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5 questions for the Vikings vs. Atlanta

Are the 0-5 Falcons a trap game heading into the bye?
Alexander Mattison

Last week, the Minnesota Vikings were inches away from becoming a 2-3 team in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. This week, they have a hole to dig themselves out of as they stand at 1-4, but the good news is they'll host the winless Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff last weekend, but as with all things with the Vikings, it's unlikely to be a breeze. With another chance to get back into the mix, we take a look at some of the big questions that will decide the game.

Who will play at guard?

While the wrist injury to Dru Samia may be a blessing in disguise, it also raises the question of what the Vikings are going to do against the Falcons.

The most popular opinion is to throw Ezra Cleveland into one of the starting guard spots. The second-round pick was drafted as the heir apparent to Riley Reiff but has done most of his work on the interior this season. 

Although having him play on the right side would be a reach, the Vikings could move left guard, Dakota Dozier, to make room.

Another option could be Oli Udoh. The 2018 sixth-round selection has less experience at guard, but may be a way to protect Cleveland if he's not ready.

Can Mattison keep the running game going?

One of the biggest "what ifs" of the 2019 season is if Alexander Mattison never sprained his ankle late in the year. The injury coincided with a Dalvin Cook shoulder injury and took away an opportunity to start late in the season.

Had Mattison been healthy and produced during that stretch, there's a chance the Vikings could have saved $63 million and pumped it into the offensive line. Instead, Mattison will get his opportunity against Atlanta.

Cook has been the centerpiece of the offense, but Mattison has produced at a similar level. According to Pro Football Focus, Mattison ranks 13th among qualifiers with a 37 percent breakaway percentage (designed runs of 15 yards or more), and his 2.98 yards after contact is just behind Cook's 3.52.

Mattison truthers scored a victory on Sunday night as he ran for 112 yards against the Seahawks. If he puts together a similar performance, the question of why the Vikings signed Cook will come to the surface.

Will the Vikings lean on Cousins?

The Vikings have been successful on offense thanks to a ground-and-pound approach. Although it collected 201 yards against Seattle, there's a chance the offense could be more efficient against Atlanta if they were to let Cousins "cook."

The Falcons defense has been bad throughout the year, but they rank 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA metric against the run. This game could also invoke bad memories from last year's meeting where Grady Jarrett destroyed Garrett Bradbury to the point he walked away with a 0.0 PFF pass-blocking grade.

Meanwhile, Atlanta's pass defense ranks 30th in DVOA and has struggled in the secondary. Starting cornerback Kendall Sheffield ranks fifth among qualifiers with 2.35 yards per coverage snap and rookie A.J. Terrell ranks ninth among qualifiers with a 143.4 passer rating allowed, meaning there will be opportunities to strike.

With two top-five graded receivers at his disposal, Cousins should find a way to have a big game. It's just a matter if the coaching staff will allow him to do it.

Can the defense take another step forward?

Although it ended in pure horror when Cameron Dantzler's controller disconnected on a 4th-and-10 Hail Mary, the Vikings defense performed well against a white-hot Seahawks offense in Week 5. With a young defense learning to play at this level, the next step would be to take care of Atlanta's offense.

Atlanta comes into the game with a lousy record but has held a big lead in three of their five games. This is because while they may look like a bad team, they have enough weapons to get the job done.

The Falcons should get Julio Jones back from a hamstring injury on Sunday while Calvin Ridley ranks 13th among qualifiers with 2.57 yards per route run. For reference, last week's hero D.K. Metcalf is 12th at 2.58 yards per route run and lit up the Vikings for 93 yards and two touchdowns.

Atlanta's ground game also came alive last week as Todd Gurley ran for a season-high 121 yards against Carolina. While Carolina's run defense ranks 29th in defensive DVOA against the run, the Vikings are not much better at 27th.

Perhaps rotating more youth such as James Lynch into the lineup will help, but there's more than enough firepower for Atlanta to compete in this game.

Is this a trap game for the Vikings?

The Vikings are 1-4 and beginning to fade out of the NFC playoff picture. They come home to face a winless team in the Falcons, but with the bye week looming, the Vikings may be like a student waiting for the bell to ring.

Despite the winless record, Atlanta has enough talent to turn this into a game. To add to the possibility of a "WTF game," the Falcons' firing of Quinn may help bring them together.

Of the last 20 teams that have fired their head coach midseason, they have gone 12-8 the following week. That includes the Houston Texans, who picked up a win over Jacksonville after the Vikings escaped with a Week 4 victory.

This should be a game the Vikings win on paper, but much like the rest of 2020, it wouldn't be shocking if this didn't go to plan.

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