John Sullivan vs. Ndamukong Suh
The last time the Vikings played the Lions, we highlighted their dynamic wide receiver Calvin Johnson. At that time, the Lions' prized rookie had yet to emerge. As the Vikings and Lions close out their 2010 seasons Sunday at Ford Field, the battle between Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Vikings center John Sullivan is the season-ending matchup to watch.
Sullivan has had a roller coaster 2010 season that began with him missing all but two training camp practices with what was described as a calf injury. Coming back from offseason surgery after a strong 2009 season giving snaps to Brett Favre, Sullivan has struggled mightily at times – both in the physical aspect of the game and the fundamentals.
Sullivan fought to stay on the field early in the season and the Vikings ended up playing three different centers before he came back to stay in October. However, he has found the going difficult against big, brawling defensive tackles. At times, the undersized Sullivan has been overpowered and controlled by mauling nose tackles. If not for his knack of accurately making line calls and predicting where the pressure will be coming from on a given play, his starting job could be in jeopardy.
More troubling has been Sullivan's football version of "the yips" – something that afflicts golfers and makes the routine putts all but impossible to make. Sullivan's version of the yips has involved snapping to the quarterback in the shotgun formation. Over the last month, he has had almost a dozen shotgun snaps that have been well off the mark. He has one-hopped a couple, put a few more by the quarterback's feet, just as many high and even a couple that have sailed well over the quarterback's head. He showed improvement last week against the Eagles, but having his mind preoccupied with making sure his snap is correct is a recipe for disaster if he is a split-second late in getting in position with a player like Suh.
It's rare when a defensive lineman gets named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, especially on a team that struggled much of the year like the Lions. While the Detroit defense has allowed a lot of points, it wasn't because of Suh. The No. 2 pick in April's draft after the Rams took quarterback Sam Bradford, Suh is likely going to be the runaway pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. At a position that is routinely picked clean in the first couple of rounds, there is as high a hit-miss percentage (emphasis on "miss") on defensive linemen as any position in the draft. Suh came out with a grade worthy of a potential Hall of Fame prospect – he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and many scouts thought that he deserved to win, but defensive players are rarely honored with the Heisman.
Despite playing in the middle, where he routinely faces double-teams from the opposing center and one of the flanking guards, Suh leads the Lions in sacks with nine, only one-and-a-half sacks less than Vikings DE Jared Allen. He is a dominating run stuffer in the middle and is a rare double-threat that can not only deny the middle of the field for Adrian Peterson on the ground, but can collapse the pocket and chase down the quarterback. Defensive tackles with double-digit sacks are extremely rare, much less one who is a rookie, but Suh has not only lived up to all the hype that followed him throughout his final season at Nebraska, but has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations the Lions had for him.
As the Vikings look to salvage what remains of their 2010 season, a loss to the Lions would tie them for third place and, due to division record, the Vikings would technically finish last in the standings. With Detroit on a three-game winning streak – something the Vikings haven't been able to manage all season – every possession will be critical. One play can blow up a drive and turn what could be a score into a punt or, worse yet, a turnover. Not only does Suh have nine sacks, he has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
If any Lions defensive player is going to make the big play that kills a drive, it is likely to be Suh. Sullivan has struggled against massive DTs with agility and Suh will be a handful all day long, making this the Sunday's ke 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: Sullivan vs. Suh
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