Preview: Bill Musgrave returns to Atlanta under tough circumstances
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-8) at Atlanta Falcons (6-4).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Georgia Dome (capacity: 71,228), Atlanta, Ga.
Line: Falcons by 9½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-11). Falcons -- Mike Smith (4th year, 39-21).
Series: Vikings lead 16-10.
Last meeting: The Vikings couldn't convert on fourth-and-16 with 56 seconds to go and Falcons guard Justin Blalock pounced on a Matt Ryan fumble for his first career touchdown as Atlanta clinched a playoff spot with 24-17 win at the Metrodome on Dec. 21, 2008.
At stake: The Falcons are one game back of first-place New Orleans (7-3) in the NFC South Division and stand even with Detroit (7-4) and the New York Giants (6-4) in the loss column for the second NFC wild-card spot. Scheduled to visit Houston and Carolina the next two weeks, Atlanta needs to take care of business against the Vikings, who are merely trying to stop the bleeding and avoid the worst record in franchise history.
Vikings: HB Adrian Peterson (ankle) was downgraded from doubtful to out on Saturday. CB Chris Cook (not injury related), FS Husain Abdullah (concussion) and RG Anthony Herrera (knee) also are out. TE Kyle Rudolph (quadriceps) is doubtful. TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring) and WR Percy Harvin (ribs) are questionable. WLB Erin Henderson (hamstring), QB Christian Ponder (knee), DT Christian Ballard (hamstring), LT Charlie Johnson (Achilles) and SS Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) are probable.
Falcons: CB Kelvin Hayden (toe) is out. LT Sam Baker (back), CB Brent Grimes (knee) and DT Vance Walker (groin) are questionable. DE John Abraham (not injury related), G Justin Blaylock (ankle), TE Tony Gonzalez (not injury related), WR Julio Jones (hamstring), LB Curtis Lofton (ankle), C Todd McClure (not injury related), S William Moore (quadriceps) and DT Corey Peters (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Home again: OC Bill Musgrave's return to Atlanta will present the greatest challenge he has faced with the Vikings. He must design a game plan that can succeed without Peterson, the dynamic All-Pro who has accounted for 186 of the Vikings' 276 runs (67.4%) this season. He may not have the services of Rudolph or Shiancoe. Ponder is coming off the worst game of his young career behind an offensive line that wasn't much better in last weekend's sloppy 27-21 loss to Oakland. And there are enough similarities between Musgrave's scheme and the one Mike Mularkey still directs in Atlanta that Falcons defenders may have a leg up on base calls. If there's one positive, it's that Atlanta has weak links in the secondary and runs a lot of zone, which helps a Vikings receiver group that lacks perimeter speed and struggles to beat man coverage. But the Falcons figure to send a lot of pressure at Ponder without as much fear of HB Toby Gerhart burning them on the ground, and it'll be up to Musgrave to use that aggressiveness against them.
Win inside: What kind of sign was it that Frazier credited UT Kevin Williams for his best game on a day the Raiders ran for 162 yards on 41 carries? A couple of years ago, those kinds of numbers would have led to panic. But this leaky Vikings defense is allowing 100.7 rushing yards per game (ninth in the NFL) and won't get a break against a Falcons offense that runs through HB Michael Turner, who already has five 100-yard games this season. Atlanta likes to play power football with guards pulling and kicking out in front of its 237-pound workhorse, and the Vikings must find some way to cover up their subpar nose tackle play to prevent Turner from taking over. A good place to start would be improved play from linebackers -- especially with SLB Chad Greenway, who had 15 tackles (seven solo) last week but continues to miss playmaking opportunities.
Ponder this: Frazier apparently was concerned enough about Ponder's mindset after the Oakland game to call and offer encouragement on the way home. But the poor decisions that led to Ponder's three interceptions were just that -- mental errors many rookie quarterbacks make as they get used to tighter windows and quicker defenders in the NFL. It would be a greater concern if the turnovers were a result of, say, lacking arm strength, which isn't an issue for Ponder. The last thing coaches want is for him to start playing scared, but that seems unlikely, based on his makeup. There will be plays to be made against a Falcons secondary that is weak at one corner -- Dunta Robinson has allowed completions on 62% of passes and a 106.5 passer rating into his coverage -- lacks a viable slot corner in the nickel defense and isn't getting much production at safety either. Ponder's willingness to be aggressive without taking the sorts of dumb risks he did against the Raiders will be telling.
Tony, Tony, Tony: The latest test for the Vikings' depleted secondary may not be quite as tough if Jones' hamstring slows him down, mitigating QB Matt Ryan's best downfield weapon. WR Roddy White's production has dipped this season, and slot WR Harry Douglas has been inconsistent. But the Falcons still have a matchup nightmare in TE Tony Gonzalez against a Vikings defense that consistently has struggled to defend the middle of the field. At age 35, Gonzalez has top-five tight end numbers -- 50 catches for 561 yards and seven touchdowns -- and is so big and physical at 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds the Vikings can't use CB Benny Sapp against him in the slot. Odds are good Gonzalez will see a lot of the linebackers and safeties off the line scrimmage as the Vikings continue to deploy predominantly zone coverage in an effort to cover up their personnel shortages on the back end.
Focus, focus: There's no other way to slice it -- the Vikings have committed the types of errors over the past two weeks that happen when players just aren't locked in. So, talk about shakeups such as those coordinator Mike Priefer intends to make on special teams could be as much about trying to get players' attention as anything. There is reason to believe some coaches are beginning to get nervous that finishing 4-12 or worse might cost them their jobs, regardless of a rebuilding process that left the Vikings short-handed in some spots from the start. Continued penalties, fundamental miscues and confusion on the field aren't what owner Zygi Wilf wants to see when evaluating whether this staff has the team headed in the right direction. If there's a selling point for players, it's that their future with the team may still hang in the balance, with 18 players unsigned beyond this season.
This one isn't too difficult to forecast. Without their best offensive player and with little of consequence to play for, the Vikings may struggle just to make it a game.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Vikings 17.