Saturday, December 20, 2008

Biggest Test Yet?

Over the past six quarters of football, Minnesota Vikings' erstwhile back-up quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception. Compared to his one touchdown and one pick from the first two games of the 2008 season, those numbers are both strong and promising.

Despite the impressive touchdown to interception ratio, however, there remain questions about just how much Jackson has improved during his time as resident clipboard holder. Around the league, and, more evidently, around the Twin Cities, the sentiment appears to be that Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons will provide the first meaningful barometer of Jackson's progress.

At 9-5 in the competitive NFC South, there certainly is a strong argument to be made that Atlanta will provide a much tougher challenge for Jackson and the Vikings than did either the Detroit Lions or the Arizona Cardinals. With victories over the Saints, Chargers, Panthers, and Buccaneers, the Falcons have accomplished what the Lions certainly have not and what even the Cardinals have strained to do this season, beating competitive teams and winning games both at home and on the road.

Still, there is reason to doubt the Falcons' legitimacy. Of their nine victories this season, only three have been against teams with winning records and all of those victories have been at home.

Offensively, the Falcons showcase three rising stars in wide-receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner, and quarterback Matt Ryan. For the better part of the season, Ryan has been better than anything that the Vikings have put on the field at quarterback and has steadily improved his play--something Vikings' fans have been assured is a virtual impossibility for a rookie (or second- or third-year) quarterback in the NFL.

The Vikings have been greatly improved against the pass this season with defensive end Jared Allen offering real pressure on the edge where not even a semblance of pressure existed last year, the Vikings' secondary playing much better in coverage and in tackling after the catch, and the Vikings' interior defensive linemen doing what they have done for each of the past three years--stuffing the run.

Without the injured Pat Williams, the Vikings should have a tougher test against Turner. If Turner is able to run and Ryan does what he has been doing to opposing teams, this game will be a good gauge of where the Vikings stand overall.

Rushing defense aside, the most anticipated issue for the Vikings will be Jackson's ability to read and react to Atlanta's defense. Last week, the Falcons flustered Buccaneer quarterback Brian Griese, recording four sacks and an interception.

Despite the pressure, however, the Falcons yielded 269 yards passing to a modestly mobile backup quarterback in a tight and low-scoring game. For a more agile quarterback such as Jackson, that should be a good sign, as well as a sign that Atlanta's defense is less to be feared this week than is the Falcons' offense.

Atlanta is yielding 343 yards of offense per game, near the league bottom, but only 20 points per game, near the league top. Minnesota is averaging 329 yards of offense per game and 24 points per game (roughly 20 points from the offense).

On offense, the Falcons are averaging 367 yards per game and 24 points per game (roughly 20 points from the offense). Minnesota is yielding 292 yards per game but only 20 points per game.

Statistically speaking, the Vikings and Falcons thus appear to be carbon copies of each other. The difference, however, is that, while the Falcons have accomplished their feats with the same key players on the field, the Vikings will be relying on two players who have not been part of most of the team's regular-season accomplishments. One of those players, Williams' backup, is certain to be a downgrade. The other, Jackson, must be viewed as an upgrade given his ability to move outside the pocket and avoid the Falcons' strong pass rush.

Barring jitters by an Atlanta team desperately in need of a victory to keep its playoff hopes alive, this game looks like it will come down to kickers and home-field advantage. It might not be the stern test that many are anticipating for Jackson, but it will be better than what either Detroit or Arizona offered.

Best Bet: Vikings 22 over Atlanta 20.

Up Next: More on the Vikings' Supplemental Drug Issues. Plus, post-game.

No comments: