Key matchups: Shutting down the ends

Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt each will have a tall task in front of them, facing up against Robert Quinn and Chris Long, respectively, on nearly every down. Can the Vikings tackles keep the pressure off Christian Ponder?

As the Vikings look to keep their 2012 playoff hopes alive, they do so against a team – the St. Louis Rams – in a very similar situation. One of two teams (along with Indianapolis) that had a worse record than the Vikings last year, the Rams are 6-6-1 and still in the playoff hunt themselves.

Both teams have made marked improvement and, as the Rams attempt to protect their home turf, the battles between St. Louis defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and Vikings offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt are this week's key matchups.

The Rams have quietly developed one of the most prolific sack teams in the NFL. They are second in the league with 39 sacks and Long and Quinn are at the forefront of that. They have combined for 17 sacks (two more than Jared Allen and Brian Robison have through 13 games), with Quinn leading the team with 9½ sacks and Long just behind him with 7½.

New coach Jeff Fisher has made significant changes to the roster of the Rams since he took over, but he had some pre-existing talent, including his two talented defensive ends – Long was a first-round draft pick in 2008 and Quinn was a first-rounder in 2011.

"You watch them on film and both of them are high-energy guys," Loadholt said, who will be facing Long most of the day. "They like to blitz, but they get most of their pressure from their front four so they don't have to blitz to get to the quarterback. They're going to be a big challenge."

Both Long and Quinn are extremely athletic – Long at 6-3, 270 and Quinn at 6-4, 264 – and have both developed into very strong pass rushers. Like Allen and Robison, they never quit on plays and often get their sacks when coverage prevents a quarterback from getting rid of the ball quickly.

Kalil and Loadholt have both held up well this season against bull rushers and speed rushers alike. Most of the pressure that has come on Christian Ponder has come up the middle, not over or around Kalil or Loadholt. Given the prolific sack numbers the two defensive ends have generated through the first 13 games, it will be incumbent upon Loadholt and Kalil to neutralize Long and Quinn.

There is no question that with Ponder's recent struggles, the Rams' defensive game plan is going to be to bottle up Adrian Peterson as best they can and try to rattle Ponder – who has struggled badly when consistently faced with a strong pass rush. If Kalil and Loadholt can keep Long and Quinn from applying pressure to Ponder, it will go a long way to the Vikings getting the offense they need to dictate the pace of the game. The level to which they can keep both of the young Rams ends off the stat sheet will likely determine who wins and who loses in a must-win game for both sides.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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