It will be simple, and tempting, to paint the Vikings’ emphatic 28-12 victory over the Falcons as a manifesto for how they want to approach the entire 2019 season. Their commanding performance required just 10 pass attempts from Kirk Cousins, as their zone running scheme produced five of their seven longest plays of the day, their withering pass rush set up three turnovers and they blocked a punt to stake their first score.
The reality of the 16-game season will likely demand nuance be added to the narrative; though the Falcons’ base defense is derived from the one coach Dan Quinn coordinated in Seattle (where the team puts eight defenders in the box and plays a Cover-3 defense behind it), Atlanta was 25th in the league against the run last season and has finished in the bottom half of the NFL two of the past three years. Tests ahead, starting with the Packers next Sunday at Lambeau Field, will likely require more balance.
“Don’t be surprised if we have to win a game 52-51 this year. Coach [Mike] Zimmer wouldn’t be very happy about that, but every week is different,” Cousins said. “You look around the league today, and you see how wacky the scores can be and the results can be. You realize that every game is its own entity, and you have to go play what the game calls for. It’s very important that you understand what kind of game we had to play today to win, and that’s what we played.”
But even if the first performance for the Kevin Stefanski-Gary Kubiak combo was largely based on a single riff, it’s one the Vikings didn’t have under their fingers for most of last season. They surpassed 150 rushing yards just twice last season, and had only seven runs of 20 yards or more, as an overmatched offensive line and creative dissonance on the coaching staff bewitched their season.
On Sunday, at least, a team that has often struggled in recent years to come up with different ways to win showed itself capable of a new one.
“They’re really good defensively, and they’ve got an extra guy in the box almost every single play,” Zimmer said. “So to run the football effectively, I thought our offensive coaches did a great job making some of the scheme runs they ran today. And obviously, [Dalvin] Cook and the offensive line did a really nice job. I did not foresee us throwing the ball 10 times, but I’m happy we did.”
Cousins’ 10 passes were the fewest he’s attempted as a starter in the NFL — and, as the quarterback noted, likely fewer than he threw in most games in high school. The Vikings leaned on big gains from Cook (who finished with 111 yards) and rookie Alexander Mattison to pull away from the Falcons.
Their defense flashed its commanding form from 2017, holding Atlanta scoreless for three quarters and sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan four times.
Zimmer sent Anthony Barr off the left edge of the Falcons’ line on the first play of the game for a sack that put Atlanta in a 2nd-and-18, and used periodic blitzes to augment consistent pressure from his front four. Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph each ended up with a sack, and Hunter was bearing down on Ryan as he threw an end zone interception in the third quarter.
“Once you kind of get that momentum, that’s when guys start to have fun, really start to relax and try to go make some plays,” said safety Anthony Harris, who recovered a fumble and intercepted Ryan twice. “The offense did a good job of running the ball, and kept the defense off the field a good bit. We were able to be fresher going out on the field.”
It all came together in a concoction that worked so well, even the Vikings sounded somewhat skeptical of their ability to repeat it so easily. They started both of their first two drives in Falcons territory (thanks to Eric Wilson’s blocked punt and Harris’ first interception), scored three TDs off turnovers and left the Falcons little choice but to throw early and often, as Ryan’s dropbacks outnumbered Atlanta’s runs 52-15.
If the season shows the Vikings able to win either by controlling the line of scrimmage or distributing the ball to their group of high-priced pass-catchers, though, they might find themselves in an enviable position by the end of it.
“That’s probably a great example [of what we want to do], but also even an over-the-top example,” Cousins said. “You don’t expect to have a blocked punt every series and a sack and a short drive and a long run. They all just came together today. Complementary football also means when the punt isn’t blocked and the sack doesn’t happen, still finding a way to make the plays and pick one another up. If a game calls for us to win in the 50s, [you have to] be able to do that too. You’ve got to play the game that’s called, and today was a unique one.”