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Falcons offense vs. Vikings defense: Who wins this matchup?

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A dynamic offense must contend with one of the top defensive units in the league.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons retooled (and still forming) offensive line gets one heck of a test when they face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. In fact, the entire Falcons offense is a question mark with the arrival of new (and old) offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Will he run the four verticals offense he’s known for, or will we continue to see Shanahan-inspired concepts? Will this team try to re-establish a smash-mouth running identity, or will we see the ball flying repeatedly? There are a ton of questions going into this game. Let’s look at how the two units match up.

Note: Assessments based on PFF rankings

In the trenches

For the Falcons, Alex Mack and Jake Matthews are steady, reliable, quality starters on the offensive line. Past them, though, the questions ramp up considerably.

Rookie RG Chris Lindstrom has looked good in the preseason, but you can certainly expect some hiccups from any rookie. James Carpenter at LG seems like the most likely starter right now, and he’s been a mostly “meh” starter in his time in the league. The biggest question is at right tackle. Ty Sambrailo has looked not great this preseason, while second year undrafted player Matt Gono has looked far better. Rookie first-round pick Kaleb McGary looked great against third stringers, but may not be in good enough game shape to start. Whoever is at right tackle will have a tough assignment ahead of them.

The Vikings defensive front is scary. Look at these names: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter. This trio can wreck dreams and make players wish they didn’t dress on Sunday. The only weak spot in the rotation is Shamar Stephen. Simply put: This is one of the nastiest defensive fronts in the league.

The Falcons offensive line is still formulating, and that’s going to make a key component of that unit suffer: communication. No matter who they settle on, the fact that these five guys will have very little playing time together makes this a tough go. When you throw in the quality of players they’ll be facing, I’m not confident Falcons fans will like what they see on Sunday.

Advantage: Vikings

Skill positions

If used correctly, the Falcons possess one of the most intimidating set of offensive weapons in the NFL. Matt Ryan has been playing arguably the best football of his career, and Julio Jones is still the best receiver (who doesn’t complain about helmets) in the league. Calvin Ridley seemed poised for a breakout year, and Mohamed Sanu is such a reliable target in this offense now. Austin Hooper has gotten better every year in the league as well.

The running back conversation starts with a healthy Devonta Freeman, who can be absolutely dynamic when at 100%. Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison make a nice trio to back up Freeman, though I’d expect Devonta to get the majority of snaps. This is a ridiculously loaded unit that can overwhelm even the best defenses.

The Vikings have a lot of good players outside the trenches as well. The linebacking corps is anchored by Anthony Barr, who has the elite athleticism to match up well with tight ends and running backs. Eric Kendricks is good, but hasn’t quite reached the level many thought he would, while Ben Gedeon is a promising player at the weak side.

At corner, Xavier Rhodes is a quality player who had a bit of a down year in 2018. Trae Waynes is another good corner on the opposite side. In nickel sets, Mackensie Alexander has gotten better every year he’s been in the league, and is a quality player on the inside now. Safety Anthony Harris is a baller, as is Harrison Smith on the other side. This is a really good group with few weaknesses.

As good as the Vikings unit is, Atlanta just has so many weapons to deal with. Their starting three receivers are arguably the best in the league. When you throw Austin Hooper and Devonta Freeman into the mix with a QB who is playing at an elite level, this is a matchup that will rarely favor the defense.

Advantage: Falcons

Overall

I know it seems cliche to call this one a draw, but this really feels like the kind of battle that could go either way. The wild-card here is how good Matt Ryan has been in navigating muddy pockets. Even if Griffen and Hunter generate pressure, Ryan has shown an ability to extend his time in the pocket just enough to make a play. That will be critical Sunday, as the offensive line is a big question mark going into this season. This is going to be a great match up, and is way too close to call.

Advantage: Push