With the days ticking down, I’m getting more and more excited about Sunday’s match-up with the 9-2 Vikings. This will be a chance for the Falcons to show their mettle against one of the NFC’s best teams, and how Atlanta performs should tell us a lot about their potential as a contender this season. A win would be fantastic, but a close, hard-fought loss also wouldn’t be the end of the world.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the top match-ups to watch on Sunday.
The CB depth
Not so much a player as a group of players, the Falcons’ CB depth will be given a huge test on Sunday against the Vikings. Robert Alford will likely be given the tough task of matching up with either Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen, leaving the other matched up against an injured Brian Poole or a replacement-level player like C.J. Goodwin. That’s not a good situation for the Falcons, but there simply aren’t any better options with Trufant almost certainly out for the game.
We may see some different looks—like Ricardo Allen playing nickel or perhaps Blidi Wreh-Wilson getting some snaps instead of Goodwin—but keeping Minnesota’s WRs from going off will be important if the Falcons want to come away with the win. This is kind of a bummer, because watching one of the NFL’s best young CB duos square off against one of the NFL’s best young WR duos would’ve been really fun to watch. Hopefully the depth can fill in adequately this week.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan will have arguably his toughest test of the season against the Vikings’ defense, which is stuffed to the brim with playmakers at all levels. This is not a team that is easily fooled or confused, and they will not be afraid of the Falcons’ offensive weapons. That means Ryan will have to be sharp with his throws and smart with the football. In what is looking to be a very competitive game, mistakes must be kept to a minimum.
Luckily, Ryan is on a hot streak and has been torching defenses over the last month. The inconsistencies and accuracy issues that plagued him early in the year seem to have disappeared. Sarkisian and Ryan finally seem to be on the same page, and it has resulted in an impressive offensive showing over the last three weeks. It’ll be much harder this week against Minnesota, but Ryan should be up to the task.
The pass rush
After very productive days against the Cowboys and the Seahawks, the Falcons’ pass rush mysteriously vanished against an injury-plagued Buccaneers’ offensive line and statuesque QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. That led to Tampa Bay getting some drives going in the second half when the Falcons were without two of their top three CBs in Trufant and Poole. Atlanta weathered that storm on the back of some clutch plays in the red zone and a dominant offensive game, but that is unlikely to happen against a superior opponent like the Vikings.
The Falcons must help out the secondary by putting pressure on Case Keenum. Minnesota’s offensive line is much better than the dumpster fire they trotted out in 2016, but they’ve still been inconsistent this season. The Falcons need to take advantage of RT Mike Remmers—who Atlanta abused in the past during his time with the Panthers—and get penetration up the middle with their big playmakers in Jarrett and Poe. The coverage is unlikely to hold up for long against the Vikings, which means the pass rush has to pick up the slack in this game.
The offensive line
With a fearsome pass rush coming to town featuring the likes of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Linval Joseph, the Falcons’ offensive line has a serious test ahead of them on Sunday. The Vikings possess perhaps the best run-stuffing unit in the NFL in 2017, meaning that Atlanta is going to need to throw the ball to find sustained success against Minnesota. Protection for Matt Ryan will be paramount to keep the offense on track.
Third downs will be key in this game, and the Vikings aren’t afraid to send pressure. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder have very difficult match-ups, and their ability to hold up in important situations could be the difference between a win and a loss on Sunday. Expect Minnesota to test sophomore RG Wes Schweitzer early and often in this one. Schweitzer had a very good game against Bucs’ DT Gerald McCoy—let’s see if he can keep it up.
WRs Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu
One of the match-ups to watch in this game—that you’ve probably heard about a dozen times already—is of course, Julio Jones versus Xavier Rhodes. How well Jones plays will likely have a lot to do with how well the Falcons’ offense fares on Sunday. Rhodes has had success against Julio in the past, but Julio is fresh off one of the best games of his career. It’s clear he’s in top form, and I’m anxious to see what kind of tricks the Falcons will use to try and get him open against the Vikings.
The less talked-about match-up, however, is between Mohamed Sanu and Trae Waynes. Waynes has struggled since being drafted highly a few years back, but he’s been having a bit of a rebound year in 2017. Sanu has been one of the better #2 WRs in the NFL this year, and it’s clear that he’s one of Ryan’s favorite targets on third down and in the red zone. If Sanu can take advantage of an inconsistent Waynes, that may force the Vikings to dedicate more safety help away from Julio.
How do you feel about Sunday’s game? Are you confident in the Falcons’ chances of beating the Vikings? What are some match-ups that you’ll be looking forward to?