MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings have entered this season in a similar place, almost eerily so as they prepare to play each other in the opener.
With Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins, they're driven by a polished quarterback who has made 4,000-yard seasons a habit. In Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook, they have a dual-threat running back from Florida State whose impact has been limited lately by injuries and a vulnerable offensive line. Kickers Matt Bryant and Dan Bailey, both in the top eight on the NFL's all-time list for career field goal percentage, were considered for replacement.
The strongest common thread? That lies with the head coaches and their beloved side of the ball. Dan Quinn and Mike Zimmer, though born 15 years apart, are each making the play calls for a proud and experienced unit, a couple of defensive-minded bosses trying to make it in this post-modern, pass-preferred league with rules that typically favor scoring touchdowns over stopping them.
"You have to play extremely hard. You have to play fast. You have to play smart. If you don't run to the ball, if you don't get going to the ball and swarm the ball, then you're going to struggle," Zimmer said. "That's what makes it hard."
The Vikings finished with the fourth-fewest yards allowed last year, but their defense didn't have quite the same edge as the season before when they came within one game of the Super Bowl. They missed the playoffs at 8-7-1.
The Falcons lost linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to injuries in September and stumbled on their way to a 7-9 finish that kept them home from the postseason, two years after they were NFC champions. Quinn returned to his roots, essentially becoming the defensive coordinator after firing Marquand Manuel and hiring Bob Sutton as an adviser, for his fifth year on Atlanta's sideline. Zimmer will mostly call the plays again in his sixth season in Minnesota, with George Edwards again as the defensive coordinator.
"I have very high standards for the defense," Zimmer said. "I expect them to live up to my expectations, so I'm going to keep pushing them until we get there."
Here are some key angles to follow for the game Sunday:
After cutting the 18th-year veteran Bryant during the offseason, the Falcons endured a tumultuous preseason before settling on, yes, Bryant as their kicker.
Giorgio Tavecchio missed five field-goal attempts in exhibition play, and the team even brought in former Vikings kicker Blair Walsh for a brief look in practice, but in the end the familiarity and reliability of the 44-year-old Bryant won out.
Bryant missed only once in 21 field goal attempts in 2018, but missed three games with a hamstring injury and enters 2019 as a bit of a question mark without any work in preseason games.
The Vikings are under special teams scrutiny of their own. They stuck with Bailey after bringing in a training camp challenger in Kaare Vedvik, but they picked up 10th-year veteran punter Britton Colquitt this week to replace Matt Wile.
As for Walsh, the 2012 All-Pro pick who was cut by the Vikings halfway through the 2016 season and last kicked in an NFL game on Dec. 31, 2017, the opportunities to get back in have been dwindling.
"You felt the competitiveness. You could feel how badly he wants to get going," Quinn said. "Being out was hard on him."
The Falcons were still waiting this week to determine two starters on their offensive line. Either Matt Gono or rookie Kaleb McGary will be the right tackle, and the left guard position will go to either Jamon Brown or James Carpenter.
McGary, a first-round draft pick at 31st overall, couldn't play until the final preseason game after undergoing a heart procedure and conceded this week he's not yet in optimal physical condition. Brown and Carpenter were two of the primary offseason acquisitions, but only one will start. The Falcons drafted Chris Lindstrom with their first pick, 14th overall, and he's locked in at right guard.
The Vikings made Garrett Bradbury the first center drafted in the first round in team history, 18th overall, and shifted Pat Elflein to left guard. Josh Kline is the new right guard for a team that ranked third-worst in the league in rushing, three spots behind the Falcons.
The Falcons have two former college teammates at Minnesota, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Though Hageman is suspended for this game because of an NFL substance abuse policy violation, Campbell has begun his fourth season as the starter in the middle.
"The progress and development that he's made since he's been here has been remarkable. He's always had a real older soul to him in a way, like he's always searching how to do it better," Quinn said.
HARD TO HEAR
The newbies up front for the Falcons will have their hands full with a stout Minnesota defensive line and the deafening crowd noise at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 18-7 in the regular season and the playoffs since the translucent venue opened in 2016. They've won their first three home openers.
"They don't really get fazed by anything," Ryan said, referring to his young blockers. "I think that's a really good quality for a young player, to be kind of low-pulsed and even-keeled. Those guys have shown that."