Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Preview: Q&A With Viking Maven

Falcon Maven spoke with Vikings expert Will Ragatz to learn more about Sunday's opponent.

The Atlanta Falcons will open the 2019 regular season with a very tough road game at the Minnesota Vikings. Similar to the Falcons, the Vikings are hoping to see improvements to their offensive line and get back to the playoffs this fall.

To learn more about the Falcons' first 2019 opponent, we spoke with Vikings Maven editor Will Ragatz. Here is what he had to say about the Falcons-Vikings matchup:

The Vikings missed the playoffs during 2018 in disappointing fashion despite high expectations like the Falcons. What went wrong?

Last season was a total mess for the Vikings, who entered the year with sky-high expectations after going to the NFC Championship game and then signing Kirk Cousins to a major contract. The offense was extremely inconsistent and never found an identity. First-year OC John DeFilippo was fired in December because head coach Mike Zimmer didn't think the team was running the ball enough, though running the ball behind a struggling offensive line proved difficult for much of the year. Cousins put up solid numbers, but lost a ton of fumbles and shrunk in big games.

Zimmer's star-studded defense finished in the top 5 in DVOA once again, but there were issues. Xavier Rhodes went from being maybe the league's best corner in '17 to being very average last season. Rhodes' regression coupled with first-round CB Mike Hughes missing the season with an ACL injury was a big part of why the secondary struggled at times.

Then there was the latest season of the Vikings kicker curse. Fifth-round pick Daniel Carlson cost Minnesota a road win over the Packers in Week 2 by missing three field goals, and was promptly cut. They signed Dan Bailey, known for his accuracy with the Cowboys, and Bailey wound up going 5 for 11 on field goals beyond 40 yards. It never ends.

How did the Vikings first-round pick, Garrett Bradbury, look during the preseason?

Bradbury had a few rookie moments in the preseason, yet for the most part he lived up to the hype as the best center in the 2019 draft class. He was probably better in pass-protection than run-blocking. That said, the Vikings are still very excited about his fit in Gary Kubiak's outside-zone run scheme, as his combination of lateral mobility and strength are rare in a young center.

Bradbury is probably already the Vikings' best interior O-lineman and looks set for a strong debut season and long career. Backup center Brett Jones was just waived to make room for WR Josh Doctson, so the Vikings really can't afford an injury to their prized rookie.

Who has to have a great game for Minnesota in order for the Vikings to beat the Falcons in Week 1?

Rhodes. He's maybe the most important player for not just this game, but the entire season for the Vikings' defense. That was always true, but it's especially the case now that Julio Jones has signed a contract and will be ready to go on Sunday. Rhodes has a pretty good track record against Jones through three career matchups, but those all came before his 2018 decline. We'll learn a lot about whether or not Rhodes is ready to have a bounce-back season after seeing how he fares against Jones (and Davante Adams in Week 2).

For a bonus answer, I'll throw in Bradbury and starting guards Pat Elflein and Josh Kline. Those three have a lot to prove this season, and keeping Grady Jarrett out of the backfield is going to be a key to winning the game.

Name one player who will breakout for the Vikings this season.

I'm going to drink the purple kool-aid and say Cousins. It may seem like an odd choice to pick a QB who has four straight 4,000-yard seasons and will make $28 million this year for a "breakout," but Cousins deserves every bit of his reputation as a guy who racks up empty stats and can't win big games. I think this is the year he gets over that hurdle. He's going into his second year with elite wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, has a couple new weapons in TE Irv Smith Jr. and Doctson, and will be playing behind an upgraded offensive line.

Most importantly, the Vikings are going to be putting a lot more emphasis on play-action under the direction of Kubiak and OC Kevin Stefanski. Play-action has always been where Cousins is at his best. It's time for him to start beating teams with winning records and winning games in prime-time, and I think this is the year he puts it all together.

Give us your prediction for Sunday and the Minnesota’s 2019 season.

This game scares me because I don't know what to expect from Rhodes and I don't know what to expect from the offensive line. Or the kicker. If this were in Atlanta, I'd pick a Falcons win. But the Vikings are at home, and if they can get an early lead I think the defensive line will make life miserable for the Falcons' rookie OLs. I'll say the Vikings sack Matt Ryan four or five times and win, 27-20.

As for the season, it's tough to predict. Ultimately, I think this team is too talented not to win 10+ games and return to the playoffs. National expectations aren't too high, which typically means the Vikes will surprise people and have a strong season.

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