For the third consecutive year, the Falcons begin their season on the road. A fascinating matchup against one of the NFC’s potential contenders awaits them in Minnesota.
The pressure is already on for both teams, as they have the talent to make a serious playoff run. A few glaring flaws left them searching for answers last season. How well each team addressed their issues will be tested immediately, which is something both teams should look forward to. Dan Quinn knows how dangerous the Vikings are on both sides of the ball. That makes this game even more crucial to see where his team stands going into a pivotal season.
Revamped offensive line faces the first of two stern tests
All eyes will be on how well the Falcons’ offensive line fares in the first two games. They face two of the top five defensive fronts in the league. Before another daunting matchup against the Eagles, an opening weekend battle against Minnesota’s ferocious front four will provide a good indicator of how well they can cope with the best. There are several NFC teams with terrific defensive lines. Minnesota, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Carolina can give any offensive line problems. That’s why the front office was wise to invest heavily into the offensive line.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding the offensive line. Nobody knows who won the left guard and right tackle position battles, despite the game being days away. James Carpenter and Jamon Brown failed to make a strong impact during preseason. After his abysmal showing against the Jets, Ty Sambrailo fell out of the running to start at right tackle. Matt Gono has shown promise but remains raw and unbalanced with his technique. It’s not ideal to start a rookie right tackle, who barely played in the preseason, against a Mike Zimmer-led defense. Given the lack of options, Kaleb McGary may be the best choice out of the three. Quinn spoke about McGary looking better conditioned following his heart procedure. Asking him to go four quarters against Danielle Hunter would be a tall order for him.
On the other side, Jake Matthews will see Everson Griffen for most of the game. This is a great early-season test to see if Matthews can build off his career year in 2018. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews only allowed 27 pressures and finished tied for fifth in their pass-blocking grade system. Matt Ryan will need him to maintain his level of play, especially given the uncertainty and inexperience on the right side. The franchise quarterback will also need Alex Mack to be ready for Zimmer’s signature double A-gap blitzes. Minnesota can ruin offenses with their array of blitzes. None are more lethal than Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr swarming in together. As important as certain individual battles are, communication and organization will be just as integral in trying to limit Minnesota’s aggressive front.
Defensive line must capitalize on a favorable matchup
Similar to the Falcons, the Vikings were viewed as one of the top NFC’s contenders going into last season. The roster was loaded with star players at nearly position. The one area lacking in star power was the offensive line. They weren’t only lacking in star power; they were lacking in overall competence.
Not being able to protect Kirk Cousins or create holes in the running game led to the Vikings being one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers. It wasn’t surprising to see them make changes across the unit. Other than drafting Garrett Bradbury in the first round, none of their off-season acquisitions have generated much of a positive response.
The Falcons didn’t make any high-profile moves to bolster their defensive line. They are expecting two former first-round picks to develop into legitimate difference makers, while signing versatile veterans to bring much-needed depth. Depth and versatility are necessities for Quinn’s heavy defensive line rotations. Not having the talent to rotate cost them dearly last season. The pressure will be on Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley to immediately produce. With Adrian Clayborn and Allen Bailey being added to the rotation, both young edge rushers should have much better support around them, but neither guy is an elite pass rushing addition.
They have an excellent opportunity to start the season off strongly. Riley Reiff has lost a step since joining the Vikings. The oft-criticized left tackle looked overmatched, particularly in Minnesota’s worst defeats. Right tackle Brian O’Neill tends to struggle against power rushers, while Josh Kline is notorious for getting manhandled in pass protection. The matchups are there for the Falcons’ defensive line to create havoc. There is too much talent for them not to make their mark in a big early-season battle. Grady Jarrett can’t be the only player bringing consistent pressure.
Inexperienced cornerback group must hold their own
After having one of the most experienced cornerback trios in the league, the Falcons enter this season with one of the more untested units. Releasing Robert Alford was a logical move, considering his disastrous 2018 season and the front office’s need to sign franchise cornerstones to long-term deals. Not re-signing Brian Poole was surprising, especially with his versatility to play in multiple areas. It leaves the Falcons with Isaiah Oliver, Damontae Kazee, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jordan Miller, and Kendall Sheffield behind stalwart Desmond Trufant. Only Wreh-Wilson has more than two years of experience.
Starting the season off against arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver duo could be extremely problematic. For all the intrigue about Oliver’s size and length, he showed lapses in concentration last season. There were times he whiffed badly at the line of scrimmage, which resulted in big plays downfield. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are known for their explosive releases at the line of scrimmage. They aren’t simply crafty route runners. Both players can leave cornerbacks behind in an instant with their speed and footwork. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cousins try to target Oliver, especially if Diggs lines up on his side. Per PFF, only Tyreek Hill was more proficient than Diggs at making contested catches in 2018. Diggs can be a matchup nightmare for any cornerback in the league.
Trufant rarely shadows opposing wide receivers, which means the Vikings could decide to have Diggs and Thielen line up on the left. That will likely force Kazee into a strenuous matchup against Thielen. Following two seasons of acclimating to the free safety position, Kazee will revert to playing cornerback. There is no telling how well he will handle slot corner responsibilities. Kazee is a savvy player, who has already established himself as a ball-hawk and big hitter. Covering slick route-runners like Thielen will be the next step in his development as one of the NFL’s more unique defensive backs. When it comes to slot receivers, it doesn’t get much more difficult than Thielen. The sure-handed star receiver led the NFL in receptions (69) coming out of the slot. Expect Kazee to be tested early and often against the relentless Thielen.
Julio Jones versus Xavier Rhodes/Mike Zimmer
When you are a superstar wide receiver, there are usually certain teams that you consistently dominate. Jones has torched Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and Carolina for most of his career. Those teams haven’t found the recipe to limit the most terrifying wide receiver in the league. If one team has managed to limit Jones over the years, the Vikings can make the first claim towards doing it. Jones has been held under 60 yards in their previous two matchups. Excluding a blowout win over Houston in 2015, where he was only targeted six times, Jones was targeted fewer than ten times in only one other game. That came against Zimmer’s stifling defense, as Jones only received seven targets.
Two years later, Minnesota held Jones to a season-low 24 yards. Jones only caught two of his six targets in the Falcons’ 14-9 defeat. Steve Sarkisian merited some of the blame, as he consistently failed to put together a successful game plan against top-tier defenses. The defense’s inability to get off the field certainly played a factor in Jones’ lack of production. What can’t be denied is how much emphasis Zimmer put on making Ryan throw the ball elsewhere. With Rhodes shadowing Jones across the field, he would also receive safety help over the top. It forced Jones into being a decoy. Unfortunately for the Falcons, nobody stepped up as Mohamed Sanu led the team with 43 yards on three receptions.
Dirk Koetter will look to do something that Kyle Shanahan and Sarkisian couldn’t do against Zimmer. The returning offensive coordinator must look to devise plays for Jones to be frequently involved. Allowing your biggest playmaker to become an afterthought against an excellent defense is likely going to result in disappointment. Whether it’s calling more screens, which Koetter isn’t shy about doing, or creating rub route concepts to spring him free against Minnesota’ sturdy defense, the Falcons need him to be productive. Jones needs the ball in his hands for them to have the best chance at producing explosive plays.