The Falcons might not be lighting up the scoreboard to the same degree that they did a year ago under Kyle Shanahan. They are, however, still a very dangerous and well-rounded offense. Their 3 straight wins entering Sunday’s game seemed to indicate an upward trend. The Vikings squelched any of that momentum, and all but shut Atlanta down on their home turf.
The Falcons possess the reigning NFL MVP in Matt Ryan, arguably the best receiver in the game in Julio Jones, and plenty of other weapons in the passing game. But when this offense gets rolling, it’s because they are creating explosive plays in the running game. They often do this by getting their speedy running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, to the outside. The Vikings clearly set out to keep this from happening.
From the opening kick-off, the Vikings were conscious of setting the edge against the run and forcing Freeman and Coleman to cut it back inside. This worked in Minnesota’s favor, as Atlanta’s outside-zone runs ended up being redirected between the tackles, where the Vikings had their fast, strong, and aggressive tacklers waiting. The matchup against that defensive line of Everson Griffen, Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter was not an advantageous one for Atlanta.
The play below illustrates a great example of how conscious Minnesota was of getting outside of Atlanta’s running backs. The Falcons were in “11” personnel (1RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), a package they are very successful running out of. “11” personnel gets a smaller defense on the field. This generally gives Atlanta a mismatch on the perimeter, where they have some of the best blocking receivers in the game who can take advantage of there being more defensive backs on the field. Here, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, one of the most physical blocking receivers in the NFL, motioned down tight to the formation.
This put the Falcons in a trips-bunch formation. Out of this look, the Falcons love to run tosses to the outside.
From the end zone view, you can see that Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr glanced to the outside and noticed Sanu motioning tight to the formation.
At this point, Barr knew a toss to running back Devonta Freeman was likely coming. He knew he had to fight through the trips-bunch traffic at the snap and get outside of Freeman to prevent him from getting to the edge for a big play.
At the snap, you can see that this is exactly what he did.
Barr’s initial move outside forced Freeman back towards the middle of the defense where there were more defenders, and quite frankly, matchups inside that favored the Vikings.
Freeman was forced to run into the teeth of the defense, with 4 tacklers waiting for him.
The result was a meager 3-yard run.
This play also illustrates the level of preparation that the Vikings defense has, and we see it every week. The Falcons run this play frequently out of a trips-bunch formation. With the speed of their backs and the blocking ability of their receivers, they often generate big plays from it. Barr instantly was aware, based on the alignment, that he needed to get outside. Despite the fact that he did not touch the ball carrier, he was the most influential defender on this play.
When it was all said and done, the Falcons gained 102 rushing yards on 22 carries – an average of 4.6 yards per rush. These aren’t bad numbers at all. But their longest run was 13 yards. The Vikings limited game-changing explosive plays, and kept the Falcons offense in check as a result.
The Vikings’ scheme, preparation and execution extended to the passing game as well. Minnesota kept Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in check by varying their coverages and never providing Ryan with a clean look. Minnesota finished with nearly an even 50-50 split between man and zone coverage. Ryan rarely threw the ball to his first read because what he was seeing pre-snap did not always unfold post-snap.
The marquee matchup of the day was Xavier Rhodes vs Julio Jones. The Vikings didn’t just leave Rhodes on an island and let him take Julio on his own for the entire game. They did leave him in 1-on-1 coverage a fair amount, though. Of the 26 called passing plays where Julio was actually on the field, Rhodes played him in straight up 1-on-1 coverage with no help 10 times. There were 9 other snaps where he played man vs Jones with some form of help from a safety or a linebacker. To hold Jones to just 2 receptions for 24 yards, one of which was on a screen, is pretty impressive.
We knew heading into the game that this would be the matchup to watch when the Falcons took to the air. Rhodes matches up well to Jones from a physicality standpoint. On Sunday, he did a good job of getting his hands on Julio at the line of scrimmage, leaving him with little room to manuever as a result. Although, we would be remiss if we didn’t show how close the Falcons came to hitting a huge play on their first offensive snap of the game with Rhodes left alone in 1-on-1 coverage against Jones.
Here, Jones was running a slant, and he beat Rhodes off the line at the snap. You can see below that Jones had a few steps on Rhodes with a lot of room to run.
Ryan missed the throw, though, and the Falcons missed a huge opportunity against a stingy defense. That yellow box below shows 1 of the 2 defenders between Jones and the end zone. He’s lying on the ground, by the way…
A better throw might have led to a quick touchdown and changed Minnesota’s game plan.
Getting back to Minnesota’s approach, on those 16 snaps when extra attention was dedicated to Julio, Matt Ryan couldn’t make the Vikings pay elsewhere. Minnesota was clearly well prepared for the Falcons’ passing game. Safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo did a great job of reading Ryan’s eyes in parallel with Atlanta’s route combinations and decisively driving on routes. This forced several contested throws and limited yards after the catch for those passes that were completed.
Another interesting aspect of the Vikings’ approach to this game is that we did not see them align in their staple double-A-gap pressure looks very often. In fact, they didn’t blitz very much at all on Sunday. Minnesota instead elected to win with coverage and put faith in their 4-man rush to make Ryan get rid of the ball. Perhaps this was to be able to handle all of Atlanta’s weapons in the passing game. Perhaps it was to ensure that they had enough defenders to account for Freeman and Coleman if they snuck out of the backfield or released to the edge quickly. Maybe it was due to the Falcons utilizing a lot of play-action throughout the afternoon to neutralize the pass rush. Ultimately, it worked. The Falcons did not have a play of more than 20 yards all day.
As everyone predicted, the number-1 seed in the NFC heading into week 14 is the Minnesota Vikings. Case Keenum has been playing very well, and his is a tremendous story. But make no mistake, the Vikings’ success stops and starts with Mike Zimmer’s #2-ranked defense.