Falcons Preview + Jaren Hall’s Opportunity
The Vikings are entering a strange new NFL world on Sunday in Atlanta when they play their first game in six years with Kirk Cousins not in the lineup due to a season-ending injury (he missed one game when the playoffs were clinched in 2019 and one game with Covid in 2021.
Falcons Preview + Jaren Hall’s Opportunity
The Achilles tear Cousins suffered in Green Bay has made for a tumultuous week at Vikings headquarters as Kevin O’Connell prepares rookie fifth-rounder Jaren Hall for his first career start and teaches the offense to veteran QB Joshua Dobbs, who was acquired from Arizona at the trade deadline on Tuesday. Hall has a great opportunity to seize the starting job with a solid performance, but it’s more likely Dobbs will take over against New Orleans at home next week, or perhaps Nick Mullens is ready to return from his back injury that landed him on IR.
The Atlanta Falcons (Sunday’s opponent) have QB issues of their own as the starter in the first eight games for the 4-4 Falcons — Desmond Ridder — has been benched after he led the offense to only three first-half points and had his league-leading 12th turnover on a lost fumble while being sacked five times in the Falcons’ 28-23 loss in Tennessee.
Taylor Heinicke, who the Vikings beat in Washington last season, gets the start on Sunday after he threw for 175 yards and one TD in a second-half rally that fell short. Heinicke passed for only 149 yards in the 2022 game against the Vikings, and he had two TD passes and one interception.
It’s a big game against an Atlanta team the Vikings could be competing with for a wild card spot, and the first tie-breaker is head-to-head games. The Vikings are seeking their fourth straight win and have an opportunity to move within 1 ½ games of the Lions in the NFC North with a victory that would make them an impressive 4-1 on the road.
Here are my keys to a Vikings win over the Falcons:
1. Run the ball better: the Vikings rank 31st in rushing, and the best way to help a young QB in his first start is to have a good running game to reduce the pressure on Hall. O’Connell needs to keep it conservative and stick with the run against a Falcons D that is middle of the pack in run defense.
As I’ve said for a couple of weeks, Cam Akers should be the starter, with relief from Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler. Akers is a better receiver out of the backfield, and Hall may be looking more at the short passing game instead of throwing a lot downfield, even though he needs to take some deep shots against a shaky secondary.
I expect to see a lot of bootlegs and roll outs with run-pass options for Hall, who is more mobile than Cousins.
2. O-line protect Hall, so he has time to take a few deep shots against a suspect secondary: the Falcons had a bad day on Sunday against another rookie QB in Will Levis of the Titans, who passed for 238 yards and four TDs in his first NFL start. DeAndre Hopkins caught three TD passes, including deep balls of 61 and 47 yards. While the game plan will likely call for a lot of short passes to the backs and T.J. Hockenson, who is a big target for Hall, O’Connell should call a few deep shots for Hall to try and hit hot Jordan Addison, who ranks second in the league with seven TD receptions.
3. Be ready for a lot of blitzes from Atlanta: The Vikings should expect a heavy blitz package against their rookie QB, so the O-line has to be ready, along with Josh Oliver and C.J. Ham staying in to max protect. The good news is the Falcons have only 15 sacks this season, which ranks next to last.
4. Win the turnover battle: Atlanta’s minus 7 (second worst in the league) is actually worse than the Vikings (minus 5), mostly due to Ridder’s 12 giveaways. The Vikings won the turnover margin against the Bears and 49ers and were even against the Packers, which tells us a lot about why they’ve won three straight. That needs to continue in Atlanta, and I expect the Vikings defense to force several turnovers even with Heinicke replacing Ridder.
5. Defense stop the run and get after Heinicke with Flores staying aggressive: the Falcons have the 10th ranked rushing attack, and rookie Bijan Robinson is the talented eighth overall pick who ranks ninth in the league with 466 rushing yards (5.1-yard average, 1 TD) and also is a receiving threat (26 catches, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The Vikings interior D-line has improved tremendously in recent weeks against the run, with Harrison Phillips leading the charge, holding the 49ers to 65 yards and the Packers to 74 yards (34 by Love). Jordan Hicks, Harrison Smith, Cam Bynum, and Josh Metellus also must continue their strong recent play to contain Robinson.
The Vikings have feasted on young QBs the past three weeks in Justin Fields, Brock Purdy, and Jordan Love. Heinicke has been in the league with four teams since 2017, so he has some experience (25 career starts), but he is not an elite QB, and the Falcons gave up six sacks last week to the Titans. Heinicke figures to get the ball out quicker than Ridder, but there should be plenty of opportunities for Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, and the Vikings blitzers to get after Heinicke. The Falcons have given up 26 sacks, fourth worst in the league.
If Heinicke has time to throw, he has two excellent targets the Vikings must cover in first-rounders Drake London at WR (who is battling a groin injury) and Kyle Pitts at TE.
I’d like to see third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon as a starting corner after Akayleb Evans had a bad game in Green Bay with a pass interference in the end zone, and he was beaten several times, including for a TD. Blackmon was the Vikings best corner last week, with three passes defensed. Overall, the corners remain a big concern going forward, but fortunately for the Vikings, their safeties are playing great lately.
6. Joseph gets back on track and no special teams miscues: with a rookie QB, the Vikings can’t afford to miss opportunities for points, as was the case with Joseph’s missed 42-yarder to kill a good opening drive in Green Bay. He has made only six of his last 10 field goal attempts and 5 of his last 7 PATs. That won’t cut it when the margin for error is lessened without Cousins.
The kicking teams must improve after Jay Ward lined up offsides for the second time this season, which gave the Packers three points last week. Ivan Pace’s hold nullified a Chandler a kickoff return TD, and bad interior blocking led to a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. Joseph also had a kickoff out of bounds to set the Packers up with great field position. Again, the Vikings can’t afford to make these kinds of mistakes in what’s likely to be a close game.
The Falcons are 4 ½ point favorites, which clearly would not be the case if Cousins was playing. I think the Vikings rally around Hall and make enough plays on offense while the defense pressures Heinicke into a couple of turnovers. Joseph comes through indoors in Atlanta, and the Vikings win 20-17 to get over .500 for the first time this season.
About the Dobbs trade & the Cleveland trade to Jacksonville:
I think the Josh Dobbs acquisition is an ok move for a QB with some experience and the ability to run (third most rushing yards this season among QBs–258 yards and 3 TDs). I think Andy Dalton or Ryan Tannehill (if healthy) were potentially better choices as more experienced vets whom the Vikings could’ve traded for. Getting Dobbs for a sixth-round pick and conditional seventh-rounder tells me there’s an excellent chance Kirk Cousins is the team’s choice to return if he heals up well and his contract situation can be resolved.
O’Connell indicated his preference in his media sessions this week by saying, “Kirk Cousins is going to be healthy again. I know he’s going to be a free agent after this season, but Kirk knows how I feel about him, and that’ll be something that will hopefully work itself out. I think he was playing as well as anybody in the National Football League.”
Re-signing Cousins also should help in the extension talks with Justin Jefferson, who has flourished with Cousins throwing to him the past 3 ½ seasons. And I’m confident Cousins wants to stay with O’Connell in a system he knows and with the great supporting cast he has on offense with Jefferson, Hockenson, Addison, and K.J. Osborn, along with an improving O-line anchored by great bookend tackles in Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw. And with a young family, Cousins wouldn’t relish a move to a new city.
But I also think the Vikings will draft a QB early (likely in the first round) in next April’s draft as Cousins’ potential successor (unless Hall lights it up a la Brock Purdy last year over the rest of the season).
And I expect to see less demand on the free agent market for Cousins coming off the Achilles injury, which should help the Vikings in the negotiation.
As for Ezra Cleveland being traded to Jacksonville, I don’t think that was a wise move during the season. It’s good news for Jaguars QB Trevor Larence, who has been sacked 19 times this season (9th most in the league), as Cleveland brings starting experience and adds quality depth. Cleveland was the Vikings’ second-round pick in 2020, and he was a four-year starter until he was inactive the past two games with a foot sprain.
Dalton Risner replaced Cleveland in the lineup and has played well enough that the Vikings deemed Cleveland tradeable, although it’s somewhat surprising that they would let him go now (instead of keeping him for depth) and at the cheap price of a sixth-round pick when if he left in free agency next March, they would likely get at least the sixth round pick they just acquired.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The NFL probably regrets scheduling the Chiefs and Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany, with an 8:30 am CT start on Sunday (6:30 am on the West Coast) for an exciting matchup of two division leaders at 6-2 with top offenses (Miami is No. 1, K.C. No. 4). I think Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs bounce back from their poor performance in losing at Denver last Sunday.
2. I like the surging Bengals to beat the up-and-down Bills in Cincinnati on Sunday night in a great QB battle between Joe Burrow (healthy now and coming off a tremendous performance in the win over the 49ers) and Josh Allen.
3. The Cowboys head to Philly off a strong offensive game against the Rams, and the Eagles secondary has been shaky, but I’ll pick Philly at home in this big NFC East showdown with big games from Jalen Hurts and A.J. Brown, who is on a tear lately.
4. My winners in trade deadline deals include San Francisco in stealing Chase Young from Washington for what will be a late third-round pick for the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, who has recovered from his knee problems and is playing well. The Commanders trading defensive end Montez Sweat for a second-round pick that will likely be top three in the round is a good move for a free-agent-to-be.
The Bills helped their secondary and the Vikings by trading a third-rounder (and getting a fifth back) for Green Bay’s Rasul Douglas, who is a good, feisty corner and is needed after the loss of Tre’Davious White (another player with a torn Achilles along with Cousins and Aaron Rodgers). I also thought the Eagles helped their problematic secondary by trading late picks for a former Pro Bowl safety in Kevin Byard from the Titans, and the Giants did well to get second and fifth-round picks from the Seahawks for 29-year-old DE Leonard Williams.
The worst moves were the Bears trading that high second-round pick for Sweat without having an extension in place (unless they plan to franchise him). They made a similar bad trade last year by sending a second-round pick to Pittsburgh for WR Chase Claypool, who lasted 13 games with 18 catches before he was traded to Miami for a pittance (a sixth-rounder for Claypool and a seventh).
As I said earlier, the Commanders blew it with the Young trade for a third-rounder when they probably would’ve gotten that much as a compensatory pick if he left in free agency (and why wouldn’t they keep him after dealing Sweat unless they’re loading up on draft picks to move up and take a QB next April?).
I also think the Chiefs should have traded for a wide receiver such as Marquise Brown of the Cardinals to help Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce (since we know they couldn’t get the disgruntled Davante Adams from the division-rival Raiders).
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Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl