The 2019 season opener for the Atlanta Falcons puts them on the road against a gritty Minnesota Vikings team. Here are three key factors to keep an eye on.
There is not extensive history between the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings, with the two teams having just 30 meetings dating all the way back to 1966. From the missed field goal kick in the 1998 NFC Championship Game to vault the Falcons to the Super Bowl, to Michael Vick streaking through the Vikings defense in 2002 for a game-winning touchdown run in overtime, there are a few standout moments between the two teams that sway in favor of the Falcons.
This time around, both teams enter the season with a talented roster that is capable of executing a deep postseason run. For the Falcons, it may only be Week 1, but with a tough start to the season, getting off to a winning start is vital. Here are three important keys for the Falcons as they take on the Vikes in Minneapolis.
No. 1: Limit the run game/play action
What you see is what you get with the Minnesota Vikings offense. It is a run-first, pass-later offense that is jumpstarted by running back Dalvin Cook and a zone-running scheme that is bolstered with offensive assistants Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison on staff. Yes, that Gary Kubiak. The one that many of the Falcons fan base clamored for this offseason to replace Steve Sarkisian as the Falcons offensive coordinator.
While Kubiak is an offensive consultant for Minnesota, his fingerprints are seen on this offensive blueprint. Expect to see plenty of wide zone runs and a healthy share of play action play calling. Limiting the run game for the Vikings will take away a reliable facet in their offensive attack. Granted, the Vikings have in their possession one of the best wide receiver tandems in the league. However, forcing a number of second and third-and-longs will get the Vikings to play out of their element and make it battle of passing games. Minnesota only recorded five 100-yard rushing games as a team last season, but that can partly be a result of injuries on the offensive line and for Cook himself.
No. 2: Win the field position battle
They don’t get the amount of attention that they deserve, but the Minnesota Vikings defense is one of the best all-around units in all of football. The group as a whole was fourth overall in team defense, 10th in scoring defense, first in opponent third-down conversions, and fourth in yards per play. They are that good.
For this segment, we’re going to dig a little deeper, however. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings defense was fourth in yards per drive allowed last season. They were also fourth in the NFL in three-and-outs per drive. In other words, scoring opportunities against this aggressive defense may not come as often as the Falcons offense would like. So not having to drive 80, 85, or 90 yards for a score will be much appreciated by quarterback Matt Ryan and company.
No. 3: Keep Matt Ryan clean
A legitimate argument can be made for this key to be the most important for the Falcons this Sunday. We all know the story by now when it comes to the Falcons offensive line. It was a line that was average at best as a whole and allowed Ryan to get sacked 42 times last season, the second-most sacks in a season during the Ryan era in Atlanta.
The team placed an emphasis on not allowing that to happen again. They signed a pair of offensive linemen in free agency that they hope will result in much needed protection for Ryan. Just to be sure, the Falcons also drafted two offensive linemen in the first round of this year’s draft. Again, for added measure.
Over time, these may prove to be wise investments for the Falcons and allow their leader to operate. But this proves to be a big test for the Falcons as the Vikings enter this game with a defense that was second in the NFL in sacks per game last season. They also return a defensive end pairing in Danielle Hunter and Eversen Griffen that combined for 20 sacks in 2018.
The Vikings defensive line is too good for Ryan to not get sacked and knocked around. But in order for the Falcons to have chance of winning this game, Ryan has to have clean pockets and time to throw.