With no room left for error, Atlanta faces a make-or-break stretch starting against the Minnesota Vikings. The Falcons could change their fortunes greatly by winning on Sunday, as they would have the tiebreaker over a likely playoff team. Minnesota has remaining games against Seattle, Arizona, and Green Bay, and the wild card chase could drastically change, if Atlanta can rediscover their winning ways. Another loss would lead to a potential elimination game against Tampa Bay, unfortunately.
It doesn't help that Devonta Freeman and Leonard Hankerson will likely miss this game. Both players are needed for this offense to not be ordinary. With a top five defense looming, Atlanta needs all their weapons to score at least 20 points. They'll need to help counter an outstanding front seven that features countless playmakers. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Containing a vicious front seven
Despite having the best running back in the league, Minnesota's biggest asset has to be their front seven. Only Denver can also boat that they have such an athletic, powerful, and disruptive unit. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks allow Mike Zimmer so much freedom to improvise different blitzes. Sam Monson wrote an excellent piece about their destruction of Detroit last month. They used several A-gap and C-gap blitzes to send offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to the unemployment line. While Atlanta is far more organized and has a better offensive line compared to Detroit, they like to use plenty of play action and roll out designs to escape pressure.
With an inexperienced center like Mike Person, Zimmer will look to exploit Atlanta's offensive line frailties. Even without blitzing, Minnesota is more than capable of generating pressure. Linval Joesph has arguably been the most dominant 4-3 defensive tackle in the NFL this season. Everson Griffen and Brian Robson are one of the better edge rushing duos in the league, and Sharrif Floyd continues to emerge as one of the top youngest interior tackles in the league. With players such as Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder struggling in recent games, this will be a daunting task.
Kyle Shanahan will obviously play a crucial part by designing certain plays to counter Zimmer's blitzes. Utilizing more screens could be a solution, although Shanahan has been hesitant to call them. He has also been resistant towards running more no-huddle, which could be the best way to wear out Minnesota's front seven. The "offensive guru" needs to play more to Matt Ryan's strengths following this losing streak.
Let's play best running back against best run defense
An awful team can have a top-five pass defense because their run defense is dreadful and the offense can't score enough points to keep games competition. But many analysts haven't given Atlanta's number one ranked run defense much appreciation. Besides a disastrous first half against Dallas, the run defense has been absolutely stout. Paul Soliai has looked revived under Dan Quinn by playing more as a one-tech or nose tackle. That has always best suited the former Dolphin.
Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson have been major assets for the team's base defense, as well. This run defense deserves more recognition, which can be further earned against the league's best running back. Peterson has been bottled up more often this season than in recent years. That is more indicative of a mediocre offensive line missing Phil Loadholt. Soliai and Ra'Shede Hageman will need to take on blockers consistently, as open-field situations with Peterson against Paul Worrilow are far from ideal. It's no secret that Minnesota's offense remains heavily dependent of him, and in all three losses, Peterson did not receive more than 16 carries. They'll have to get him rolling.
Exploiting an offensive line full of liabilities
There are very few flaws on this Vikings team. Besides inconsistent cornerback play, the offensive line has been their biggest problem. No quarterback has been more pressured than Teddy Bridgewater this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater has been pressured on 48 percent of his drop-backs this season. Whenever anyone references the Falcons playing against a poor offensive line, a deep sigh is the usual reply. They haven't take advantage of bad pass protecting offensive lines for years.
One promising change has been Dan Quinn's willingness to blitz. While running blitzes on 41 percent of drop-backs against Matt Hasselbeck wasn't wise, they are trying different methods to create pressure. Philip Wheeler has been a welcoming addition inside Atlanta's blitzing schemes. Brooks Reed showed some promise on the edge. Unfortunately, both players are linebackers that can't be depended on as pass rushers. It will be another game, where Vic Beasley and O'Brien Schofield will need to step up. Both players have been non-existent (from a pass-rushing standpoint) during this three-game losing streak. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater's completion percentage dips from 64 to 49 percent under pressure. With players such as Brandon Fusco and T.J Clemmings being manhandled on a weekly basis, Atlanta needs to win one-on-one matchups.
Support for Julio Jones
With Hankerson's hamstring injury, it's difficult to see how these receivers can take advantage of Minnesota's shaky cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes may shadow Julio Jones, despite struggling this season. Terence Newman continues to defy the odds at 37 years old. That being said, Aaron Rodgers targeted him heavily last week and found success. Atlanta doesn't have the ideal wide receivers to burn these older cornerbacks, but they need to find ways to get open.
According to Mike Renner, no Falcon wide receiver outside of Jones has eclipsed 50 yards since week four. That says a lot about Atlanta's decline. Jacob Tamme has been productive, but he isn't someone who should be relied upon as a second option. Justin Hardy deserves more than the seven reps he received against Indianapolis. With Devin Hester returning next week, they need to incorporate more speed on the field. This isn't the week to try four-wide receiver sets. They still need more speed on the field to take advantage of Minnesota's aging group of cornerbacks. It wouldn't be surprising to see stud free safety Harrison Smith help shadow Jones, considering he's the lone vertical threat in the passing game. Other wide receivers need to win one-on-one situations. In Hankerson's case, holding onto the ball has to be the biggest priority. Eight drops on 44 targets is simply unacceptable, especially for a player on a one-year contract.
Winning the turnover battle
Besides the embarrassing loss to San Francisco, Atlanta hasn't won the turnover battle since week four. Houston was committing comical turnovers on nearly every other drive. That hasn't been the case over the past six weeks. Losing the turnover battle on a weekly basis will always make things more difficult. It has played a crucial role behind Atlanta losing to several mediocre and below-average teams
During Atlanta's winning streak, missed tackles were a common issue. They've cleaned that up for the most part. Turnovers have now become a massive concern over the past six weeks, one that threatens to derail the team every single game. While the defense has been steady, they haven't been able to overcome the offense's erratic play. You can't allow more talented teams to win the turnover battle. On paper, the Falcons were underdogs against Philadelphia on opening night. They split the turnover battle, when Ricardo Allen had the game-winning interception. Turnovers will always play a pivotal role in close games. This appears to be another close game, which makes winning the turnover battle a major priority.