Vikings

Big Matchups and Key Stats: The Vikings Should Light Up the Falcons Pass Defense

Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Assuming the Atlanta Falcons successfully thwart the mid-week insurgence of the COVID-19 virus into their facilities, they’ll face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Fingers are firmly crossed to the point of white knuckles in Vikings nation because this looks like a matchup their team can figure out a way to win… even without Dalvin Cook, who will presumably miss this game with a groin injury.

The Falcons will enter this titanic clash with the Vikings led by interim head coach Raheem Morris still searching for their first win of the season. As I mentioned a week ago, based on the record of Vikings opponents thus far this season, they have had a heck of a rough schedule. Therefore, games against teams like the Falcons (and the Houston Texans a few weeks ago) represent a welcome respite – an oasis of sorts for the Purple.

It should be noted that this past week several other fine folks in sports media with larger platforms than this one caught onto the trend I described a week ago and pointed out that the Vikings’ schedule has been tougher than a Denny’s steak. Just remember where you first read about the amazing trend, you guys. And stay tuned for more breathtaking analysis in the weeks ahead – perhaps even some in the paragraphs below.

Now that I’ve torn a rotator cuff patting myself on the back for an “I saw it first” victory less meaningful than finding Waldo, where were we?

Oh yeah… as you’ve heard from many outlets by now, the Vikings’ four losses this season have come against teams with a combined 16-2 record, including three of the remaining four undefeated NFL teams. The spin doctors have been enthusiastically citing this data along with the fact that two of the losses have been by one point as evidence that the Vikings are actually a play or two away from being Super Bowl contenders or something like that.

Everybody, take a deep breath.

Their only victory so far in 2020 has come against the Texans, who were winless at the time, and this game is also against a winless opponent. That’s the trend to focus on right now. The Vikings need to make it 2-for-2 on beating winless teams. A loss would more than offset any of the positive spin-doctoring that has taken place this past week. It would also crank the heat up on head coach Mike Zimmer… and maybe even Rick Spielman.

THE BIG MATCHUPS

With Cook likely sidelined, Alexander Mattison will get a chance to do his thing as the feature back, with an assist from Mike Boone. Mattison doesn’t need to put up Cook-like numbers, though he did a reasonable impression of him on Sunday night in Seattle. Instead, he just needs to be effective enough on the touches he receives to open things up for Kirk Cousins and the passing game.

He’ll definitely get his opportunities.

If you’re the Falcons’ game-planners figuring out a way to stop a Vikings offense that won’t have Cook, you’re going to re-double your efforts to limit the Vikes’ passing game. That could backfire because, as those in Vikings territory will attest, Mattison isn’t your typical average backup. Between a Falcons defense doubling-down against the pass and a game script that might see the Vikings running clock with a lead in the fourth quarter (if all goes according to plan) Mattison’s stats should look good in the final box score.

Regardless of how the Falcons perform against Mattison, however, they need to do something about their beleaguered pass defense. We’ll see if Coach Morris has any new wrinkles up his sleeve when it comes to scheming against the Vikings, but Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson have this secondary overmatched on paper. That “paper” (a.k.a. stat sheet) shows Atlanta ranks 31st in pass defense at 335.8 yards allowed per game. They also rank 31st in average reception at 8.5 yards. They rank dead last in quarterback rating against at 118.3. Four of the five starting quarterbacks that have faced the Falcons this season have topped 300 yards. And in the other game, the Bears duo of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles combined for 316. They have allowed 15 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. A whopping seven of those touchdowns have gone to tight ends.

In summary, they have not been very good.

That faint sound you heard may or may not have been a dog whistle to fantasy football owners to load up on Cousins, Thielen, Jefferson and Mattison (maybe even Kyle Rudolph) in DFS play this week.

FALCONS PLAYER TO WATCH

Overall, the Vikings’ struggles against the pass seemed to have faded a bit the past few weeks. They’ve managed intermittent pressure on the pocket and received improving play from their banged-up and inexperienced secondary.

Speaking of banged-up, Julio Jones has played only 15 snaps over the past three weeks due to a hamstring injury that has plagued him most of the season. His status for this one appears iffy, but the Falcons still have potent pieces in their offense, led by Matt Ryan and the one-two punch of Todd Gurley and Calvin Ridley.

Ryan will again need to lean on Ridley as his No. 1 target – possibly even when Jones returns. Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus will continue in their supporting roles, but Ridley is the one to watch on this Atlanta offense. He will give the Vikings’ youthful fleet of corners all they can handle and likely draw extra attention from Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.

Ridley leads the Falcons in targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He’s also accounted for 10 of the team’s 21 big-chunk plays of 20-plus yards this season. The Packers shut Ridley out on Monday night two weeks ago, but he’s topped 100 yards in every other game. In addition, Ridley leads the team with 25 first downs, four more than Gurley, whereas Gurley leads the team with five touchdowns. Vikings defenders have done a great job on third downs in recent weeks, and now lead the NFL in third-down defense (27.8%). For that to continue, Ridley will be the one to watch. The Vikes need to put the clamps on him. If and when Ryan leads his team inside the red zone, all eyes should be on Gurley.

KEY STATS

Remember the part in the intro section of this article where I was mentioning the stuff about the things – you know, the amazing records of teams that the Vikings have lost to this season? Well, the trend of losing to teams with better records isn’t just a 2020 thing for your Vikings. Oh no, friends. This one goes back a few years.

It felt like this wasn’t a new phenomenon so I did a little digging.

What I discovered with the help of my trusty friends, the Internet and addition, is that the Vikings have the following regular-season records since 2017 based on the records of their opponents at the time of the game:

  • The Vikings are 2-11 against teams with better records.
  • The Vikings are 8-5-1 against teams with the same record.
  • The Vikings are 22-4 against teams with worse records.

This trend probably goes back further than 2017, but that’s where I stopped looking for now because 2017 was the last season in which they defeated a team that had a better record at the time of the game. They did it twice that season. Of course, the Vikings finished 13-3 in 2017 so they beat almost everyone regardless of record, including wins over the Packers and Buccaneers, who each had slightly better records when they met.

That means, since the start of the 2018 season, the Vikings have lost 11 straight games against teams that had a better record at the time of the game. It sure is a good thing they’ve gone 22-4 since 2017 against teams with inferior records… like the Falcons.

This game against the Falcons could be considered one of those proverbial “trap games,” but based on this trend, it’s probably not.

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Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

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