Behind Enemy Lines: Can Falcons stop Cook & Co.?

Garrett Chapman
September 06, 2019 - 2:56 pm
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Like the Atlanta Falcons, the Minnesota Vikings were a supposed contender that had the world come crashing down in 2018. Expectations were high, but an unceremonious playoff exit at the hands of the Eagles and a missed opportunity to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium derailed the Vikings that season.

This is a new season, though, with new expectations that both teams will be excited to start and this is what you can expect from the Week 1 matchup in Minneapolis.

Offense

When you look for the motor of the Vikings’ offense, your eyes should immediately turn to the third-year pro out of Florida State, Dalvin Cook. After two seasons marred by injuries, he is starting to look like the guy the Vikings drafted in 2017. Expect to see a healthy dose of Cook early and often behind a revamped offensive line. Against a Falcons defense that struggled against the run in 2018, this is a matchup that will have tremendous ramifications on the outcome of the game.

On the outside, this wideout tandem is just about as good as they come. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are BOTH coming off 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons. If you manage to stop one, the other is likely already running down the field for a touchdown. With question marks at cornerback, the Falcons will have their work cut out for them. However, something to watch for is the health of Diggs in the lead-up to the game. He was listed on the injury report throughout the week with a bad hamstring and he missed practice as late as Wednesday. The odds he misses the game are slim, but it will still be something to follow.

The $84 million man returns under center with the Vikings entering Year 2 of the Kirk Cousins project. After adding the “QB Guru,” Gary Kubiak, to the staff, the team will be looking to erase Cousins’ growing number of critics. After four seasons as an NFL starter, we still find ourselves trying to figure out who Cousins is. Looking only at his stat line, you would think he would be among the more successful quarterbacks in the game (averaging 4,369 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions to go along with a 98.1 passer rating). For some reason, that doesn’t seem to translate into the win-loss column (he’s basically a .500 quarterback and that record gets much worse against quality opponents). With the help of a revamped offensive line, those two beasts out wide, and a potential Pro Bowl running back, he will be looking to shift that narrative starting on Sunday.

Defense

When you look at this defensive unit, you can’t help but be impressed by the way they get after the quarterback. Speaking of which, Danielle Hunter will be a critical player for the Falcons to focus on. He finished last season with 14.5 sacks, and if that isn’t enough to make you sweat, he’s going up against a right tackle spot that remains in a state of flux for Atlanta. He pairs with the likes of Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph, making this is a deep unit that could really cause Atlanta trouble. If they are allowed to chase Matt Ryan at will, it will be a long day for the Falcons.

In another deep unit, the linebackers figure to make even more trouble for Atlanta on Sunday. Anthony Barr is back to anchor this linebacker corps after giving Minnesota fans reason to sweat this offseason when it was rumored he accepted a deal with the Jets. There’s a good reason for that because this guy can do it all and he makes plays all over the field. Listen for his name to be called over and over again on Sunday.

Of every unit on the Vikings’ defense, the defensive backfield is the one where the Falcons can do the most damage. Depth is a concern with Holton Hill being suspended for eight games and Mike Hughes still coming back from an ACL tear. There is a lot of pressure on Xavier Rhodes to be that player that he was in 2017, but much of his focus will be placed on one Julio Jones all game. All-world safety Harrison Smith will be another pain for the Falcons to deal with and could cause some serious trouble. However, their success will come down to the pass rush. If they struggle to get pressure on Matt Ryan, it could be a long day for the secondary with how talented Atlanta’s pass catchers are.

Prediction

In consecutive seasons, these two teams watched from their couches as another team hoisted Lombardi trophies in their home stadium. Both teams are expecting to rectify that in Miami come February. But with such challenging divisions to come home to after this game, this matchup becomes that much more critical for these squads.

This will be difficult for the Falcons to win on the road. Coincidentally, the Vikings are 4-0 in regular-season openers against the Falcons all-time and unfortunately, I expect that streak to continue. The new-look Vikings offense will be just enough and the Falcons will struggle to stop this vaunted Vikings’ pass rush, especially with so much uncertainty opposite Danielle Hunter. Add in the “what-if” scenario surrounding Julio Jones and this is shaping up to be a difficult first game for the Falcons to win.

Vikings: 27

Falcons: 24

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