Scouting Report: Falcons pound on ground, stay simple in passing game
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With another loss against Oakland the Vikings dropped to 2-8 record. That puts them in line for a top-three draft pick come April and a shot at some legitimate marquee talent. Can they take one step closer against Atlanta this week, or will the will to restore some pride by earning a victory instead? Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down film from every NFL game, takes an inside look at the Falcons:
Atlanta's offense hasn't changed too much from the system left by Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave when he departed in the offseason. The Falcons have added some weapons to the roster, but the offense looks similar and should be recognizable by Vikings fans -- even representing something they can potentially look forward to down the line.
Atlanta likes to pull linemen, especially guards, and will use them to kick out defenders and create running lanes for powerful HB Michael Turner (5-foot-10, 237 pounds). In the passing game, the Falcons like to keep it simple, exploiting the matchup advantages TE Tony Gonzalez (6-4, 251) can offer them and otherwise relying on the ability of their receivers to win against coverage using a pretty simple route tree.
On defense, the Falcons are a pretty straightforward proposition also, running a conventional 4-3 defense. They will zone blitz at times, dropping a defensive end into coverage and looking to overload on the opposite side of the formation, but that is usually as exotic as the Falcons get. They run a lot of Cover-2 and quarters coverage on the back end but will bring a safety up into the box if they feel they need to in order to stop the run.
Atlanta brought in former Vikings DE Ray Edwards (6-5, 273) to take some heat off DE John Abraham (6-4, 256) as the main pass-rushing threat. Edwards has been merely average as a rush force but has played the run typically well. Abraham remains their primary pass-rushing presence and needs to be accounted for, especially as he fits the mould of a quick, speedy pass rusher who, when he gets pressure, tends to do so quickly. Abraham may only have four sacks on the season, but he has another seven knockdowns and 18 further pressures. He has yet to be shut out in terms of pressure this season in any game.
In his rookie year, OLB Sean Weatherspoon (6-1, 239) looked like he may have been more hype than substance, often overrunning on his assignments, looking lost in coverage and generally proving to be something of a liability. This season, though, the light has gone on and he has become arguably the Falcons' best linebacker. Though he trails MLB Curtis Lofton (6-0, 238) in tackles, Weatherspoon actually leads the team in defensive stops (a tackle that constitutes an offensive failure, for example short of the first down on third or fourth down) and has been far more assured in coverage than he was as a rookie. He has also generated efficient pressure when he has been used to blitz, earning a pair of sacks and nine more combined hits and pressures.
He may be their best-paid defensive back, but CB Dunta Robinson (5-11, 174) is not even close to their best. That's CB Brent Grimes (5-10, 180). Robinson in truth has never come close to recapturing his early-career form before major knee injuries derailed him, and he is playing at a level that not only falls some way short of his pay grade, but actually represents an issue for the Falcons. He is allowing 62% of passes into his coverage to be completed and QBs throwing at him this season have a rating of 106.5. With Grimes performing so much better, the Vikings would be wise to throw at Robinson as much as they can.
Strengths and weaknesses
Atlanta's offensive line is not a poor unit, but it does have two weak links that can and should be targeted. LT Sam Baker (6-5, 312) had been a disaster all season, and with him sidelined by a back injury, Will Svitek (6-7, 300) takes his place. Svitek has in truth already outperformed Baker, but facing Vikings RE Jared Allen represents a far sterner test. Svitek's weakness is in pass protection, an area in which Allen should be able to have some joy.
The Falcons' other problem area is at right guard, where they have been unable to adequately replace their free agent loss of Harvey Dahl. Garrett Reynolds (6-8, 309) was bad enough to get benched a couple of games ago and the job is now that of Joe Hawley (6-3, 297), a fourth-round draft pick in 2010. Hawley hasn't been too bad at right guard, despite having struggled at center earlier in the season. But he represents a notable weak link in the chain Vikings UT Kevin Williams in particular should be able to overwhelm.
The Falcons are still weak in the secondary, even if they have improved in that area, and tried to improve yet further. Some of their imports have failed to produce as they expected them to and they can still be attacked there, especially if you can avoid picking on Grimes. None of their safeties are playing particularly well, and when they are forced into nickel defense, they don't have anybody who has shown able to man the slot position. If the Vikings can threaten to air the ball out and then throw the ball wherever Grimes is not, they can produce against this secondary.
By rights the wide receiver corps for the Falcons should be an unquestioned strength, but it doesn't look it heading into this game. Top draft pick Julio Jones (6-3, 220) is still questionable and the early speculation is he will not play. His injury is a hamstring, so even if he does he may not be at full speed. Roddy White (6-1, 208), supposed to flourish with the addition of Jones, has been having a poor season, and currently leads all wide receivers in dropped passes with ten in ten games. Harry Douglas (5-11, 176) has the ability to be an effective slot weapon but has been wildly inconsistent this season. The Vikings are playing this group at the right time, struggling as they are with their own issues in the secondary.
The Falcons remain a flawed team, with holes in the roster they have yet to patch. Those holes exposed them last season and prevented them from going all the way once they hit the postseason, and they may well derail their campaign this year, too -- but the Vikings may not be good enough to do it. The Vikings can match up in a few key areas, but Atlanta often plays slightly better than the sum of its parts, and in the end, QB Matt Ryan is a far more likely victor than QB Christian Ponder.