Game Preview: Vikings (9-2) at Falcons (7-4), Fighting Fire with Fire
Week 13: Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons
The Vikings take on the Falcons this Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The game is at noon (CST). The Vikings are 4-1 on the road this season, while the Falcons are 3-2 at home.
Both teams are hot, as the Vikings have won seven straight games and the Falcons have won four of the past five.
The Vikings, still blazing after a Thanksgiving win over the Detroit Lions, have the opportunity to add fuel to their playoff positioning while burning Atlanta’s in the process.
Last week, Atlanta’s offense finally ignited. The Falcons exploded for 516 total yards in their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Julio Jones, the Dirty Birds’ leading pass catcher, scorched the Buccaneers secondary for over 250 receiving yards. The Falcons offense caught fire on third down, going 11 of 14 and improving its league-leading third-down conversion percentage.
In Sunday’s showdown, both teams face a heat check. Looking to douse Atlanta’s flame is an even hotter Minnesota squad.
The Vikings counter with a defense that is best in the NFL at smothering opposing offenses on third-down (28.5%). Through 11 games, the top-5 unit has at times been suffocating. This week, it will be tasked with perhaps its most difficult assignment of the season: extinguishing a prolific NFL offense in its home stadium.
The Vikings defense versus the Falcons offense; it’s a great matchup on paper. Let’s take a look at how the numbers stack up, five storylines to follow, matchup history, the injury reports for both teams, game implications, and a Borman Breakdown complete with a score prediction.
From a numbers standpoint, the teams have had surprisingly similar seasons.
In terms of offensive production, the Vikings rank 5th in the NFL with 375.7 yards per game and the Falcons rank 6th with 373.4 yards per game. The Vikings average 251.3 passing yards per game and Atlanta averages 256.5. On the ground, the Vikings average 124.5 rushing yards per game while the Falcons average 116.8.
I mentioned previously the Falcons offense ranks first in the league in converting third downs to first downs at 48.1%. What I didn’t mention was the Vikings offense ranks second with a 45.6% third-down conversion rate.
On the defensive side of the ball the Vikings allow 290.4 total yards per game (5th in the NFL) and the Falcons give up 321.8 total yards per game (ranked 10th). Through the air, the Vikings defense gives up 214.9 passing yards per game (11th) and the Falcons allow 207.9 (8th).
In terms of sacks, both Minnesota and Atlanta rank 9th in the NFL with 30, but that’s where the similarities end. When it comes to interceptions the Vikings have nine (tied for 16th) while the Falcons only have three (31st).
The Vikings defense has engulfed opposing running attacks, allowing 75.5 rush yards per game. That’s 2nd-best in the NFL. The Falcons run defense has flickered, allowing 113.9 yards per game on the ground (20th).
Storylines to Follow
Xavier Rhodes vs. Julio Jones
Xavier Rhodes had his worst game of the season last week against the Lions. According to BJ Reidell’s Week 12 coverage chart, he gave up seven receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two penalties. While he rebounded with a very crucial fourth-quarter interception, his poor game left many fans wondering if he was completely healthy. He suffered a calf injury in the Vikings’ Week 11 victory over the Rams. The 10-day gap between games and an absence on the injury report should erase those concerns.
Meanwhile, Jones hauled in 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Buccaneers. That’s a pretty decent day. For the season, he has 66 catches for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns.
During the last two matchups against the Vikings, Jones’ production is as follows:
- 2014 – 6 catches for 82 yards on 8 targets
- 2015 – 5 catches for 56 yards on 7 targets
The Vikings have been successful in limiting Jones’ production, specifically when he’s covered by Rhodes. Take a look at BJ Reidell’s Rhodes vs. Jones coverage chart, via his Twitter feed. Keeping Rhodes fixated on Jones will be of utmost importance for the Vikings defense.
This is a very crucial matchup. If Rhodes is able to shut down Jones, the rest of the Vikings defense can focus on stopping Atlanta’s other playmakers.
Return of a playmaker
The Falcons have a playmaker returning to their offense this weekend. Running back Devonta Freeman has cleared the concussion protocol and is scheduled to play Sunday. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. He will join fellow back Tevin Coleman, who has played very well in Freeman’s two-game absence, to reunite Atlanta’s two-headed rushing attack.
Vikings secondary vs. other Falcons pass catchers
Mohamed Sanu threw a 51-yard bomb to Jones last week, but I don’t expect to see that kind of trickery against the Vikings. I do, however, expect to see Sanu getting a fair amount of targets from Ryan. Sanu leads the Falcons with four receiving touchdowns this season and is second on the team in targets (61), receptions (45), and receiving yards (452). Sanu operates best in the slot, but lines up often on the outside, where Trae Waynes will likely shadow Sanu for most of the game.
Waynes is in the midst of a solid season. He’s fifth on the team with 51 tackles and he has two interceptions to go along with eight passes defended. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade is a solid 74.0.
Taylor Gabriel is another receiver the Vikings need to keep their eye on. Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Terence Newman will be tasked with covering the speedy receiver, who has 28 catches for 326 yards with one touchdown. Don’t let the stats fool you though — last season, Gabriel averaged 16.5 yards per catch and had six touchdowns.
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper should see a handful of targets as well. For the season, the 23-year-old has 36 catches for 417 yards with three touchdowns. The Vikings’ safeties, Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, must keep a lid on Atlanta’s offense so no big plays are allowed over the top of the defense.
Vikings pass rush vs. Matt Ryan
The Falcons offensive line does not give up very many sacks. For the season, they’ve given up 16 sacks (5th-best in the NFL). Left tackle Jake Matthews has improved throughout the season, and according to FoxSports.com, has given up just two sacks. He has a grade of 79.0 from PFF. Center Alex Mack has given up zero. He’s PFF’s third-rated center (88.4).
The Falcons are also enjoying strong seasons from left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
Atlanta’s offense flourished against Tampa Bay last week. That’s not surprising considering the team they faced, the Buccaneers, are last in the NFL in sacks (15).
The Vikings represent a considerable upgrade in that department. Everson Griffen is near the NFL lead with 12 sacks and his 23-year-old teammate, Danielle Hunter, has six sacks. Run-stuffing defensive tackle Linval Joseph even has 2.5 sacks of his own.
The 2016 NFL MVP, Matt Ryan, led the Falcons to the Super Bowl last year. This season, Ryan has been very steady. He is 244 of 361 (67.6%) for 2,884 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has a QBR of 69.6 and a passer rating of 97.2. Despite the underwhelming numbers, Ryan is PFF’s second-rated (89.8) quarterback and has operated well under pressure.
If there’s one team that can rattle the poise of Ryan, it’s the Vikings and their Mike Zimmer-run defense.
Case Keenum vs. Falcons pass rush
The Vikings offense, led by NFC Player of the Month Case Keenum, has transformed into a top-five force. On the season, Keenum is 218 of 330 (66.1%) for 2,476 yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also has 103 rushing yards with a touchdown on the ground. He has a QBR of 78.8 and a passer rating of 96.2.
The Vikings offensive line has been a key factor in Keenum’s success. The unit has been a strength all season long and is tied (with the L.A. Chargers) for the league lead in fewest sacks allowed (12). However, the group gave up two sacks in last week’s victory over the Lions and they’ll face an even stiffer test Sunday in Atlanta.
The Falcons have a fast and physical defense. A key to their success this season has been rushing the quarterback. They like to deploy a rotation of pass rushers. In fact, the Falcons defense has four pass rushers with at least four sacks this season. Adrian Clayborn leads Atlanta with eight sacks, Vic Beasley Jr. has four (he had 15.5 sacks last season), Brooks Reed has four, and rookie Takkarist McKinley has four.
Defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett have contributed as well, each logging 1.5 sacks.
Keenum will need to find a solid rapport with the offensive line. He’ll have to step up in the pocket to avoid pass rushers closing in from the outside, complete passes when forced out of the pocket, and scramble when the situation calls for it. These have been strengths for No. 7 all season, but avoiding the Falcons pass rush will undoubtedly test Keenum’s awareness and agility.
- In the last regular season matchup between the two teams in 2015, the Vikings beat the Falcons (at Atlanta) 20 to 10.
- Minnesota leads the all-time series over Atlanta 18-11.
OUT: RT Mike Remmers (low back) – This will be the fourth consecutive missed game for Remmers. He will be replaced by Rashod Hill.
QUESTIONABLE: LB Eric Kendricks (hip) – According to Chris Tomasson’s Twitter feed, Kendricks is expected to play Sunday.
OUT: CB Desmond Trufant (concussion) – Trufant has been ruled out of Sunday’s game. He is Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback. That’s very good news for the Vikings, specifically Keenum and his top receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
QUESTIONABLE: LB Sean Weatherspoon (illness)
The 9-2 Vikings are not only one of the chief favorites to make the NFC playoffs (1/8), but the odds-on favorite to win the NFC North division title (1/3), according to most sports books monitored by mytopsportsbooks.com.
While questions remain about Case Keenum‘s ability to lead the team in the postseason, the defense is dominant when healthy, Adam Thielen looks like an All-Pro, and Mike Zimmer has this team playing to its strengths.
A Minnesota win over Atlanta could clinch a playoff birth for the Vikings and give them a solid chance of hosting at least one home playoff game.
The 7-4 Falcons are third in the NFC South (behind New Orleans and Carolina), but are right in the thick of the NFC Playoff race. After the Falcons play the Vikings, Atlanta has four straight divisional matchups, including two games against New Orleans. Those games will be crucial in shaping the NFC Playoff picture.
The Vikings will look to establish the run early and often, just as they did in the Detroit game (hopefully the play calling on first-down won’t be as predictable).
With both of their running backs healthy and an offense that relies heavily on play action, Atlanta will attempt to do the same. If the Vikings defense stamps out the Falcons rushing attack and continues their third-down dominance, I really like their chances.
In order for the Vikings to earn a victory over the 2016 NFC Champions, they will have to utilize their superior run defense to make Atlanta’s offense one-dimensional. Against Freeman and Coleman, that’s easier said than done, but doing so will allow the Vikings to take advantage of their superior pass rush as well as favorable match ups in the secondary against the Falcons receivers.
Both teams defend the pass well, which will limit scoring to a degree. Plus, Matty Ice hasn’t thrown more than two touchdowns in a game the entire season. I predict a big turnover late in the game will be the difference in this matchup.
PREDICTION: Vikings blow out the Falcons flame
Vikings 24, Falcons 20
Tight end Kyle Rudolph matches up well against the young Atlanta linebackers. He’s tied for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns.
Look for safety Harrison Smith, in the midst of a Pro Bowl season, to be a difference maker Sunday. Through 11 games, he has 57 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and 9 passes defended.
Stay tuned to Vikings Territory before and after the game for updates and immediate post-game reaction.