We have reached the point of the week where we get ourselves a little bit of insight into the Minnesota Vikings’ opponent for the week. In Week 9, the purple will head down to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to take on the Atlanta Falcons, which means we get to talk with our friends from The Falcoholic, SB Nation’s home for everything Falcons-related.
(Not a site for people that are hooked on Rock Me, Amadeus. Although there might be a site for that somewhere, too.)
I had the opportunity to exchange questions with Kevin Knight from The Falcoholic this week. My answers to his questions are already up at their site, and here are his answers to the questions that I sent him.
1) Like the Vikings (albeit for different reasons) the Falcons are making a quarterback change this week, sending Desmond Ridder to the bench in favor of Taylor Heinicke. What sort of effect do you expect this to have on Atlanta’s offense?
I expect quicker processing and quicker throws from Taylor Heinicke, along with better ability to avoid bad sacks. Given Heinicke’s aggressive nature, I’d expect more downfield throws as well. That should add more consistency to the offense overall, as while Desmond Ridder was making strides as a passer, he still continued to crumble under pressure and turn the ball over at an incredibly high rate. Speaking of turnovers, I’m not expecting a significant downturn in interceptions—we know Heinicke is a risk taker and will put the ball in harm’s way sometimes. Falcons fans will probably be OK with that if the touchdowns and big plays accompany them. The Falcons certainly have the receiving personnel to help Heinicke out in this regard, but it remains to be seen (outside of one productive half) what this offense will look like with Heinicke at the helm.
2) This past April, the Falcons made the increasingly rare move of taking a running back with a high first-round pick with the selection of Bijan Robinson. However, it appears that he’s splitting carries with second-year back Tyler Allegier. Do you feel that Robinson is being featured the way he should be?
Bijan Robinson is an electric talent, but the rest of the team—and coaching staff, for that matter—has let him down so far. Robinson started off the season hot, with a few awesome games on the ground and a ton of targets out of the backfield in the passing game. Since then, it’s seemingly shifted into more of a timeshare with Tyler Allgeier as the run blocking has not lived up to expectations. The Falcons have also been having Bijan play a lot out of the slot and even split out wide, and you can tell he’s simply not very experienced as an actual receiver at this stage. There have been times where Bijan has been asked to run option routes, which is way too much to put on the plate of a rookie running back. I have no doubt he’ll be able to handle all those roles and become the true dynamic weapon we all envision eventually, but I think the Falcons need to dial it back to what he’s comfortable with and let him loose. It would also help if the Falcons had some positive game scripts for him, which they’ve had approximately one of over the course of the entire season.
3) Atlanta’s defense has been incredibly solid this year, currently ranking sixth in the NFL in yards allowed. If you were Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips, how would you go about attacking the Falcons’ defense?
Atlanta’s defense has two weaknesses: they struggle to convert pressure into sacks, and they have given up some big plays due to busted coverages in the secondary. That was a recipe for disaster against Will Levis and the Titans last week, as Atlanta couldn’t get Levis on the ground and wound up giving him a bunch of wide open receivers to launch the ball to. It’s quite odd, because the Falcons actually get a lot of pressure without being overly reliant on the blitz: they’re 3rd in pressure rate while being 19th in blitz rate, but they’ve only got 15 sacks to show for it (T-26th). This is a new scheme under Ryan Nielsen, so the coverage busts aren’t all that unexpected, but it’s quite the juxtaposition from how this unit typically plays. Most of the time, this is a very difficult defense to move the ball against. They’re excellent on 3rd down (5th) and in the red zone (5th), and have handled the run and pass well. We’ll see how the loss of Grady Jarrett and nose tackle LaCale London affects things, as those were two significant contributors on the interior alongside David Onyemata—who has been one of the NFL’s best in 2023.
4) Give us one “under the radar” player on each side of the ball that you think will be integral to the Falcons’ success on Sunday.
With Drake London very questionable to play and a more aggressive signal caller under center, this could be Van Jefferson’s time to shine in Atlanta. The Falcons did a late-round pick swap for Jefferson a few weeks back, and he’s been slowly working his way up the depth chart as he’s learned the playbook. Now with a gunslinger in Heinicke under center, this could be a breakout opportunity for Jefferson. I’d also expect Mack Hollins to play a larger role as London’s primary backup if London can’t go on Sunday.
On defense, one of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the emergence of former UDFA Nate Landman at linebacker. After losing 2022 second-rounder Troy Andersen to a season-ending injury early in the year, Landman was thrust into the starting lineup...and has played exceptional football thus far. He’s been a huge boost to the run defense alongside veteran addition Kaden Elliss and has given the Falcons defense a shot in the arm despite the loss of their promising second rounder. With his arrival, Atlanta suddenly has a potentially deep linebacker room heading into 2024.
5) With both of these teams making quarterback changes on one side of the ball and playing solid defense on the other side, the folks at the DraftKings Sportsbook have set the over/under for this one at 37, which seems like a pretty low number. Do you see that sort of defensive battle between these two teams on Sunday?
That number certainly reflects the uncertainty we’re all probably feeling about this game, but I think we are likely to see this game hit the over. While Taylor Heinicke may turn the ball over, he also scores touchdowns—which Ridder really struggled to do. So I’m expecting the Falcons offense to get into the 20s a lot more frequently with Heinicke at the helm. The big question is how rookie Jaren Hall looks against Atlanta’s defense. Does he carve them up like Will Levis, which was a massive outlier game for the Falcons secondary? Or does Atlanta’s defense return to normalcy and make things difficult for the rookie? I tend to think the latter, given what I’ve seen of Atlanta’s defense through the first eight games, but I can’t be sure. I’ll say the Falcons come away with the one-score win, 24-17.
Thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer our questions for this week!