I’ve done a lot of opponent previews in my day. Unexpectedly, this week’s preview of the Atlanta Falcons was extraordinarily hard to ideate and execute.
It’s unexpected because the Falcons are a NFC team whom the Vikings play semi-regularly and the roster contains a core of players who’ve been together for several seasons. Also, Atlanta hasn’t had its bye yet, so they’ve played five games and so there is plenty of body of work to study.
It’s hard to get a handle on this team right now for a number of reasons, chief among them that GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn were fired on Monday following the team’s loss to Carolina at home on Sunday. Now, it’s defensive coordinator Raheem Morris who takes over as interim head coach. That’s not the only change to the coaching staff, though. Other changes included:
– LBs coach Jeff Ulbrich being named defensive coordinator
– Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica being fired
– Bernie Parmalee going from RBs coach to special teams coordinator
– Will Harriger going from game management coordinator to RBs coach
Adding mystery to this team is an injury to Julio Jones, who’s missed two of the past three games, and uncharacteristically spotty play from QB Matt Ryan, who had six TDs in the first two games but has thrown only one in the previous three weeks and has only one game with a passer rating above 100.0.
How will the team respond to changes at the highest level of the organization? Will the Falcons respond to Morris’ leadership? Will Jones play? We don’t know the answers to these questions. And we likely won’t know the answers until after Sunday’s game. So that doesn’t help us get ready for the Falcons.
Here’s what we do know about the Falcons (and how it impacts the Vikings), though…
Gurley lookin’ good
RB Todd Gurley was a stud last week, even in the loss. The Falcons handed the ball to their star RB 14 times, and he churned out 121 yards and a TD. He also caught four of five targets on the day. Gurley now has four TDs in his last three games.
The defense has been…generous
Perhaps this was Quinn’s greatest mistake of 2020 – the defense is horrible. It’s a little befuddling because the group has lots of talented players, such as DT Grady Jarrett, LB Deion Jones, DE Takk McKinley and S Keanu Neal.
Unfortunately for this group, the individual parts have been greater than the sum. Atlanta ranks No. 31 in both yards per game allowed (446.0) and points per game allowed (32.2). Since ranking No. 8 in scoring defense in 2017, the Falcons have not finished a season ranked better than 23rd.
The offensive line is better than the numbers suggest
Atlanta ranks 17th in rushing offense, they allowed four sacks to Green Bay two weeks ago and Ryan’s production has taken a sharp downturn the last month or so.
All of that might make you question, without looking deeply into it, the group protecting the QB and opening running lanes for the backs. But Atlanta’s offensive line is quite solid. It will be a formidable challenge for the Vikings defensive line, which is missing its best player (Danielle Hunter), to generate pressure on Ryan and bottle up Gurley and the other RBs.
Atlanta’s pass rush may not have any easier of a time
The Vikings pass protection has been much maligned…for a long time. This year has been no exception. But a matchup against the Falcons toothless pass rush may be what the doctor ordered. Atlanta was impressive in sacking Russell Wilson three times in Week 1, but since then they’ve averaged only a sack per game, which includes zero takedowns of Teddy Bridgewater last week.
Things go south quickly when Kirk Cousins feels pressure, but if the Vikings can give him time then look out because this leaky Falcons defense will have trouble containing the Vikings cast of playmakers in the passing game.