Football Sunday is almost here, and the Vikings are making their final preparations before opening the 2019 season against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons – as most football fans know – were infamously close to winning the franchise's first Super Bowl in 2016 before Tom Brady and the Patriots stormed back. They returned to the playoffs the following year, falling to the eventual champs once again in a divisional round loss to the Eagles.
That recent success made Atlanta's 2018 season a major disappointment. The Falcons went 7-9 in Dan Quinn's fourth year as head coach despite another outstanding year from 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan. To find out what to expect from the 2019 Falcons, both this Sunday and beyond, we enlisted the help of FalconMaven's Dave Holcomb. Here's what he had to say about the Vikings' Week 1 opponent.
VikingMaven: The Falcons, like the Vikings, are coming off a disappointing 2018 season. Can you briefly summarize what went wrong?
Dave Holcomb: The biggest problem was injuries to the defense. Atlanta lost both its starting safeties, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, in the first two weeks of last year. Former Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones also missed significant time, playing just six games, five of which were in December when the Falcons were basically already out of the playoff race.
It didn’t help that Devonta Freeman dealt with injuries as well. He only played in parts of two games, which meant the running attack fell solely on Tevin Coleman. Quarterback Matt Ryan experienced another spectacular season, but defenses sacked him 42 times, which was his most since 2013.
Drafting two offensive linemen in the first round clearly showed where Atlanta feels it needs to improve. How have those guys – and the O-line as a whole – looked so far?
The offensive line was a bit of a mixed bag this preseason. They showed improvement early, but then against the New York Jets, they allowed three sacks in the first half.
The first first-round pick, Chris Lindstrom, is an upgrade at right guard, but fellow first-rounder Kaleb McGary missed most of the preseason because of a heart condition. He played a little in the final preseason game, though, and could start at right tackle Sunday.
Free-agent additions James Carpenter and Jamon Brown are battling for the left guard spot. If McGary and Carpenter both start against the Vikings, Atlanta will be the first team in the common draft era to start five first-round picks along the offensive line.
Head coach Dan Quinn taking over DC duties is an interesting move. What do you expect from the Falcons' defense this season?
With better health, the Falcons defense should be much better this season. They still have some questions at cornerback, and they don’t possess that elite pass rusher most Super Bowl contenders do, but they do have a lot of depth along the defensive line. That rotation should put more pressure on the quarterback this season, helping the secondary.
A healthy Deion Jones in the center of the defense will be key as well.
Give me one name on each side of the ball that Vikings fans probably aren't familiar with who could be an important contributor in 2019.
Kenjon Barner joined the Falcons on a small contract, but he is expected to make an impact in the return game and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He didn’t have many preseason snaps, but he showcased his elusiveness on one play, catching a screen pass and nearly taking it 35-plus yards to the end zone against the Dolphins.
On defense, Tyeler Davison is a key free-agent addition as well. Davison, Allen Bailey and Adrian Clayborn were all added to bolster the defensive line with Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley. With them, maybe Vic Beasley has more one-on-one opportunities.
Lastly, let's hear your prediction for this Sunday's opener and the Falcons' 2019 season overall.
It’s going to be a really tough game. The Vikings at home gives them a slight advantage, but what the heck, I’ll stick with the Falcons and say Atlanta wins, 28-27.
The Falcons have a really tough schedule, so it’s hard to predict a record, but I do believe they will return to the playoffs. Winning about 10 or 11 games makes the most sense.