, the Falcons have re-tooled here. Keith Brooking is the rock in the middle, joined inside by John Holecek, who may not play because of injury. They're flanked by second-year backer Matt Stewart and vet Sam Rogers Thierry on the outside. They will be asked not only to stop Michael Bennett but contain the short crossing routes of the passing game — both for tight ends and wide receivers. Aside from Brooking, the other players can be exploited, creating a potential mismatch in specific situations.
The secondary is a strength, especially at cornerback. Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan are getting old — Ambrose is in his 11th year, Buchanan in his 10th — but both are still very good in man and zone coverage. At safety, Keion Carpenter is the baby of the group in his fourth year, joined by strong safety Gerald McBurrows — an eight-year vet. This group has struggled against speed receivers and very big WRs this season, but they are being counted on heavily to continue to produce because backup help like Allen Rossum, Juran Bolden and Johndale Carty haven't shown the ability to take away a starting job.
The Vikings are at a critical point in their 2002 season. After Sunday, three of the final four games will be played on the road. The home schedule after the Falcons is comprised of only the Dolphins — another team looking to make a playoff run. For the Vikings to impress home fans like they did the last time at the Metrodome with a convincing win over Green Bay, they will need maximum effort or some fans may want to jump ship.
Michael Vick vs. Greg Biekert — There are several matchups to consider, especially the speed receivers of the Vikings vs. an old Falcons secondary, but clearly the most game-altering pairing will be Atlanta QB Mike Vick and Vikings MLB Greg Biekert.
While it has become common practice for a team to assign a spy to Vick because of his incredible scrambling ability, most teams have opted to use an outside linebacker to get that done. However, with the Vikings having problems with the OLB position and Biekert calling the defenses, his responsibility will be to keep a lane in between himself and Vick.
With the Vikings expected to use Biekert as their spy, expect to see plenty of play-fakes to RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. The Falcons are likely to employ running schemes designed to get Biekert moving from his MLB spot in the center of the field by running outside the tackles. If he remains in his position too long, the Falcons will have a numbers advantage. If he gets aggressive, a fake handoff to a running back that gets Biekert following the play will be enough to open up big plays downfield and let Vick get out of containment.
A running quarterback brings an entirely new set of problems and issues for a defense to deal with. Many think the NFL has never seen a player who can make as many big plays as Vick. The mere threat of him running can get safeties to move up and linebackers to break their containment assignments. That opens up the deep passing game and gives Vick a chance to make plays with his legs.
Biekert will be the ideal player for the Vikings to put in the spy role, since he practiced with another scrambler in Rich Gannon every day while with the Raiders. However, Vick brings a set of problems to the role of QB that many defenses have yet to see, and the extent to which Biekert can keep Vick in the pocket will affect the game's outcome.
Falcons Dangerous With Newfound Offense
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