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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Could Face 'Biggest Challenge' in Falcons Offense

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —It's been a stern test almost each and every week for the Vikings defense.

Through 11 games, Minnesota has faced an offense that ranks in the top half of the league in terms of yards per game seven times already in the 2017 season.

Sunday's tilt against the Falcons could be the biggest test yet.

Atlanta's offense features a plethora of talent, whether it's an MVP quarterback, perhaps the NFL's best wide receiver, a pair of dynamic and athletic running backs and a stout offensive line. 

You don't have to tell Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr what awaits in Sunday's noon (CT) kickoff from Atlanta.

"Lot of playmakers," Barr said. "They like to throw the ball vertically down the field, pretty solid running game … they're a very balanced offense.

"One of the biggest challenges we'll face (all season)," Barr added.

The Falcons currently rank sixth overall with 373.3 yards per game and are 11th in the NFL with 24.1 points per game.

That might actually be a down year for the Falcons, who led the NFL with 33.8 points per game and racked up 415.8 yards per game in 2016 on the way to a Super Bowl appearance. 

Atlanta seems to have found its offensive groove of late as the Falcons have scored 95 points over its past three games.

Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said Monday that he's watched the Falcons here and there at times this season and still sees an offense capable of putting up points in a hurry.

"Throughout the season, I've caught a couple of games. I try to watch some tidbits of teams that we play throughout the year if I've got a day off," Robison said. "When you look at them on tape, they've still got that explosive offense.

"They haven't been able to complete some of the drives and things like that they did last year. They want to be able to establish the run, get some screens in there, some play action, but they're one of those teams that has weapons on the outside that they can really take shots, get big explosive gains in the passing game and touchdowns," Robison said. "Our job is definitely going to be cut out for us this year. [Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan is definitely a smart quarterback, but we've got to handle them as they come."

Ryan won the NFL MVP award last season after throwing for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He has been sacked just 16 times this season, the fourth-fewest amount in the NFL.

He's flanked by a pair of running back in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman who are multi-purpose threats all over the field.

The duo has 1,409 total rushing and receiving yards between them and have accounted for 12 total touchdowns.

Barr noted that Minnesota's linebackers will have to be sharp early and often.

"You have to understand who's in the game and read your keys, really. I don't think too much changes," Barr said. "I think one of them catches the ball a little more but they're both very good at catching the ball out of the backfield so it should be a good challenge."

Then, of course, there is Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who just put up the single highest receiving total in a game this season with 253 yards Sunday against Tampa Bay.

It was the third time Jones had eclipsed the 250-yard mark in a game in his career, the highest total in NFL history. Jones will be shadowed by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes on Sunday.

While Atlanta has plenty of offensive weapons, the Vikings will counter with plenty of defensive firepower as they have Pro Bowlers on all three levels of the defense.

Minnesota ranks fifth in the NFL in both yards allowed per game (290.4) and points allowed per game (17.7).

A homecoming for Jet

Jerick McKinnon will be in a familiar place this weekend as the Vikings travel down South.

The Vikings running back was born in Atlanta and played high school football in nearby Marietta before continuing his college career at Georgia Southern University. 

McKinnon said Monday that he has some personal motivation going back to his home state.

"Yeah, I can't lose because if I lose, I'll have to hear it for a whole year," McKinnon said with a smile. "So I'm trying to do everything I can to make a play when I get a chance to. [I'll have] my family there as well, so it will be fun."

McKinnon said he spends a few weeks in the area during the offseason and that he will have around 20 or so family members on hand for Sunday's game.

McKinnon has faced the Falcons twice in his career, once at home and once on the road.

While he is 2-0 against his hometown team, the best performance of his career came in Week 4 of the 2014 season when he had 18 carries for a career-high 135 yards. He had five attempts for 33 yards in Minnesota's win over Atlanta in 2015.

McKinnon has yet to find the end zone against the Falcons, something he'd like to check off Sunday to help the Vikings improve to 10-2.

"It's going to be fun, though. Back home, home city," McKinnon said. "Hopefully I can score a touchdown. I want to do a celebration, so we'll see.

"I got something in mind," McKinnon added.

McKinnon has 106 carries for 390 yards and a career-high three touchdowns this season.


In the holiday spirit**

Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo did a little decorating over the weekend break.

Sendejo took a pair of empty lockers and transformed them into a winter wonderland that featured three stockings, fake snow, a Christmas tree and an electronic Santa Claus climbing up and down a ladder. 

Sendejo's teammates were impressed.

"Dejo has set it up. That's Dejo," Rhodes said. "We always depend on Dejo doing something like that.

"Every holiday, Dejo is doing something, so that's nothing new to us," Rhodes added. "He loves doing that."

Added Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen: "It's pretty impressive, and I love it. I'm a big Christmas guy, so I love the spirit of Christmas being in the locker room."

Barr joked that his defensive teammates could have waited at least a few more days before going all out.

"It's a little early. We could have waited until December," Barr said. "Hopefully Zim' doesn't see it. He won't be happy."

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