If it looks like a trap, smells like a trap, and sounds like a trap, then it probably is a trap.
That is potentially what the Atlanta Falcons have coming their way this weekend when they face off on the road against the Minnesota Vikings.
Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the symptoms and causes of why the Falcons have historically been relatively mediocre when playing on the road.
Blogging Dirty also had a notable article this week as well detailing the historic struggles of teams that go on the road following the layoff that comes from playing on Thursday night, as the Falcons did a week ago.
That win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a huge win for the Falcons, one of their most lopsided victories ever experienced under head coach Mike Smith, but also in franchise history. Such a win would certainly have anybody feeling overconfident heading into this weekend.
There is almost certainly going to be a bit of a letdown as the Falcons return to Earth this week, but it begs the question whether that letdown will be so much that the Falcons will actually lose on Sunday?
The Vikings also will have a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater making his first NFL start on Sunday. That usually involves a defense licking their chops, and an experienced defensive coordinator like Mike Nolan should have a variety of things to throw at Bridgewater that he’s certainly never seen before in his brief professional career.
But a large part of that depends less on the Falcons defense, but moreso on their offense. Essentially, the Vikings game plan will to have Bridgewater manage the game. And his ability to do so rests mainly on whether the Vikings defense will be able to slow down the Falcons offensive attack.
The Vikings are a tough, physical team comparable to the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals. While many may question that comparison since the Bengals defense is well-established as one of the league’s most formidable, the Vikings defense is very underrated. They held the New Orleans Saints to 20 points last week in the Superdome. The last time a Falcons defense held the Saints to 20 or less points in their home stadium came in 2001. In fact, prior to last Sunday, the Saints had scored more than 21 or more points in 25 consecutive home games.
If the Vikings defense can prove an effective impediment for the Falcons offense, then it will mean that the Vikings rushing attack will remain an asset for Bridgewater well into the game. And while the Vikings rushing attack ranks among the league’s worst without the presence of Adrian Peterson, for them it will be less about how many yards they gain, and more simply about getting as many carries as possible.
In football, it’s not really about how many yards you gain when it comes to running the football, it’s more about how many times you run the ball. Rush attempts correlate much more to winning games than rushing yards or yards per carry. That’s because teams tend to run the ball more when they have leads, particularly late in games as they try to milk time off the clock.
Ultimately, the Vikings will probably want to run the ball at least 30 times this week, and whether or not they get 100 yards with those attempts is by and large inconsequential. Obviously the more yards they get, the better, but ultimately the Vikings want to be in a position where they can still run the football in the second half and thus not have to force Bridgewater to try and win the game with his arm in his first NFL start.
Even though the Falcons defense hasn’t been great this season, such a scenario would play directly in their hands. Nolan could scheme more blitzes to force Bridgewater to play “too fast.” Just think back to Matt Ryan’s own rookie season in early starts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, where the Falcons found themselves in early holes and unable to climb out of them. In fact, despite being far better than your typical young quarterback, it wasn’t until Ryan’s 29th career start before he led the Falcons to a win in a game where they were down at halftime.
But Bridgewater should not exactly be considered liability for the Vikings. The reality is that former starter Matt Cassel has been so bad this year, that in all likelihood Bridgewater will be an upgrade at that quarterback. Cassel ranks 33rd in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and 30th in ESPN’s Total QBR metric. Cassel’s advanced metrics compare to that of Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden in 2013. Weeden was replaced by Brian Hoyer in Week 3 after the Browns only generated one touchdown in the first two games of that season. Hoyer proceeded to throw five touchdowns over his next two starts, both wins for the Browns.
Hoyer benefited from the infusion of Josh Gordon into the Browns offense in Week 3, and it’s likely a Peterson-less Vikings team will similarly try and rely on their most dynamic playmaker at wide receiver in Cordarelle Patterson. But Patterson hasn’t quite shown up as a big-time receiver, with much of his success being a versatile playmaker due to his abilities as a rusher in a similar vein as Devin Hester in Atlanta.
Instead, it will likely be on Greg Jennings to carry the load in the passing game. Jennings seemingly came alive once Bridgewater entered the game last week, catching four passes for 62 yards in three quarters last week. But more importantly, Bridgewater’s insertion in the lineup seemingly opened up the deep ball for Jennings and the Vikings offense.
Cassel had yet to complete any of his six deep pass attempts this year. Bridgewater completed his first, a 30-yard throw to Jennings. Jennings spends the bulk of his time in the slot, meaning Robert McClain will be tasked with covering the ninth-year veteran.
The reality may be that the introduction of Bridgewater into the lineup may be a huge boost for a Vikings offense that has generated just 16 points the past two games, rather than a liability that popular perception seems to indicate.
So the onus may be on the Falcons offense to put Bridgewater in an uncomfortable setting more so than any thing exotic that Nolan and the Falcons defense may want to dial up. And despite coming off a win where the Falcons offense scored 42 points (not counting a pick-six and special teams touchdown), that will be easier said than done against a formidable Vikings defense.
The Vikings defensively don’t have any real superstars, which is one reason why their defense is probably underrated at this point. But first-year head coach Mike Zimmer has brought some of his success from Cincinnati and instilled it in Minnesota by playing disciplined and sound defense.
The Falcons offense has thrived this season off the big play, as the team leads the league with 18 plays of 20 or more yards. But the Vikings defense has been one of the stingiest against big plays, allowing just eight, tied for sixth-best in the league. Three of those plays came late in their Week 1 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams, so the Vikings defense is probably stingier than the stats give credit for.
The Vikings will try to borrow a page from Zimmer’s former team, the Bengals, by limiting the Falcons offense by controlling the line of scrimmage. In Week 2, left defensive end Carlos Dunlap along with the Bengals blitz was very effective at putting pressure on Ryan. And as anybody that saw the Falcons in 2013 knows, pressure can be the offense’s kryptonite.
The positive for the Falcons is that Vikings left end Brian Robison is not nearly the player that Dunlap is. The negative is that right tackle Lamar Holmes is still a relatively unknown factor. The Falcons have yet to see Holmes put together two solid performances in a row this year, including the preseason. Holmes only allowed a single pressure last week, but there were still a few too many plays where his inconsistent technique showed up to inspire a ton of confidence.
But one can expect Zimmer to dial up a couple of blitzes and utilize his explosive rookie linebacker in Anthony Barr to try and create some additional pressure. While none of the Vikings front have shown themselves to be elite pass-rushers, all are solid and capable. Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson have managed to put a decent amount of pressure on the quarterback collectively this year. Unlike last week, Ryan won’t have all day to throw and find open receivers down the field.
Winning those match ups downfield will be imperative for the Falcons success. The Vikings have already proven that they can contain a big time receiver with scheme. Last week, tight end Jimmy Graham was held to six catches for 54 yards and no touchdowns. Like Graham, Julio Jones will likely bear the brunt of the focus from the Vikings defense to try and keep him contained.
Vikings right cornerback Xavier Rhodes has performed fairly well this year, but he hasn’t seen a player quite like Jones on the outside. It will be one of the biggest tests of Rhodes burgeoning NFL career. But it should be noted that a year ago, he handled himself reasonably well against receivers like Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery and Pierre Garcon who are the closest analogues to a big, physical athlete like Jones.
Zimmer may opt to borrow a page from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who had a big, long corner like Rhodes in Aqib Talib do a very effective job against Jones in 2013. Talib was asked to get physical with Jones at the line of scrimmage, and Belichick often gave him safety help over the top. The Vikings could do the same with safety Harrison Smith providing deep help. It was effective in marginalizing Jones for large parts of that game.
In that Patriots game, Ryan relied heavily on tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught 12 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. It remains to be seen if another of the Falcons receivers are able to step up if the Vikings are effective in containing Jones.
While Devin Hester has been a big-time playmaker for the Falcons this year, his production has been relatively sparse. He has only touched the ball a combined three times the past two weeks. But he’s managed to gain 47 yards on those three touches, proving he is a capable playmaker. But that may not be enough.
Thus the onus may be on wide receiver Roddy White to step up this week. White has been battling knee and hamstring injuries thus far this season, and while recent indicators are that White will play on Sunday in Minnesota, they will need him not only to play, but to play well.
While White’s production has not been poor this year, with 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in two games, there is one telling statistic that indicates White isn’t quite performing up to his usual standards: targets.
According to premium website Pro Football Focus, White was targeted 160 times in 18 games in 2012, which represented 33.6 percent of Ryan’s 476 pass attempts that season. In 2013, in the final five games of the season where he looked fully healthy, White was targeted 59 times or 28.4 percent of Ryan’s attempts in that span. This season, White has been targeted 14 times, which is only 16.1 percent of Ryan’s pass attempts in the first two games. Comparatively, during his first eight games of 2013 when White was dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries, he was targeted on 10.6 percent of Ryan’s attempts. Thus, White’s performance this year has been closer to the level in 2013 when he was largely a decoy in the Falcons offense.
He’ll be lining up against Captain Munnerlyn, the Vikings left corner, a familiar face from his days in Carolina. But in the nickel, he’ll likely be lined up against Josh Robinson as Munnerlyn moves inside to the slot.
In his first two seasons, Robinson was arguably one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. But his play has improved considerably this year. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed a passer rating of just 38.1 this year, good for seventh-best in the NFL this year among 96 cornerbacks graded by the site. His coverage grade from Pro Football Focus this season is nearly identical to that of Desmond Trufant, making him one of the top nickel cornerbacks in the league through the early part of this season. Since the Falcons will likely make ample use of three and four-wide receiver sets, expect Robinson to draw the majority of the assignments against White.
White is going to need to step up and be more involved in the Falcons pass attack than he was the first two weeks. While the days where White was a big-time playmaker may be fading, he still can be an essential part of the Falcons efforts to keep the offense on schedule and the chains moving.
Ultimately, the winner of this game will be the team that will be able to dictate to the other what they want to do. Each team will try to play to their strengths. The Vikings will rely on their defense and try and keep it a low-scoring affair where they won’t have to put too much on Bridgewater’s plate in his first start. On the other hand, the Falcons want it to be a shootout, which favors their explosive offense and means their defense can pin their ears back and get after a young, inexperienced quarterback.
The presence and experience of Ryan gives the Falcons somewhat of a boost if things don’t go their way early, thanks to his many game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks. However, it should be noted that only nine of Ryan’s 25 game-winning drives in his career have come on the road. So while it’s probably more likely the Falcons can have more faith in their quarterback if they get behind early in the game, it’s not likely that they can have a high degree of faith.
As Ryan himself noted this week, a fast start will be critical for the Falcons success and get their first win on the road in 2014. If they can start strong, then it’s likely the Falcons can avoid the trap.