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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Vikings

The intrigue revolves individual Falcons that can not only help the team, but themselves.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

For many, naming five Atlanta Falcons on its own is a nearly impossible task, but I count myself as one of the lucky few that can overcome such adversity. Much like the Falcons themselves, who will also be looking to keep their record above .500 with a win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9.

But simply naming Falcons will not suffice. Instead, I endeavor to consider only those that are the most intriguing. This week’s list includes players who not only can help the team defeat the Vikings, but also stand to benefit individually if they perform well.

Taylor Heinicke

Of course, all of the intrigue this week involves the Falcons promoting backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke to starter. Since it’s still unknown if this is a permanent move, a lot is going to be on the line for Heinicke the individual and the Falcons as a team, since a strong performance versus the Vikings could be the deciding factor on that front.

Heinicke is no stranger to these opportunities, given that injuries to starters Ryan Fitzpatrick and Carson Wentz forced him into the lineup in each of the past two years for the Washington Commanders. Both times led to immediately positive results, with Heinicke and the Commanders winning both of his opening starts. The Falcons hope a similar boost to the win column can be had this week against Minnesota.

However, questions remain over what exactly the Falcons offensive identity will be under Heinicke’s watch. Will the team lean into the passing game or try their best to reestablish their run game this week? They may have no choice but to try the latter, due to wide receiver Drake London being out with a groin injury.

Van Jefferson

Regardless of how it impacts the Falcons’ offensive gameplan, London’s absence will mean the rest of the Falcons wide receivers must step this weekend. That is especially true for Van Jefferson. He has been getting the majority of the snaps opposite London since being traded from the Los Angeles Rams in October, but it hasn’t yet translated into any significant production in Atlanta.

Without the passing attack running through London, this is the best opportunity yet for Jefferson to showcase his abilities. He failed to take advantage of a similar opportunity with the Rams when Cooper Kupp was hurt earlier this season. Not only can Jefferson stepping up help the team this weekend, but a good game would also brighten his outlook, due to his impending free-agent status after the season.

Drew Dalman

Another intriguing player is Falcons center Drew Dalman due to his responsibility in helping to set the team’s protections. That will matter a lot on Sunday against a blitz-happy Vikings defense helmed by defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

Dalman must improve this week after a rough outing against the Titans, where linebacker Jack Gibbens blew past him for a sack of Desmond Ridder in the first half. Whether that was a blown assignment on Dalman or another player is not particularly relevant. The bottom line is that the Falcons cannot make it so easy this week for Flores, or else Heinicke could be in store for a rough day.

Jessie Bates

Another player looking for a pick-me-up after a rough showing last week will be Falcons safety Jessie Bates. Bates wasn’t alone in that regard, since it was a tough day for the entire Falcons secondary that gave up too many explosive plays and touchdowns to rookie quarterback Will Levis in his season debut. Bates, as the leader of the secondary, cannot let that happen two weeks in a row with Vikings rookie Jaren Hall also making his first career start this week.

The Falcons secondary will be changing this week with dime safety DeMarcco Hellams expected to miss Sunday’s action with a hamstring injury. That could lead to Micah Abernathy stepping into the role, with the burden being on Bates to make sure everything remains cohesive.

Nate Landman

That potential change to the Falcons dime formation could have a trickle-down effect on linebacker Nate Landman. Over the past month, the Falcons have consistently relied on their dime defense featuring six defensive backs on third downs rather than standard nickel with only five. That could potentially change this week with Hellams out of the lineup. Such a change would significantly impact Landman, given that he’s taken off the field when the team uses dime. While Landman has been an absolute force against the run this year, it’s clear that the Falcons coaching staff don’t fully trust his coverage abilities. He’ll have to step up in that area whenever he is on the field to prove he can impact on every down due to facing Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson this week.

The absence of All-Pro wideout Justin Jefferson the past few weeks has led to Hockenson being a key component in the Vikings offense. Slowing him down will be critical to the Falcons' defensive success come Sunday. So whether it’s on early or third downs, Landman is going to have to do his part along with the rest of the Falcons' defense to try and keep the Pro Bowl tight end in check.

Can you also do the impossible and name more Falcons that intrigue you?