We’ve damn near made it to the 2019 NFL regular season opener, folks, and this season your Minnesota Vikings will be opening the festivities at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Atlanta Falcons. Both of these teams had disappointing seasons in 2018, and they’re both definitely looking to rebound this season. That means we should get a solid contest between two teams that want to start things off on the right foot.
As we’ve done over the years, before each game we take an opportunity to swap some knowledge with our friends from the SB Nation family of NFL sites, and this is the first installment of that. Yours truly exchanged some questions with Dave Choate, lead blogger over at The Falcoholic (still one of my favorite SB Nation team site names) to talk about our respective teams leading up to Sunday’s big game.
1) While there have been a bunch of contract extensions being signed around the NFL, one player that’s still waiting is Atlanta’s star wide receiver, Julio Jones. There have even been some rumblings about him not playing on Sunday, though I don’t think the Vikings would be that fortunate. Has the situation been a distraction for the Falcons so far, and could it be worse in the future?
Hopefully by the time this is published, we have a resolution and this response is out of date.
It’s not a distraction, per se, because everything has been a distraction for the Falcons over the last couple of weeks. They’ve had their kicking battle blow up and re-signed Matt Bryant, they’ve had ongoing drama over their still unsettled right tackle position, and of course the Julio contract talk. I think they’d like to just focus on football, but I mean, it’s not like they’re the Raiders!
Obviously this could get worse, though I don’t think (and certainly hope) it will not. Julio was open about his desire for a new deal, the Falcons promised him one, and all that remains is reaching an acceptable middle ground for both parties. I don’t think Julio’s going to morph this into a long-term holdout or anything like that, and I don’t think the Falcons have any interest in making this ugly and dragging it out. There’s just last second jockeying that happens with deals like these, and the only fear I have is that Julio and his camp will feel the need to send a message if the Falcons can’t reach a deal before the game and consider sitting it out. It’d be out of character for Julio, but again, this has dragged on a very long time and it would be fair for him to be frustrated.
Ultimately, though, the likeliest outcome is that I just rambled on for nothing, a deal’s already done, and he’s out there wreaking havoc as he should be.
2) Last season, the Falcons’ defense was pretty bad against the pass, ranking 27th in yards allowed and 29th in touchdown passes allowed. What steps did they take during the offseason in their efforts to fix that? Do you think that the issue was more with the pass rush or the secondary?
The answer is, honestly, not a whole lot. The Falcons added Allen Bailey and Adrian Clayborn, who should at least help the pass rush out a bit, and they’re trading in an injured year from Robert Alford for a healthy one for promising second year cornerback in Isaiah Oliver and an up-and-down season from nickel cornerback Brian Poole into what we hope is a great one for converted safety Damontae Kazee. From a personnel perspective, that’s about it for noteworthy moves.
The hope is that guys up front will be making the leap--I’m looking at Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley in particular--and that better health for guys like Deion Jones will enable them to take a step forward. Dan Quinn is also assuming control of the defense and the players have generally raved about that, and his defense did nice work down the stretch in 2016, the last time he was in charge. Really, though, at the end of the day the team is counting on talent living up to its billing, which is always a little nerve-wracking.
3) Who is one player on each side of the ball that Vikings fans might not know about that you think will make a difference in Sunday’s game?
On offense, the names to know are going to be Kaleb McGary and Ty Sambrailo. The two are supposedly splitting time at right tackle--that terrifies me!--and whichever one fares better might settle into the role for the rest of the game. Given how good this Vikings defensive line is, they can’t both get pummeled or it’s going to be yet another long afternoon for Atlanta.
Defensively, I’d lean toward Ricardo Allen at safety. I never have a good sense of how known he is nationally, but he’s coming off of injury and is a critical piece of the secondary with his ability to help take the deep ball away and clean up the front seven’s messes.
4) Just two years removed from the Super Bowl, the Falcons went 7-9 in 2018 and fired basically everyone on the coaching staff except for head coach Dan Quinn. Do you think Quinn’s job is in danger this year if the Falcons don’t, at the very least, make a return to the playoffs?
I absolutely do. The signs of it are all there if you squint just a little bit, including Quinn having to throw himself into the defensive coordinator role (though I suspect he also likes that), team owner Arthur Blank being outspoken about Julio Jones’ contract, and the sudden about-face to Matt Bryant at kicker after the team spent all spring and summer pushing for Giorgio Tavecchio to have the job, which I suspect also was at least partially driven by an owner impatient to see this franchise win.
The Falcons have done a spectacular job of drafting in the Dan Quinn era and have built a talented roster, so it would be a shame to see the current braintrust tossed aside. I think a losing season after such an ugly, disappointing year in 2018 would probably do it, though.
5) How do you think the game will go on Sunday, and how do you think the Falcons’ season will go as a whole?
I think the Falcons can win this one, and I’m such a fan of their offseason moves that I’m predicting it. I’m fully aware, however, that the Vikings have won the last three, that Mike Zimmer’s defense is poisonous for this Falcons offense, and Atlanta’s on the road, so it’s not exactly a confident prediction.
Either way, I do expect this to be a nice bounceback season for Atlanta, which has stocked the roster with a ton of talent and needs to win to avoid having to blow things up again. I’ve got them at 11-5 with the NFC South this year, and I hope that doesn’t look delusional three months from now.
Thanks to Dave for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions for us.