The leaves haven’t turned colors yet, but it is time. The breezes have turned a little cooler and the days are shortening. That means the 2019 NFL season is upon us and expectations for the Minnesota Vikings (and a lot of other teams) are sky high. The Vikings host the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday at 12 noon, which seems about the right time for a showdown.
The Falcons come into Minneapolis with some of those great expectations of their own. The Vikings may made it to the NFC Championship in 2017, but the Falcons were there in 2016 and were a reception (in the endzone) away from facing the Vikings in that 2017 game. The Vikings fell out of the playoffs last season but Atlanta (who, like the Vikings in 2017, were hoping to be the first team to host the Super Bowl in their own stadium last season) made it to the divisional round in 2018.
This is a heavyweight battle about to take place at The Vault on Sunday, and, in addition to a win, setting the tone for the season is at stake. The Vikings need to win their home games in 2019 as their road schedule is fairly tough (with games in Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle and against the Chargers on top of their divisional road games), and they can set up their season with a big opening-game statement.
Many think that should happen. Aside from all the dubious preseason predictions of Super Bowl winners (Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports have the Chiefs beating the Vikes in SB LIV), some of the scribes on this site believe that the Vikings’ recent dominion over the quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones by Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is going to extend to another matchup on Sunday.
I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on that notion (past performance can sometimes predict future results), but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I expect Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and his chargers to come into this game with plenty of new wrinkles for the Z-fense. And Ryan, when he has time, is always a tough quarterback to beat.
“Well he’s got a great arm,” Zimmer said of Ryan. “He’s really accurate, he’s really smart, he’s a really good competitor. I think the other part, he moves pretty well. I mean I wouldn’t call him an elusive runner, but he moves in the pocket and he’s got a lot of weapons. He’s always been a tough matchup. He’s a terrific quarterback.”
In addition, there is more to be concerned about. First off, it is the first game of the regular season (and injuries certainly derailed the Falcons playoffs hope last year) so they’re very healthy—as all are most team at this junction. Devonta Freeman is back and ready to roll with his feet and his hands, and the receiving corps behind Jones is as formidable as ever—Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu will eat you up while you are focusing on Julio. Hopefully, Xavier Rhodes is up to the task of another afternoon of blanketing Jones—since he hasn’t looked like this preseason.
“I think part of it is that we’ve been working real hard on technique with him and the things that he has to do from there,” Zimmer said. “I feel like he’s had a good preseason. The one ball he got beat on against Arizona was a miscommunication, but I think he’s got a chance to have a good year.”
But the Vikings will be in this game, and they are ready and anxious to put that terribly disappointing 8-7-1 record of the 2018 campaign behind them. They have made some interesting moves around the cutdown deadline, which may not pay off on Sunday, but could bear some fruit down the road.
The signing of former Washington receiver Josh Doctson will take a little time, but could become the perfect complement to this Pro Bowl receiving corps of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Doctson has the size, strength and jumping skills to win contested 50/50 balls in the endzone—something we hoped Laquon Treadwell could have done but that never really materialized.
“Well, we hope that he brings some size and speed,” Zimmer said of Doctson. “He’s a great jumper, athletic. So we hope that he comes in here and he’s got to learn the system obviously, and do the things that he’s capable of.”
The Vikings will look to exploit a defense that was 28th it total yards (384.5 per game) last season and 25th in points allowed (26.4 per game). The Falcons were not great in either defensive category—ranked 27th in passing yards allowed (259.6 per game) and 24th in rushing (124.9 yards allowed per game). Defensive end Adrian Clayborn returns after a season with the New England Patriots and linebackers Deion Jones’ and Keanu Neal’s return to health should help. But the Vikings, with an improved offensive line (we will wait to see how improved) should be able to counteract it (Zimmer said right tackle Brian O’Neill will play on Sunday).
The new run-first offense under Kevin Stefanski and his “Yoda” Gary Kubiak should find some room for Dalvin (please stay healthy all season) Cook to make hay. All the Purple running backs can catch the ball out of the backfield, which hopefully will allow quarterback Kirk Cousins (if he produces the touch and finesse to hit them in stride) some breathing room from defenses that ignored the Vikings running game last season and rushed heck out of him.
That will be the key to this game and to the 2019 seasons for Minnesota. Protect Cousins and give him time to stretch the field, plus keep defenses honest with a decent running game that also keeps Zimmer’s defense rested and off the field. (That’s not very intricate nor deep divey in analysis (not my jam), but widely effective. They didn’t do that last season and ended up watching the playoffs at the 19th hole of their favorite golf courses.)
But that whole plan, of course, is predicated upon the Vikings defense still being the unit that has been mostly top five in the league since Zimmer came to town. Not a guarantee. They did retain Anthony Barr; they will get back Mike Hughes (practicing on Wednesday) eventually; Linval Joseph is back from two offseason surgeries and hopefully “hungry”; the cornerback room is a little light due to Hughes and Horton Hill, but the addition of former Chiefs CB Mark Fields should help; and Everson Griffen has a chance to return to form. Plenty of conditions on a unit that is another year older, but another year wiser in Zimmer’s system. They will be the motor that propels this team back to deep playoff run.
So, how then will it go on Sunday, the game that sets up the rest of the season. The Z-fense started slow last year and that set a bad precedent with a bad tie (felt like a loss) with the Packers and an even worse game with the Buffalo Bills. That won’t happen this year. The defense remembers (certainly Zimmer does). The offense will help this season. A decent running game will set up everything the Vikings want to do.
And despite the unbelievably convoluted and circuitous route of the special teams (specifically the kicking game) to this particular point in the world, they will be fine with Dan Bailey kicking the ball through the uprights—which he will a few times on Sunday, including the game winner.