For a man brimming with confidence about this season, I’m definitely feeling a little nervous about the upcoming matchup. The Falcons at their very best are a match for this Vikings team, I’m quite certain, but we’re not absolutely sure we’re going to get the Falcons at their very best with new coordinators, an unsettled situation at right tackle, and the ghost of a whisper of Julio Jones sitting this one out. I wrote this Saturday, so if he got his deal, I’m happy and you should disregard that last one.
Beyond the worry of a slow start, we can’t escape the fact that Minnesota is just damn good. Like the Falcons, they’ve tended to squander their best chances over the years, but the defense is murder and the offense has all the pieces it needs to be terrific. Even in a competitive NFC North, they ought to be a standout team, and thus a win here would matter a great deal even though it’s only the first week.
Here’s why I feel confident about this matchup and why I worry, in one line of thought apiece.
Feel confident that Devonta Freeman will eat
As stout and dangerous as the Vikings are up front, they were a middle of the pack defense against the run and running backs more generally in 2018. They allowed the 20th-most running yards and 14th-most receiving yards for running backs in the NFL a year ago, which are hardly lousy but are notably worse than their work against tight ends and receivers and passing games more generally, where they were superlative.
With the Vikings focused on shutting down the likes of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper, Freeman should both get a ton of opportunities and do good work with them. Two years ago against the Vikings, he averaged a tidy 6.2 yards per carry despite being criminally underutilized in a very close football game (he only got 12 carries total), and a fully healthy Freeman with an offensive coordinator who has pledged to use him is even more intriguing in this first matchup.
Now, we know that running backs don’t necessarily win games by themselves in 2019, but if Freeman can keep things rolling and loosen up the Vikings’ defense even a little bit for others, the Falcons ought to stand a chance of inflicting some damage. It’d be a welcome return to form for Freeman, too.
Worry about Matt Ryan weathering the onslaught
Ryan does well under pressure, and he’s only gotten better as his career has ground along. There’s a difference between facing some pressure and facing so much that you’re forced into less-than-optimal decisions or quite simply sacked, however, and that’s the fear for Ryan with both this matchup and the Week 2 home tilt against the Eagles.
The Vikings can get after the quarterback, period. They were tied for third in the NFL with 50 sacks last season, boasted the seventh-best pressure rate in the NFL per Football Outsiders, and saw opposing offenses manage the fourth-lowest overall performance in the NFL when they faced that Ragnarokesque pass rush. When they’re clicking, Minnesota quite simply has one of the five or so most lethal pass rushes in the NFL.
The Falcons made moves all summer specifically to address their weaknesses up front. The problem is that it’s not clear how many of those changes will prove to be impactful in the first week of the season, when Chris Lindstrom had his ups and downs at right guard, James Carpenter is a competent but uninspiring starter at left guard, and the Falcons still haven’t technically settled their right tackle battle just yet with Matt Gono hurt and both Ty Sambrailo and Kaleb McGary figuring to get some time. Once everything’s hashed out and these guys round into form, I can see this being a much better line than it was in 2018, but it’s not clear that’s going to be the case right out of the gate.
If a couple of these players falter, Ryan’s going to have to get rid of the ball quickly against a very good Vikings secondary. That’s a recipe for a long day.