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What to know about Falcons vs. Vikings in Week 9

A quarterback change, a rash of injuries, and a matchup between two teams at .500 with situations that feel more dire than they are on paper.

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last week, the Atlanta Falcons turned a winnable game into a loss, a quarterback controversy, and a devastating series of injuries. This week, they’ve made a quarterback change, added some defensive help, and badly need turn a winnable game into...well, a win.

The Minnesota Vikings would have come to town as one of the toughest matchups left on the 2023 schedule, but a crushing, season-ending injury to Kirk Cousins has diminished their offense and will leave them reliant on a moribund ground game and tough defense. Minnesota is not going to be an easy team to get past for Atlanta because of their knack for bringing pressure and stifling opposing passing games; if Jaren Hall is even decent under center for Minnesota, a banged-up defense might have some trouble as well.

Still, the loss of Cousins and the switch to Taylor Heinicke makes this a game the Falcons absolutely should win. Getting back on track matters a great deal for this team, which has been unable to stay above .500 for very long this year and have the loathsome Saints mouth-breathing noisily right behind them in the NFC South. If they drop this one, a second straight game against a rookie quarterback, panic time will have arrived.

Here’s what you should know about the matchup ahead.

Falcons - Vikings rankings


Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 4-4 28 14 18 10 14 6 8 14 27 28
Vikings 4-4 14 10 2 31 15 11 15 13 19 29

You have to throw the Vikings’ passing excellence out the window now, at least until we see Jaren Hall in action. With no Justin Jefferson, no Kirk Cousins, and an unproven rookie quarterback under center, Minnesota’s passing attack is likely to be modestly successful at best on Sunday. I know we said that about Will Levis and the Titans—to our eternal shame—but Hall is a smaller quarterback without the arm strength to punish the Falcons deep. He’ll instead hope to pick Atlanta apart targeting Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockensen, and we’ll have to pay that doesn’t work.

The Vikings don’t run particularly well, though they’ll look to lean heavily on Alex Mattison and Cam Akers to take pressure off of Hall. They may find more success with that commitment and with the Falcons down both Grady Jarrett and LaCale London on the interior, which certainly aided the Titans and Derrick Henry last week. On balance, though, the Minnesota offense is less of a concern than their defense, and the Falcons defense remains quite good even without Jarrett.

That’s because the defense is quite good, with Danielle Hunter terrorizing offensive lineman to the tune of 10 sacks, Harrison Smith continuing to deliver as a blitzing and playmaking presence on the back end, and the overall defense has the highest blitz percentage in the league and one of the NFL’s better pass rushes. Taylor Heinicke has done well against the blitz in the past and got the ball out quickly a week ago, which might be a factor in why he’s starting this go-around.

Atlanta’s offense, meanwhile, looked sharper with Heinicke under center but still needs a lot of work. Their ground game should be among the league’s most dynamic and potent but is merely good rather than great, their collection of pass catching weapons may be diminished this week without Drake London, and the offensive line has been an underrated cause of all of these woes. Heinicke’s playmaking mentality and speedy decision-making is something the Falcons will count on to improve their fortunes and get defenses to back off the run a little bit, and we have to hope it works.

One other note that might become impactful Sunday: The Vikings have not had much luck stopping opposing kick returners, as they have one of the worst yards per return and total return yardage numbers in the NFL. Hopefully that’s a good sign for Cordarrelle Patterson.

How the Vikings have changed

No Kirk Cousins is the big one, obviously.

The team added cornerback Byron Murphy to a secondary that needed the help, snagged defensive lineman Dean Lowry from the Packers, and signed block-first tight end Josh Oliver to an inexplicably large deal. That was about it for free agency.

In the draft, though, the Vikings did some very interesting things. The first was drafting Jordan Addison, a gifted receiver who is blossoming in real-time right now with stud receiver Justin Jefferson out. The second was drafting corner Mekhi Blackmon, who looks really good in coverage in the limited opportunities this 2023 season has afforded him. And the third is drafting Jaren Hall, the quarterback the Falcons will be facing on Sunday, and a player who could be the team’s long-term backup if he has a strong showing in the weeks ahead with Cousins out.

They also struck gold with undrafted free agent Ivan Pace Jr., who is starting right now and has looked Nate Landman-esque (i.e. good, they’re not the same player). That’s the kind of golden evaluation that makes a huge difference for an NFL team.

Otherwise, this is a fairly veteran team that was intent on making some noise in an unsettled NFC North. With Cousins out, they’re just trying to hang on behind the Lions, stay ahead of the Bears and Packers, and try to sneak into a Wild Card spot. If they can manage that without Cousins, it’ll be a hell of a feat.

What to know about Sunday’s game

This is the Titans game all over again, except the Vikings are working with a lesser running game, a rookie quarterback who’s not likely to be able to pull off what Will Levis just did to the Falcons, and a defense has high-end talent but isn’t as deep and nasty up front as Tennessee. The Falcons are still going to be facing a first-time starter and a team that boasts a quality defense, but given that they’re at home and Minnesota isn’t as well-balanced on offense as Tennessee was, this should be an easier matchup.

Much will depend on how healthy Atlanta is, and what happens with Taylor Heinicke’s first start for the Falcons. Right now it looks like there’s a good chance Drake London will be out on Sunday and possibly Keith Smith with him, depriving the team of their top receiver and a useful blocker and special teamer. The loss of London will put more of a strain on Heinicke, who did show a nice rapport with KhaDarel Hodge and Mack Hollins on Sunday, and will make life a little tougher for a player who did a really nice job against the Titans. The Falcons should be able to lean on their ground game a bit more against Minnesota and just need Heinicke to be efficient and smart with the football to stand a good chance of winning this one.

That’s assuming the defense is up to snuff, which should be aided by Minnesota’s one-dimensional offense. Mattison and Akers are 28th and 37th in the NFL in average yards before contact and 25th and 38th in average yards after contact, which should tell you about where this ground game sits. Hall may be forced to throw a lot if the offense is up to snuff, and while he has weapons at his disposal and is a confident passer, he’s a smaller passer without an elite arm making his first NFL start. The Falcons should be able to handle that.

The concern, of course, is the same as it ever is. Minnesota’s offensive line is quite good and should be able to give Hall time to operate, and the Falcons have their fair share of busted plays in the secondary in recent weeks. A couple of big Addison catches paired with turnovers from Atlanta—Heinicke ought to be an upgrade on Ridder right now but is not exactly renowned for his care with the football—could send this one sideways in an all-too-familiar way.

But this is yet another straightforward matchup, one where the Falcons know exactly what they have to do to win. Get the offense going and avoid turning the ball over, convert some of those red zone chances that keep coming to naught, and handle the run to force volume passing so you can either force Minnesota to lean on an unproven rookie passer or force him into the kind of game-changing mistakes Atlanta needs to gin up. The question with this Falcons team has never really been “are they good enough to beat this team?” in any given week, except maybe against Detroit and Jacksonville. The question has been “can they avoid beating themselves?”

I’m bullish on their chances here, even without Grady Jarrett and Drake London. Let’s hope this is the start of a badly needed run for Atlanta.