Going into this game, the Falcons defense is probably considered one of the worst in the league and with good reason. They finished the 2018 season near the bottom of the league statistically.
Yet Falcons fans know that the year was a lost one with significant injuries to key starters in the very early games. Now that those guys are back, how do they stack up against this talented Vikings offense? Let’s take a look.
Note: Assessments partially based on PFF scores.
In the trenches
Even without the injuries last year, the Falcons defensive front was a big question mark. Grady Jarrett is the most dominant player here, and he deserves national attention for his consistently great play. Takk McKinley has looked good this preseason and even Vic Beasley has shown more than he has the past two years. Jack Crawford was an underappreciated interior pass rusher as well.
The additions of Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison adds quality depth that Dan Quinn will rotate frequently. John Cominsky has intriguing talent but is still very green, and Adrian Clayborn is someone who can periodically cause havoc. Remarkably, the defensive front for the Falcons looks quite solid and deep, even if there is a lack of superstar talent. How much Dan Quinn can get out of them remains to be seen, but this is a relatively good looking group on paper.
The Vikings — like the Falcons — have made it a point to try and rebuild their offensive line in recent years. Riley Reiff is a quality starter at left tackle and first round pick Garrett Bradbury projects to be a good center in this league, but is still a rookie. Left guard Pat Elflein had a rough year last year, but the team is hoping he bounces back. Josh Kline at right guard has been decent over his six years in the league. Right tackle Brian O’Neill enters his second year as the team’s 2018 second-round pick and is an athletic player who looks to take a step forward in 2019. This is an offensive line that mirrors the Falcons defensive line: decent on paper, but a lot remains to be seen.
As Falcons fans know, one weak spot on the offensive line can be a recipe for disaster. For the Vikings, left guard and center are question marks, and with interior pass rushers like Jarrett, Crawford and Clayborn constantly battering on them, I’m going to give an ever-so-slight nod to the Falcons here.
The Falcons linebackers and secondary could be a very underrated group. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell can both fly to the ball and are excellent in coverage against tight ends and running backs, which will be critical against the Vikings. At corner, Desmond Trufant has quietly been looking like his old self going back to the last several games of 2018 and into this season. Isaiah Oliver is a wildcard here, but has looked decent so far this preseason. He’s a name to pay attention to.
Damontae Kazee was a breakout star for the team last year (leading the league in interceptions) and is poised to build on that success as the nickel corner in 2019. Ricardo Allen is a wickedly smart safety who hits hard and does well in coverage, while Keanu Neal is a veritable wrecking ball at strong safety. As a unit, this is an incredibly talented group on paper. The secondary alone could be one of the biggest surprises of the season.
The Vikings are no slouches offensively. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is a quality starter in this league and can be dangerous if given time in the pocket. Adam Thielen is a phenomenal receiver who seemingly catches anything in his orbit. I love the way this guy plays. Stefon Diggs is another fantastic receiver who reminds me a good bit of Calvin Ridley. His injury status for the game as he rehabs a hamstring injury is definitely something to watch.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph is a veteran who you can count on to help move the sticks consistently. Running back Dalvin Cook could be a really dangerous weapon for the Vikings this year as both a runner and a receiver. This is a talented offense that now has Gary Kubiak helping them on the sidelines. Don’t sleep on this unit.
This is a tough matchup for the Falcons. Isaiah Oliver is getting thrown into the fire early if he has to cover Diggs. Jones and Campbell will draw a tough matchup in Cook and Rudolph. Trufant will have to be at his best if he’s going to limit Thielen. I like the talent on both sides here and this one seems a little too close to call either way.
This is a really good opening game for the season. The Falcons and Vikings match up well on both sides of the ball. I do believe the Falcons defense will surprise a lot of people this year, but this is one hell of an assignment.
The matchups on the outside may be too close to call, which is why I think the trenches give a very marginal edge to the Falcons. I think Jarrett, Crawford, Bailey, McKinley and Clayborn will combine to put just enough pressure on Cousins to make the difference here. Atlanta gets the nod overall, but it’s a very tepid one.