Both the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons enter the 2019 opener as teams kind of at a crossroads. In 2018 both teams had Super Bowl aspirations, yet both teams missed the playoffs. Both were relatively quiet in free agency, both teams invested heavily in the offensive line in the draft, and both teams made changes on their respective coaching staff as a way to find the answer.
For the Vikings, they revamped their offense, bringing in Gary Kubiak to oversee OC Kevin Stefanski, and a new OL coach and running game coordinator in Rick Dennison to install a zone blocking scheme. They also brought in a new special teams coordinator in Marwaan Maalouf, who has taken the Vikings kicking situation and finally got it on the straight and narrow.*
*LOL just kidding.
In Atlanta, at the end of a disappointing 7-9 season that saw the Falcons miss the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, Dan Quinn handled his coaching staff like Michael Corleone settling the family business at the end of the Godfather:
All three coordinators were whacked, and in their places are new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, and defensive coordinator
Dan Quinn. Yes kids, just like Michael Corleone, Quinn is consolidating power all for himself, and is taking over the defense, along with head coach duties. Yes, Mike Zimmer calls the defense for the Vikings on game days, but he has a legitimately good defensive coordinator in George Edwards to develop and install the gameplan. Quinn doesn’t even have a figurehead DC on staff, although I’m sure he has someone similar to Edwards on his staff. On special teams, they brought Blair Walsh in for a tryout before convincing Matt Bryant to come back for his 57th year.
This was a good call.
The result is that 2019 is put up or shut up for both teams, and both head coaches. Playoffs—and playoff wins—aren’t hoped for, they’re expected. And if that doesn’t happen, both organizations could be seeing some major changes in the off-season.
In some ways, when the Vikings and Falcons face off on Sunday, they’ll be looking at themselves:
So, with 2019 being such a pivotal season, how do the Vikings start off 1-0?
Balance on offense: With the new offensive scheme in place, look for the Vikings to try and bring balance to their offensive attack. I expect to see Dalvin Cook early and often, and Alexander Mattison in short yardage situations. The Falcons defense was consistently bad against both the run and pass last year, so if the new look offensive line can give him a relatively clean pocket, the Vikings will have the advantage there. Last season, the Vikings relied on the pass way too much, and it consistently got them in trouble last year, and far too often they were playing from behind. Look for them to stick with the ground game, even if it isn’t really successful early. As long as the game is close, or the Vikings have a lead and the Vikings pound the ball, the early commitment should pay off in the second half, and I’m really excited to watch a healthy Dalvin Cook behind this new-look offensive line, and it feels like he’s in for a big year. The Falcons defensive line is one that the Vikings o-line should have the advantage over, or at least be even with, and I don’t know that’s something we’ll be able to say a lot this season. I’m really expecting the offense to have a good game Sunday.
Key matchup: The Vikings interior line against DT’s Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison. This is a good matchup for Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, and Josh Kline, and I think whoever wins this battle goes a long way to who wins the game.
Defensive pressure: The Falcons offense is legit, but they do have some questions. Devonta Freeman missed almost all last season with a groin injury, and last year’s leading rusher, Tevin Coleman, is in San Francisco. There’s also a developing contract issue with Julio Jones, would would make a great WR3 in Minnesota (womp wommmmp). There is speculation that unless he has a new deal before Sunday he won’t play, but I fully expect him to suit up and be Julio Jones. Since Mike Zimmer has been the VIkings coach, he’s had Xavier Rhodes shadow Jones, and Rhodes has, for the most part, neutralized him. In those three games (all Vikings victories, for what it’s worth), Jones has 13 catches for 162 yards, an average of about 4 catches for just over 50 yards a game. Still, though, if Rhodes can blanket Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley are still out there, and they must be accounted for. Because if they’re open, Matt Ryan will find them, and they’ll make the Vikings pay. That’s why the Vikings front seven will need to make Ryan uncomfortable, and pressure him all afternoon. Like the Vikings, the Falcons have a new look offensive line, and they’ll have their hands full with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. The Vikings d-line should be the better unit here, and I expect them to generate a lot of pressure.
Key matchup: The Falcons wide receivers against the Vikings defensive backs. The Falcons WR group is one of the best in the NFL, but the Vikings have a secondary that matches up well. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander both looked good last year, and they’ll need to bring their A game Sunday. The question a lot of Vikings fans are asking is whether or not Rhodes is healthy. If he isn’t, and the Vikings pass rush doesn’t get home, it could be a long afternoon.
Home field should help: The Vikings play well at home, and the rowdy environment that is US Bank Stadium will be a decided advantage for the Vikings. It’s imperative they start fast, get the crowd into it, and keep the pressure on Atlanta.
Growing pains: Both offenses are rolling out new playbooks, so these units might struggle as they work their new offense against live competition for the first time. If there’s a personnel advantage here I think it’s with the Vikings defense, at least initially. They field one of the best units in the NFL, and it will be important for the Vikings offense to get untracked first and get an early lead, assuming the defense can keep the Falcons offense in check the first few drives.
Please, let’s not let this come down to a field goal: I am to the point where I think the Vikings should just go for two after every TD, and go for it on 4th down if they find themselves within field goal range. Dan Bailey won the Vikings kicking job after the Vikings traded for, and then cut, Kaare Vedvik. If Bailey misses his first field goal attempt or extra point, you’ll be able to feel the collective angst of every single person in the stadium and watching on TV. The last thing I want is for Bailey to trot out with :03 seconds left, with about 44 yards between him and a Vikings win.
I’ll vomit blood, probably.
The call: I like the Vikings to win the opener at home. Call it 24-13.