The Falcons were down 14 before they woke up, and the Vikings refused to let them back in the game.
Minnesota’s home opener couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly for the home team as fans were treated to a hard-hitting defensive performance coupled with a smashmouth running game that left the Falcons dazed. The end result: a 28-12 victory.
The Vikings mixed and matched personnel offensively, stayed patient with their rushing attack and reaped the rewards with five carries of 10 yards or more and 174 yards on the day. They were third-worst in explosive runs a season ago. A now-healthy Dalvin Cook was in no way eased back in — the Vikings rode him early and often as he rumbled for 74 yards on 12 first-half carries. He ended the day with 23 touches and 120 all-purpose yards (111 rushing) while cohort Alexander Mattison ripped off two explosive runs as well in his debut, finishing with 49 yards.
It was defense and special teams that set the tone. Anthony Barr — moments after being the esteemed final player to be announced in pre-game introductions — sacked Matt Ryan on the first play from scrimmage, foreshadowing his utilization as an edge rusher throughout the game, as well as Minnesota’s domination.
Special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf was known for being part of aggressive special teams units in Miami, which they showed immediately on Sunday. After a Falcons three-and-out on the opening drive, Eric Wilson blocked Matt Bosher’s punt to give Minnesota a short field. Three plays later, Adam Thielen scored the game’s first touchdown from 23 yards out on a crossing pattern from Cousins — Thielen’s lone catch of the first half as he ended with a modest three grabs for 43 yards.
Cousins didn’t need to throw much in this one. The Vikings ran it 19 times in the first half with just seven passes, surely to the delight of Mike Zimmer, intent on re-establishing run dominance in 2019. The final margin ended an astonishing 38 to 10 including kneel downs, Cousins’ career low in pass attempts for a game he started. If the Vikings can get short fields and quick two-touchdown leads each week, that’ll be an easy strategy to continue. The Vikings only had to travel 41 yards for their second touchdown, set up by safety Anthony Harris leaping over Julio Jones for his first of two interceptions, which set Minnesota up for Cook’s touchdown scamper, his first of two.
Remarkably, the Falcons had more first downs in the first half than the Vikings — 12 to 11. But Atlanta continually stalled or shot itself in the foot. Devonta Freeman lost a fumble near the Vikings’ 20. Ryan tossed an interception on an attempted throwaway in the back of the Vikings’ end zone. He was sacked out of field goal range late in the first half. Minnesota led 21-0 at the break after Cousins converted a one-yard sneak for a score.
It was a nightmarish outing for Ryan, who didn’t have a multi-interception game once in 2018.
Minnesota’s defensive line pressured Ryan relentlessly — ending with four sacks — and had him seeing ghosts early on. A spooked Ryan missed a wide open Jones on what would have been a touchdown in the first quarter after Mackensie Alexander fell down. The two simply never established a rhythm as Jones put forth another weak performance against his shadow Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings. He entered the fourth quarter with just three catches and 18 yards. With 1:05 to go, Jones found the end zone for a garbage-time touchdown and concluded with 31 yards.
So, what’s there to be concerned about?
For one, Alexander’s health. The Vikings starting slot corner went down in the first half with a dislocated elbow, a painful-looking injury that could have repercussions on Minnesota’s thin secondary. Jayron Kearse saw playing time in place of Alexander, while Kris Boyd also entered to spell Xavier Rhodes, who limped off multiple times — a common occurrence last year, though it didn’t slow him in shutting down Jones is his first game since signing a contract extension. Mike Hughes’ return is more pivotal than ever if Alexander is out for extended time.
Pat Elflein also struggled in pass protection, a continuation of his rocky preseason. Elflein was beaten a handful of times to permit pressure on Cousins, who took some hard hits despite limited dropbacks.
Finally, the Vikings defense gifted the Falcons three first downs on neutral zone infractions and committed four total on the day. Against a team less mistake prone, those mental errors could’ve been devastating.
Ultimately, the Vikings never had to sweat in their opener, a welcome sight for a team moving all its chips to the middle of the table this season.
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