One of the aspects of preseason games that coaches find the most valuable is seeing how their team can respond to the specific strengths and weaknesses of an opponent. Given that the Vikings will have to supplant the Packers and Bears if they want to return to the top of the NFC North, being able to handle a 3-4 defense will be critical. As the Vikings meet the Dallas Cowboys, they arguably face the two most dominant outside linebackers in any 3-4 defense in the NFL, making the battles between Charlie Johnson and Phil Loadholt of the Vikings and DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer of the Cowboys this week's matchup to watch.
There is little doubting Ware's ability – his 15.5 sacks was more than three times that of any other Dallas player. He is a relentless pass rusher and, while teams typically try to chip him with a running back or tight end, it doesn't always keep Ware at bay. Spencer doesn't get as much recognition as Ware, but his contribution is just as pronounced as that of Ware. Just as a star wide receiver needs another talent on the other side of the offense to avoid constant double and triple teams, the same is true on defense. With Spencer able to beat one-on-one coverage to get to the quarterback or the ball carrier, it opens things up not only for him, but for Ware as well.
From the Vikings' side of the things, the release of Bryant McKinnie sent ripples through the rest of the team. On paper, it was relatively simple to replace McKinnie. But on the field those concerns will be put to the test in a big way when Johnson and Loadholt are expected to keep Ware and Spencer away from Donovan McNabb.
While Vikings fans may not be acutely familiar with Ware or Spencer, McNabb has far too much familiarity with them. Prior to this year, he spent his entire career in the NFC East Division, playing the Cowboys twice (and on occasion three times) in a year. For the last five years, he had to deal with both Ware and Spencer, so he knows what havoc they can bring.
That familiarity may play against the Vikings offense. Being so experienced with what they can do, McNabb has earned a reputation for throwing the ball away or delivering it too soon in order to avoid a sack or a big hit. When that happens, drives can self-destruct and that is what Johnson and Loadholt will have to prevent.
While McKinnie wasn't in shape when he arrived last month at training camp, what he has provided the Vikings was a huge left tackle with nimble feet to shoot backward off the snap and force pass rushers like Ware to take the long way around to get to the quarterback. More times than not, he could force the pass rusher out of the play by directing him backward or riding him past the pocket. The jury is still out on whether Johnson can do the same. He hasn't looked dominant in his brief appearances during the preseason and will be expected to perform similarly to what McKinnie did for the last decade with the Vikings.
The same is true for Loadholt. His job at right tackle isn't so much to push pass rushers beyond the pocket, but to lock them up and stop their progress. He has struggled with speed rushers, which could be a problem because of the autonomy Ware is given. He doesn't always line up on the same side of the ball. He is given the freedom to try to spot a weakness and switch sides with Spencer at any time, meaning both Johnson and Loadholt will have to deal with him.
When given a clean pocket, McNabb can pick apart any defense in the NFL, but when pressured, he can still occasionally look like a deer in the headlights more interested in a self-preservation than taking a big hit. It will be up to Johnson and Loadholt to keep McNabb upright and completing passes, creating the key matchup between the tackles and Ware and Spencer.
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: Early test for the tackles
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