In many ways, the Falcons - Vikings matchup this Sunday is a classic battle between an offense that is borderline elite and a defense that is almost certainly elite. This picture is complicated by the fact that the Falcons also have a rising, quality defense and the Vikings have a quietly stellar offense, but hey, let’s stick with the familiar tropes.
Here’s one of the most critical matchups of all: Third downs. The Falcons have been one of the league’s premier third down offenses in recent weeks, converting a league-high 58% of their drives. The Vikings are better than anyone else at stopping opposing offenses from converting third downs, and as the Falcons themselves noted, something’s gotta give.
Since Week 9, we've converted on over 58% of our 3rd down conversions.— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 1, 2017
The Vikings have the best 3rd down defense.
Something has to give. #MINvsATL
- https://t.co/XZaLTv1ySg pic.twitter.com/pldxHSxmUR
I’m bullish on Atlanta’s ability to get the job done, as you’d expect from other stories this week. I’m much more worried about the Vikings working over this Atlanta defense, or what happens if that potent Minnesota pass rush gets home and rattles Matt Ryan. The Falcons have been more effective on third downs primarily because they are no longer doing weird things like trying to run the ball into the teeth of the defense or setting up short screens for Taylor Gabriel in the face of incredible odds, and have instead elected to toss the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Xavier Rhodes is a wild card here, given his coverage chops, but I still like Atlanta’s chances.
If the Falcons can convert consistently on third down—or better yet, never get to third down because they’re moving the ball so effectively—they have a real shot to win this. Fingers crossed.