EAGAN, Minn. — Now the real fun begins.
It's been nine long months of grinding through the offseason, spring practices, training camp and the preseason, but the 2019 season is finally here.
The Vikings will open their 59th season of professional football Sunday at home against Atlanta, with kickoff at noon (CT) from U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota will likely rely on a handful of stars this season, but they'll need contributions from young players, too. The Vikings have plenty of them, as they are tied for the league lead with 12 rookies on their active roster.
"Part of that is obviously drafting well, but we see potential in some of these guys," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "We may have kept a couple guys we think are going to be players by mid-year as opposed to right now. That's part of the NFL life.
"You're going to get young guys, and that's how it is," Zimmer added. "They have to play on special teams, have to figure out what their roles are going to be. We're fortunate with a lot of the young guys, that we've drafted well in the past."
Minnesota has seven rookies on offense: Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith, Jr., Alexander Mattison, Dru Samia, Olisaemeka Udoh, Bisi Johnson and Brandon Dillon.
Defensively, Armon Watts, Marcus Epps, Kris Boyd and Mark Fields are all first-year players, as is long snapper Austin Cutting.
Smith, Jr. and Johnson explained their emotions leading up to the first regular-season NFL game of their careers:
"I'm just excited … we've been working for this moment," said Smith, Jr. "But it's a blessing to have this opportunity, and we can't wait to go out there and play."
Added Johnson: "I'm really excited to see what that stadium is like full-go with all the fans in there. I've heard it gets pretty loud."
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Shadowing Julio? | By @Eric_L_Smith
In his past three games against the Vikings, Falcons star receiver Julio Jones has been targeted 21 times with 13 receptions for 162 yards and no touchdowns.
Those are impressive performances from Minnesota's secondary, especially considering the two-time All-Pro has averaged nearly 100 yards per game in his career thus far.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadowed Jones quite a bit in 2017, meaning he trailed the wide receiver wherever he lined up before a snap.
Zimmer on Thursday talked about the approach the Vikings have taken with Rhodes in recent years.
"I think when we got here, Xavier had to work to be what we wanted him to be," Zimmer said. "I think once we started doing some of that, I think he liked it, the opportunity to go against big, strong guys. But he's big, strong, fast guy that plays to his strengths.
"You look at athletic ability, you look at other guys on the other team and try to figure out what their traits are," Zimmer added. "Sometimes it might be you want a big guy on a little guy, or a big guy on a big guy. It just depends, really."
Atlanta has plenty of other receiving threats, as Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley each topped 800 yards in 2018.
Zimmer said Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander will be counted upon to help slow down Atlanta's high-powered passing attack.
When the Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan drops back to pass Sunday, there will be plenty of individual matchups going on all over the field.
Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards each noted the importance of having an effective pass rush in the effort to ground an aerial attack.
Containing the Falcons run game | By @LindseyMNSports
In 2018, Atlanta ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 98.3 yards per game.
That doesn't mean the Vikings will dismiss the Falcons ground game, however, especially considering that conditions are favorable for that number to significantly increase this season.
Falcons Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman played just two games last season, and Atlanta's offensive line struggled to find consistency. Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn said via conference call with Twin Cities media members that instability on the line affected the team's "ability and confidence in the run game."
"We had one of the fewest attempts in the run game, and I would have never thought that would be our team," Quinn said. "I thought us being out of balance last year was a real factor in having to throw it more, Matt [Ryan] gets hit more (42 sacks), so we strive for having that balance. Some games it's 50-50, some games it's less, but on first and second down, you really want to find that balance. And hopefully we can re-capture that.
"That was a real point of emphasis for us, both lines of scrimmage," Quinn added. "We thought we needed to improve, and we've worked hard to try to do that."
They certainly have. The Falcons have five first-round picks on their offensive line (from left to right): Jake Matthews, James Carpenter, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. (Note: The Falcons list dual first-stringers on their depth chart. Jamon Brown (LG) and Matt Gono (RT) also are included).
The Vikings defense could have their hands full Sunday with a revamped Falcons offense looking to resurrect its run game.
Vikings commitments to run game to collide with Falcons | By @pcraigers
Dalvin Cook is fast. He's shown it during moments of his first two seasons and threw in a reminder by taking one of his two carries 85 yards for a touchdown this preseason.
The Falcons defense also is fast, healthier than a year ago and doesn't mind crowding the box (check out the video below of Pete Bercich in the Film Room, breaking down the way Atlanta defends the run):
The Vikings have put forth significant commitments to improving a run game that ranked 27th in attempts and 30th in rushing yards per game in 2018.
Zimmer was asked about the potential collision course of Minnesota's desire to run and Atlanta's goal of stopping the Vikings on Sunday.
"Every team in the league runs the ball against an extra guy in the box," Zimmer said. "You have to figure out how to do it, number one, but there's no one that says, 'We're never going to run the ball today, because they've got an extra guy in the box.'
"There's ways to do it, but you have to be balanced, too," he continued. "It's not so much about having how many guys in the box. It's, 'Who are the guys in the box? How can we get a guy out of the box a little bit?' And then being able to physically block the other guys."
Zimmer cited Emmitt Smith's career in Dallas when teams often added a defender close to the line of scrimmage.
"[The situation was,] 'This guy is yours, so you've got to run through them or make a cut or whatever.' You've just got to figure out ways to do it, and again, you still have to be balanced. My point was, you have to be balanced, so when you are throwing the football, they just can't tee off and go, and if they're not concerned about the running game ever, they're just going to rush the passer and you've got problems."
Cook was asked what he can do when facing a loaded box.
"That's definitely a good sign that we're running the football well," Cook said. "But, that's going to be kind of hard when you have threats on the outside, and we've got playmakers like we've got. With the guys we've got out wide, it's kind of hard to stack the box. That's why I love being with this group, because we've got some guys that can cut back and bust this thing open and change the scoreboard."
— The Vikings are 4-1 under Zimmer in season openers since he took over as head coach.
— Harrison Smith is set to play in his 100th career game Sunday. The safety has been to four straight Pro Bowls, has 20 career interceptions and holds the franchise record with four pick-sixes.
— In 2018, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins became the only player in NFL history to throw for 4,000-plus yards and complete 70 percent of his passes while throwing at least 30 touchdowns with 10 or fewer interceptions. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan nearly joined Cousins in that club, throwing for 4,924 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but his completion percentage was 69.4.
— Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in 2018, becoming the first pair of Vikings wide receivers to each have 1,000 receiving yards in the same season since Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Cris Carter in 2000.
"It's a mentality, really. Third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 is a mentality. Inside the 5-yard line is a mentality. We've been preaching that the last couple years."
— Zimmer on being more physical on offense when tough yards are needed in 2019
The Vikings will play their first road game in 2019 in a familiar place, as Minnesota heads to Green Bay for a Week 2 tilt. The Vikings are 3-0-1 in the past two seasons against the Packers.