It is rare when two players viewed as the best at their respective positions get to square off against one another head-to-head for an entire game. Throughout his career, Deion Sanders went one-on-one with an opponent's best wide receiver. The same is true in the current-day NFL with Darrelle Revis and opposing go-to wide receivers. There will be one such matchup when the Vikings meet the Miami Dolphins Sunday in the 2010 home opener, as pass rusher extraordinaire Jared Allen goes toe to toe with Miami offensive tackle Jake Long.
When asked if he was looking forward to the matchup with Long, Allen not only gave an answer, he fired a mocking shot across the bow, pronouncing Long's first name as if he was a child.
"Absolutely," Allen said of the challenge he will face against Long. "I wonder if (you) are looking forward to the challenge of playing me, Jakey?"
Allen's dominance has been chronicled over the years. He became a growing force in Kansas City. As a rookie, he recorded nine sacks in part-time starting duty. Over his next three seasons, he scored 34 sacks – hitting a high-water mark in 2007 with 15.5 sacks, despite being suspended for the season's first two games.
Nothing changed when he came to the Vikings. In each of his first two seasons in Minnesota, he has recorded 29 sacks – 14.5 sacks in each season. He has become one of the pre-eminent pass rushers in the league and, if he can maintain his current pace for less than a handful more seasons, he will have a Hall of Fame résumé. He has averaged 12 sacks a year in his first six seasons and almost 15 sacks a year over the last three. In two years with the Vikings, he has also scored six points by notching three safeties. Simply stated, he has been as dominant as any defensive end over the last six seasons and that hasn't been lost on opponents.
Offensive coordinators throughout the league have altered their game plans specifically to deal with Allen. Left tackles get tight end help. Guards will slide over to put two O-linemen to wash him away. Running backs will chip him on their way into a pass route. Allen is rarely left one-on-one with an offensive tackle for an entire game. Expect that to change Sunday.
In April 2008, Bill Parcells had taken over the reigns of overseeing football operations for the Dolphins. The job entailed having a loud voice in the decision-making process over the hiring of a coaching staff, free agency and, one of the Big Tuna's specialties, the draft.
There were only a trio of players that were believed worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. One of them was quarterback Matt Ryan. At the time he took over, Miami's QB position was a mess. In 2007, three players started at least four games that season – Cleo Lemon, Trent Green and John Beck. This wasn't a who's who. It was a who's that? The results were obvious – Miami finished 1-15 and put themselves in position to make the first pick in the 2008 draft. When the Dolphins were on the clock, they went with the safest of the choices – ignoring quarterback in the first round (Sunday's starter Chad Henne was taken in the second round of the '08 draft) and selecting Long.
That decision has reaped dividends almost beyond expectations, despite the anticipation that any first overall draft choice will be a stud for a decade or more. As a rookie, Long became just the fourth first-overall draft pick selected to the Pro Bowl in his first season. The other three were running backs from yesteryear –Earl Campbell (1978), Billy Sims (1980) and George Rogers (1981). The last time that feat had happened was four years before Long was born.
A left tackle is paid big money to protect the blind side of his quarterbacks. When a team gets a good left tackle, he isn't allowed to hit the free-agent market. Even the cheapest owners swallow hard and give in to contract demands. It is also a political position when it comes to the Pro Bowl. The same linemen routinely get voted to the Pro Bowl year after year based almost solely on reputation. Few young tackles, even if they out-perform their veteran counterparts, are honored by selection to the Pro Bowl until they have several seasons in the league. Long has made the Pro Bowl twice in his first two years for one reason – he's that good.
As technically sound as Long is, he also doesn't require an assist from another lineman, a tight end or a running back. Teams are able to lock him on to a player, whether it's a pedestrian defensive end or someone like Allen, Julius Peppers or Dwight Freeney. He is put on an island and, more times not, dominates his counterpart. In just his third year, the debate over who is the best left tackle in football comes down to Long or Cleveland's Joe Thomas.
Two players, both of whom are already putting together Hall of Fame résumés, rarely meet head-to-head for an entire game. Allen and Long will have at it and, as Allen sees it, he wouldn't want it any other way.
"I don't make excuses when teams put an extra guy on me to try to slow me down," Allen said. "They do that. It's part of the game. But when you have some like (Long) who can do so much, they aren't going to give him a lot of help. They're going to say, ‘Hey, go out there and stop him.' We'll be locked up all day and I'm ready to show him and them that I came to play."
In the end, they may essentially neutralize one another, but the extent to which either can get a pronounced advantage over the other will go a long way to determining who wins and who loses.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Key matchup: Jared Allen vs. Jake Long
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