ATLANTA (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons have more in common than the 4-4 records they take into Sunday's game.
Each team's quarterback plans for the remainder of the season appear uncertain, but could be defined by the performances of Sunday's new starters.
Perhaps the only certainty for either team's immediate future at the position is the Vikings know they've lost Kirk Cousins until 2024 with a torn right Achilles tendon last week.
A rash of turnovers cost Falcons second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder his starting job for at least one week. Taylor Heinicke will make his first start of the season.
Heinicke says he's focused only on the one game because he doesn't know if the starting job will be his for more than one game after coach Arthur Smith said “our focus is short-term.”
Rookie Jaren Hall will make his first career start for the Vikings. Nick Mullens, the primary backup, is on injured reserve with a lower back injury. Minnesota acquired former Arizona starter Joshua Dobbs on Tuesday, hours before the trade deadline.
“The career doesn’t ride on one game, although you don’t want to take the importance away from it,” Hall said of his opportunity to prove he should remain the starter. "It’s got to be my Super Bowl every week because it’s the most important thing that’s coming next.”
Hall, a fifth-round draft pick from BYU, took over in the fourth quarter in last week's 24-10 win at Green Bay after Cousins' injury.
Heinicke, a sixth-year pro, has the advantage of similar in-season quarterback changes with Washington the last two years. Heinicke took over in the second half of last week’s 28-23 loss at Tennessee.
Ridder was evaluated for a concussion last week, but remained on the sideline after he was cleared and will serve as Heinicke's backup.
AVOID SACKS AND TURNOVERS
Ridder was sacked five times and lost another fumble — his 10th turnover in the past five games — against the Titans. Heinicke says his instructions from Smith include avoid sacks and protect the ball.
“I think it’s the basic things for a quarterback,” Heinicke said. “Protect the ball. Get the first downs and get down in red zones and score touchdowns. Don’t take sacks, unnecessary sacks. Get the ball out of your hands and let those playmakers do their things."
LEAN ON ‘D’
The performance by Minnesota’s defense over the last five games after a rough start gives the Vikings reason to believe the outlook for the rest of the year without Cousins might not be as bleak as it sounds.
During October, the Vikings ranked third in the NFL in 20-plus-yard gains allowed, third in yards allowed per play, third in yards allowed per game, fourth in points allowed per game and sixth in sack percentage per pass play, according to Sportradar.
“Defensively, we’ve got a good thing going and we’ve just got to step it up even more in a situation like this,” safety Josh Metellus said. “I think we still have full faith in our team and in what we can accomplish this season.”
TEXTING THE NEWS
Heinicke said he was asleep when Smith texted him Tuesday night to announce he would start against the Vikings. Heinicke said he didn't see the text until he woke up early Wednesday morning.
“So my alarm goes off this morning around 5:30, 5:45 with my phone and it’s the first thing I see,” Heinicke said Wednesday. "I came in and started getting ready to go.”
UP FRONT ABOUT IT
Minnesota’s offensive line has been excellent in pass protection lately. Though the overall run blocking remains in need of improvement, the insertion of veteran Dalton Risner in the starting lineup at left guard after a foot injury sidelined Ezra Cleveland has been a help in that area. The Vikings traded Cleveland this week to Jacksonville.
“Obviously, I think that says they have confidence in me, but there’s still a lot to prove on my end,” said Risner, who spent the last four years with Denver and was a free agent until signing with the Vikings two weeks into the regular season.
MOVING THE BALL
The Falcons are tied for 27th in the league with their average of 17.3 points per game. The turnover problems helped overshadow recent signs of improvement. Since Week 5, the Falcons' average of 398 yards per game ranks third in the league, behind New Orleans (413) and Indianapolis (402.5).
First-round draft pick Jordan Addison ought to be Hall’s primary target against the Falcons. The USC product leads all rookies with seven touchdown catches and is second overall in the NFL behind Tyreek Hill.
Addison provides a vital boost for the Vikings with Justin Jefferson, the 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, sidelined by a hamstring injury. Though Addison and Hall came in the same draft class, the 25-year-old Hall is 1,405 days – nearly 4 years -- older than Addison.
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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