Falcons at Vikings is one of the more interesting games on the slate – one of those games in which you really shouldn’t even pay close attention to the Vegas line. There is a fairly broad range of outcomes that this game could have, and wherever Vegas has pegged this line (I’m not even bothering to look before writing up this game), they’re not calling this the “likely outcome” so much as they are calling this a median projection in a broad range of outcomes. There are two distinct ways this game could play out, with plenty of middle ground in between:
The first way:
In 2018, the Vikings defense gave up the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL while allowing the second fewest touchdowns to wide receivers. The Vikings allowed the ninth fewest points per game, the third fewest points per drive, and the fifth lowest opponent drive success rate. Only two teams in the NFL were better than the Vikings at preventing touchdowns in the red zone; and as has been well documented, both the Falcons and old/new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter have underperformed in the red zone in recent years. (The Falcons have also been miserable in the red zone on the road the last couple seasons.)
Halfway through the season last year, the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo because he was passing the ball too much, and this offseason they brought in Gary Kubiak to help offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski institute a run-heavy, outside-zone scheme. The Vikings have shown preseason tendencies (which could mean nothing, but…) that they may be set to run the ball as heavily as Seattle did last year. In fact, although the actual play designs are different, Seattle may prove to be a decent comp for Minnesota this year from a philosophical standpoint, as the Vikings (just like the Seahawks) are hoping to run, run, run, and set up shots downfield.
And finally, although the Falcons were awful on defense last year, they dealt with an outlandish number of injuries. It wouldn’t be crazy to expect this to be an above average unit this year – all of which could lead to a lower-scoring affair then we would want to target in fantasy. (In the Vikings last five games in 2018, only one topped 36 total points – while only one of the Vikings final eight games topped 45 total points).
The second way:
At the start of last season, the Vikings defense looked very different from the dominant unit we had seen the year before. They weren’t dealing with major injuries or with major roster turnover, which sent us on a mission to figure out what was wrong. What we found was simple: this team was having too many communication breakdowns on the back end of their defense, allowing opponents to put together big plays and move the ball more easily than we are accustomed to seeing against them. About partway through training camp this year, Mike Zimmer expressed frustration with his veteran defense, feeling that they were resting too heavily on their reputation, and were not putting in the effort required for them to stay at that elite level.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are coming to town – a team that last year ranked sixth in yards per game, fourth in yards per drive, and sixth in drive success rate. With one of the most dominant individual pieces in the league in Julio Jones, it wouldn’t be crazy to bet that the Vikings have a couple early-season coverage breakdowns again, and that Julio is able to take advantage.
And while the Vikings fundamentally want to run the ball (potentially even more often than they end up passing it), this team has also preached aggressiveness throughout the offseason – planning to layer in a large dose of bootlegs, misdirection, and pocket movement designed to force opponents to defend the entire field while allowing Kirk Cousins to push the ball to the deeper areas with his two elite wide receivers. (The Vikings have also talked up the need for Cousins to be aggressive in his decision-making – pushing him this summer to throw the ball into tight windows and trust his playmakers, rather than waiting for them to come fully open.) And what do you know: the Falcons defense is also all about aggressiveness. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that we could see an aggressiveness-on-aggressiveness matchup lead to some big things happening downfield; and if all of these things come together, it isn’t crazy to think this could turn into the highest scoring game on the weekend.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With the exception of Dalvin Cook (who we will get to in a moment), I will almost certainly avoid this game in cash, where there is just no need to take on a matchup with this broad of a range of outcomes. However, the upside on this game is high enough that I’ll likely mix it into any multi-entry play I execute this week.
Given that the running back position has some clearly attractive options for paying up this week (while wide receiver has some clear value), rosters with both Julio and Stefon Diggs (or Julio and Adam Thielen, or Thielen and Diggs) will likely be very unique, creating a tangible edge if this game shoots out. With the step forward the Falcons should take on defense this year and the likelihood that the Vikings still look like one of the top defenses in the league, a shootout is not the “likeliest scenario”; but the chances are high enough that it would be worth taking a shot in tournaments – honestly, of all sizes – as there are players in this game who have legitimate slate-breaking upside.
Because of his big-play upside against this aggressive team, Diggs is my favorite tournament play of the bunch (Thielen is also completely viable, though his upside tends to be tied to volume a bit more than Diggs – and volume could be a concern throughout the season for this passing offense). I won’t be surprised to find Diggs making a push for even my more tightly constructed rosters – though I will certainly have some Thielen and Julio exposure if I do any multi-entry play in large field tournaments. (If you wanted to go farther off the board, Calvin Ridley wouldn’t be crazy either. That’s probably about as far as I would go myself – leaving other ancillary pass catchers alone, and leaving the tight ends on both sides of this matchup alone. Minnesota was one of the more difficult tight end matchups last year, and Austin Hooper tends to be “hope and pray” even in quality matchups. And on the Vikings side, with this team expected to focus heavily on 12 personnel and expected to spread around their tight end targets, I’m comfortable waiting to see how this unit develops while focusing in my Week 1 rosters on the more obviously strong tight end plays.)
The quarterbacks would only make the cut for me in game stacks (overloading on this game in the hopes that it turns into the highest scoring contest of the weekend – again, not the likeliest outcome, but also not crazy), as a shootout is the only way either of these guys is likely to post a “have to have it” score.
In the backfields:
Devonta Freeman is expected to have a larger share of the workload than he had in the past with Tevin Coleman in tow, though given the matchup, he is also a “game stacks only” piece for me.
Cook, of course, is the one player in this game who can have a case made for him in all contest types. It has been well documented over the last three years that the Falcons are schematically comfortable giving up receptions to running backs, which has led to them giving up the most running back receptions in back-to-back seasons. Cook is a strong fit in this new offense, and he adds a legitimate pass catching role and big-play upside. I am more wary of Alexander Mattison than most seem to be (the Vikings drafted him to take over the Latavius Murray role, and they seem to really like him – opening up a chance for him to stop Cook shy of workhorse usage, while also presenting vulture risk), but even 17 touches from Cook in this matchup would be enough to provide him with solid production – and his big-play upside gives him a chance to turn into a dominant piece. I think that Cook is fine for cash games, and his upside (both in terms of production and potentially touches) makes him enticing in tournaments.