Albert Haynesworth vs. John Sullivan and Ryan Cook
Every year there have been players that, for whatever reason, find themselves wanting out of the team they're playing with. Jared Allen, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss have been recent examples. In the end, all of them got their wish and were shipped out. One such case is Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who is going up against the combination of Vikings center John Sullivan and guard Ryan Cook, making this the key matchup Sunday.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has a long history of spending big for veteran players – Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Jeff George are classic examples of Snyder throwing good money after bad with veterans well beyond their prime. Haynesworth signed a $100 million contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. However, when he signed the deal, Jim Zorn was his head coach and the Redskins were running a 4-3 defense.
The arrival of new head coach Mike Shanahan and his commitment to a 3-4 defense caused immediate problems for Haynesworth, who has never been a 3-4 nose tackle. He balked at the idea initially and demanded to be traded. Given the investment and guaranteed money shelled out by the Redskins, it didn't make financial sense. But, his problems were far from over there.
Haynesworth got deep in Shanahan's doghouse and has found it difficult to extricate himself. First, it was a series of humiliating failures of the team's conditioning test. Then it was being demoted and losing his starting job. He and Shanahan have reached a sort of détente – agreeing to disagree on his role with the team – but he has begun the show the signs of the dominating presence he was with Tennessee that earned him a nine-figure contract.
He has returned to form in recent weeks and has been needed badly by a Redskins defense that is ranked last in the league and are equal-opportunity dismal – they're ranked 27th against the run and 29th against the pass. Haynesworth can be a disruptive force that blows up plays and can collapse the pocket – both as a run defender and a pass rusher.
Whether as an old-school defensive or a 3-4 nose tackle, Haynesworth can make the kind of plays that can kill drives and turn the momentum of the game into the Redskins' favor. He has always drawn double teams and will likely see more than his share Sunday against the Vikings. He has found ways to make plays against veteran offensive line tandems. What he will face Sunday is not as stellar a matchup as would have been envisioned just a few weeks ago.
Sullivan has been battling a calf injury since training camp and, while he has attempted a couple of comebacks, has suffered setbacks that have left his availability in question on a weekly basis. He has found ways to start most of the Vikings' games, but there is never a certainty that he will finish what he starts. Cook hasn't been a starter in two years and will be making his first start since the 2008 season.
For a guy who has never played right guard in his high school, college or professional career aside from training camp and last week against the Packers, Cook said Hayesworth will present a monumental challenge.
"He's one of the best in the business," Cook said. "He's had some problems there, but we know the kind of player he is and how he can dominate games. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
With Sullivan less than 100 percent and Cook making an adjustment to a new position, there is the potential that they will be vulnerable to Haynesworth splitting their double-teams and making plays. Given the need to get Adrian Peterson untracked and the constant concern of protecting Brett Favre from big hits, both will be asked to play above and beyond what has been expected of them this season. If they can rise to the challenge, the Vikings will have the chance to rip the Redskins defense apart, making this the key matchup.
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.
Key matchup: Haynesworth vs. interior linemen
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