The Falcons will take on two of the NFC’s finest teams in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium over the next week. Before they face New Orleans in a long-awaited divisional clash, Dan Quinn’s side will encounter the Minnesota Vikings. It’s an excellent matchup between two formidable teams. The Vikings are one of the most well-rounded, well-coached teams in the league. An opportunistic offense and stout defense makes them extremely difficult to beat. Under Mike Zimmer’s guidance, they are more than capable of playing a home game in February.
After defeating numerous second and third tier teams in the NFC, it’s time for the Falcons to make their mark against top tier opponents. They will have that opportunity in four of their last five games. It’s something that this team must embrace. This is a group that beat New Orleans, Carolina, and Denver handily in three consecutive games last season.
They will likely have to do it without Desmond Trufant, who suffered a concussion last week. To not have one of their most consistent defensive players is problematic against an explosive offense. Quinn preaches about his team being resilient. They will need to prove it again on Sunday.
Covering the best wide receiver duo in the league
Losing Trufant is going to be a massive blow in this matchup. It’s one thing to lose him against an explosive wide receiver tandem in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. Not having him available against two crafty route runners makes a difficult matchup even more challenging. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have put defensive backs on skates all season long. Both wide receivers can create separation with their nifty footwork and explosiveness out of breaks. Thielen is the only player to catch five passes or more in every game this season. Diggs’ knack for playing big and making contested catches has turned him into a matchup nightmare. The dynamic duo is the main reason behind Minnesota’s offensive success.
It’s difficult to envision how the Falcons are going to contain either receiver. Brian Poole should be active following a back injury that knocked him out of last week’s game. His return gives them an experienced nickel corner to cover Thielen. According to Pro Football Focus, Thielen runs 55 percent of his routes in the slot. That is where he does most of his damage. In the Super Bowl, the secondary struggled mightily against New England’s trio of slick route runners. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Malcolm Mitchell repeatedly torched them. Poole was on the receiving end of several big plays. His stiffness when changing direction can be exploited.
The other major concern involves handling Diggs. Robert Alford primarily lines up on the right side. Will Quinn give him the freedom to shadow the rising star? The possibility of seeing C.J. Goodwin try to run step for step with Diggs is a scary proposition. Alford is coming off his worst game of the season, as Evans regularly beat him. For all his inconsistency, Alford can hold his own against top receivers that don’t hold a distinct size advantage over him. The enigmatic cornerback elevated his game following Trufant’s season-ending pectoral injury. It would be wise for Quinn to focus on matchups rather than stick to positional structure. They need Alford’s agility and physicality to limit Diggs. No wide receiver is currently making contested catches at a higher rate than him. A battle-tested player like Alford should track him instead of using a former wide receiver that hasn’t started a game in his entire career.
Julio Jones vs. Xavier Rhodes
This is the first of two high-profile matchups for Julio Jones. Before facing hotshot rookie Marshon Lattimore, he will be challenged by Xavier Rhodes. It’s the type of wide receiver-cornerback matchup that will capture your attention on every passing play. Rhodes is coming off a tough game against Marvin Jones. While he played like his usual physical self, Jones made several tough catches over him. Rhodes looked rattled at times. Committing penalties isn’t anything new to him. He was penalized eleven times last season. For him to receive multiple penalties and give up big plays was alarming for one of the most reliable cornerbacks in the league.
Rhodes loves getting under wide receivers’ skin. Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne wrote an excellent feature about the star cornerback. His tough upbringing helped develop an aggressive mentality towards locking up opposing number one wide receivers. Zimmer won’t hesitate to put Rhodes strictly on Jones, especially after his recent explosion. They can’t afford to leave Trae Waynes or Terence Newman isolated against the superstar wide receiver. Jones is too quick and physically imposing for either player. With Steve Sarkisian starting to make him the focal point of the offense, that will put added pressure on opposing defenses.
As Josh Norman recently said, you can’t take a play off against Jones. That will only result in severe consequences. Rhodes will have to play composed as well. Jones does his best work at the line of scrimmage. Both studs will battle each other and look to gain a physical edge. How the refs call it could be a game changer. We can only hope the officiating crew is similar to the group from the Monday night game against Seattle. They allowed both teams to play extremely physical. Jones never gets fazed by any matchup, but it should be noted that Rhodes did well against him in 2015. He’ll need to mix up his routes to get Rhodes off balance. Breaking out the vicious pinch route that destroyed Tampa Bay may be required.
Figuring out Vic Beasley
The reigning NFL sack king has endured a strange season. After recording four sacks in his first six games, Beasley has failed to produce one during Atlanta’s three game winning streak. He didn’t earn a single hit against Dallas or Tampa Bay. Beasley did show flashes against Seattle, when chasing down Russell Wilson. The big story about his drop off in production comes from a positional change. Duke Riley suffered a torn meniscus against New England, which caused the coaching staff to shift Beasley around. They moved him to strong side linebacker and found some success against the Jets. It hasn’t translated into any substantial difference following that victory.
The added responsibility appears to have a taken toll on Beasley. When he comes off the edge, the wild explosive burst isn’t there. Some can argue the hamstring injury limits him, although it did occur in mid-September. Taking on blockers and setting the edge isn’t his game. With Riley returning last week and Kemal Ishmael playing well, Beasley should return to his primary pass-rushing ways. Moving Adrian Clayborn inside allows the Falcons to use Beasley, Clayborn, and Takkarist McKinley at the same time. That looks like an imposing line on paper, especially when Grady Jarrett or Dontari Poe is the other interior rusher. The Falcons’ front four has made great strides this season, but they need Beasley to play at a high level to make their mark against teams like Minnesota and New Orleans. Quinn is aware of Beasley’s lack of production. How they utilize him (along with how Beasley performs) could make or break their playoff aspirations.
Devonta Freeman’s return
Due to all the enticing matchups and storylines, Freeman’s return falls a bit under the radar. The two-time Pro Bowler is expected to play after a two-game absence. In most circumstances, Freeman would be brought back slowly. They can’t afford to do that in midst of a playoff push. Suffering two concussions in a four-month span warrants some concern about his future. How will a violent runner like Freeman move forward? According to him, nothing will change. His ultra-exciting style is going to remain the same. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a warrior like him.
Freeman’s return couldn’t come at a better time. Minnesota only allows 75 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the league. A star-studded front seven is known for crushing running games and forcing their opponents to become one-dimensional. That gives Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter more opportunities to harass opposing quarterbacks. Balance is an integral part of the Falcons’ offense. It’s telling that Matt Ryan hasn’t attempted more than 35 passes during their three-game winning streak. Playing with a lead and staying committed to the running game makes them much more dangerous. The efficiency likely won’t be there, but they must continue to stay balanced and stretch them. Freeman’s ability to create something out of nothing will come in handy against Zimmer’s swarming defense.