Despite an absence from the 2018 postseason, the Vikings’ schedule this year sees a bit of an uptick in the overall competition. They have some homefield advantages they lacked a year ago, but the road back to the playoffs will not be an easy one, to say the least. And that kicks off in week one as they welcome the Falcons to U.S. Bank Stadium. Atlanta, like the Vikings, missed the postseason last year, but still boasts a talented roster and a lethal offensive attack.
Here are three matchups to watch as the Vikings take on the Falcons in week one.
When these two met two seasons ago, Rhodes came away the clear winner. Jones finished with only 24 yards on six targets, only two of which he caught. Since then, however, while Jones has remained the class of the league at wide receiver, Rhodes’ play has slipped. He had the worst season of his career in 2018, capped off with rumors of trade talks persisting throughout the offseason. Still, Rhodes is the presumed ace corner on the Vikings’ roster. The Vikings are undoubtedly going to call upon Rhodes and Rhodes alone to slow down one of the league’s best.
Despite the Falcons under-performing as a team last year, their passing offense still ranked at the top. They were fourth in yards, fifth in attempts, third in touchdowns and seventh in net yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan posted numbers that, in a vacuum could have been MVP-caliber. Obviously, Jones and his 170 targets last season were a big reason for that production. As he goes, so goes the Falcons offense more times than not. If Rhodes can return to his 2017 form, the Vikings will have a pretty good shot at dampening the loud Falcons passing attack.
There may not be a better coverage linebacker in the game than Jones. The Falcons’ passing defense took a massive hit when Jones missed most of last season, and largely returned to form once he came back to action. Jones possesses elite ability to read throws in the open field and over the middle and make plays on the ball. Plus, his elite athleticism results in him making play after play on swings, screens and checkdowns.
That is where Cook comes in. The Vikings look Cook’s way a lot, both in designed plays and as an outlet. Last year, despite missing five games, he finished fifth on the team in targets and fourth in receiving yards. The 2019 preseason also showed many cases of Cook splitting out wide with the hopes A) of spreading out the middle of the field and B) creating one-on-one mismatches with linebackers. Those mismatches will not be so present if Jones lines up on Cook. That said, Cook’s ability to make plays in the open field has shone since day one. This is a prototypical matchup of strength versus strength between two dynamic players.
Bradbury gets an awfully tough test in his first ever NFL game. Jarrett has been one of the most electric, multi-faceted interior defenders in the NFL for several years. Granted, much of Bradbury’s one-on-one matchups will not involve Jarrett, as Jarrett works more as a three-technique. However, the Vikings outside zone-heavy scheme means the Bradbury will often get a close-up view of what makes Jarrett so good. Jarrett thrives on his get-off and powerful hands, despite being undersized for his position. While Bradbury is quick for a lineman, he will have to find that extra step to reach Jarrett effectively.
In the passing game, Bradbury’s matchups with Jarrett will largely come on stunts and twists. As such, he will have to engage a downhill Jarrett with a head of steam more often than not. Bradbury looked solid in pass pro in preseason games, but Jarrett can be a different animal. His battle will be both key to the Vikings succeeding in week one and an early indicator of how the first-rounder will hold up against elite NFL defenders.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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