The Atlanta Falcons had their worst game of the season on defense en route to a loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 8, and now once again find themselves at .500 and needing a win to keep pace in the NFC South. Things have gotten a bit chaotic in Week 9, as Atlanta faces the Minnesota Vikings with a new quarterback under center in rookie Jaren Hall.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Vikings, so I’ve enlisted the help of Minnesota expert Christopher Gates. Christopher is the lead writer over at The Daily Norseman, SB Nation’s site covering all things Minnesota Vikings.
I brought five questions to Christopher on a variety of topics, including how the Vikings offense might change with Jaren Hall, the timeshare between Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers, and the quick turnaround of Minnesota’s defense under Brian Flores.
1. The Vikings suffered a massive blow with the loss of Kirk Cousins. It sounds like rookie Jaren Hall will be the QB in Week 9. How much faith is there in Hall to lead the offense in Cousins’ stead, and are you expecting a different gameplan from Kevin O’Connell?
Christopher Gates: It’s tough to really know what to expect from the Jaren Hall-led Vikings at this point. It does say something that after Hall came in for Cousins against Green Bay that Kevin O’Connell gave him some opportunities to throw the football rather than just handing it off repeatedly. He’s a fifth-round pick and largely played with third-teamers during the preseason, so I’m interested to see how he’s going to look behind a significantly better offensive line and guys catching passes that won’t be selling insurance in Des Moines in a few weeks. Hall does bring an element of mobility to the offense that Cousins definitely lacked, and I’m curious to see how O’Connell and Wes Phillips will attempt to take advantage of that. Cousins was playing at such a high level that it’s going to be awfully hard for Hall to live up to it, but I don’t think the Vikings will have the training wheels on him for long, if at all.
2. Minnesota might need to rely more on the ground game in Cousins absence, but it seems like the Vikings have struggled in that regard this season. Who is your preferred lead back between Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers, and why hasn’t that side of the ball had more success in 2023?
CG: Personally I like Akers a little more. It just seems like he has a little more creative ability than Mattison does. If there’s a hole there, Mattison will hit it hard and get some yardage, but Akers seems to have the ability to find holes where there aren’t necessarily holes when a play starts developing. I also think that Akers is a slightly better receiver than Mattison is, so if the Vikings were going to favor one back over the other I would like to see it be Akers.
3. Much like Atlanta, Minnesota had one of the worst defenses in the league in 2022. Also like the Falcons, the Vikings have had a rather miraculous turnaround on that side of the ball in 2023. What’s been the secret to Brian Flores’ success?
CG: Flores has been the anti-Ed Donatell, in that he’s not afraid to bring the blitz constantly. The Vikings blitz more than any team in the league by a wide margin and I believe they’re the only team in the league calling blitzes over 50% of the time. Donatell’s defense would get nickeled and dimed down the field because the scheme was reliant on the opposing offense making a mistake rather than trying to force those mistakes the way that they now attempt to do under Flores. Blitzing also does a bit to mask the relative youth and inexperience on the Vikings’ defense, particularly in the secondary. Forcing the quarterback to make quick decisions lessens the burden on the young defensive backs, which has been to the defense’s benefit all year.
4. Atlanta is starting a new quarterback in Taylor Heinicke, with the hope he can provide more consistency to the offense. The Falcons also have a strong rushing attack with Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier. What’s your level of concern facing Atlanta’s offense, and are you more or less worried about this team with Heinicke at the helm?
CG: Outside of the thrashing they got from Philadelphia in Week 2, the Vikings have actually been pretty solid against the run so far this season. I’m sure that Robinson and Allegier will get their opportunities to make plays but hopefully the Vikings’ defensive front can continue to stand strong against the run. The prospect of facing a Heinicke-led offense is actually a little scarier to me than a Ridder-led offense for the Falcons just because Heinicke has seen a lot more in this league than Ridder has. Heinicke has been around for a while and Ridder is only halfway through his second season, and I think that extra experience will be beneficial to the Falcons’ offense in this one.
5. The line for this one has been shifting quite a bit, but at the time of writing, the Falcons are currently 4-point home favorites against the Vikings. What’s your prediction for Week 9’s game?
CG: The line seems to be slowly creeping towards the Vikings in this one, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the Vikings’ defense is on a serious roll at this point. They’ve allowed about 13 points/game over the last three, and Atlanta’s offense (like Minnesota’s) has had its struggles this season. With the way these two teams are playing, it will likely come down to which team makes the most mistakes, and I think that Brian Flores and company have a chance to make it happen. This is going to be a low-scoring affair, I think, but I’ll play the homer here and take the Vikings to start the Jaren Hall era with a close victory.
Many thanks to Christopher for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a Vikings perspective on things, you can follow The Daily Norseman at @DailyNorseman.
Looking for more Falcons-Vikings coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.