Sunday could be a defining moment for the Vikings of 2011. Forced into the role of spoiler, it could come down to individual performances – one player making the critical individual effort that creates a game-changing play. Thanks to key injuries on the Packers offensive line, the most game-changing option the Vikings have Sunday is the key matchup between Jared Allen and either Marshall Newhouse or Bryan Bulaga.
The Packers knew they were gambling with Father Time when they re-signed Chad Clifton prior to the 2010 season. Battling injuries resulting from more than a decade playing left tackle in the NFL, Clifton was key to the Super Bowl run last year. He came back and the Packers entrenched Bulaga at right tackle. When Bulaga went down in September, Newhouse took his place. After missing two games, Bulaga returned to start against Atlanta in Week 5, only to have Clifton break down in the same game. Newhouse replaced him.
With both in the lineup, the Packers are being posed with the question of whether, for the long term, Aaron Rodgers is better off having Bulaga protecting his blindside or on the right side of the offensive line. Two years ago when the Packers had a similar injury problem on the O-line, the solution chosen was to slide two lineman down the line to replace injured Mark Tauscher, essentially having three linemen playing out of their natural position. Will they make a similar move again and move Bulaga from the right side to the left side while they wait for Clifton to return?
Perhaps against any other team, the Packers might simply let Newhouse take his chances on the left side, but, when you're going up against the NFL sacks leader, it becomes a bigger conundrum. Allen leads the league with 9.5 sacks and has made some big plays against the Packers in the past. For a team looking to try to salvage what has been a disastrous start to the 2011 season, if anyone can make the big play that can turn the tide and get momentum on the Vikings' side, it would be a blind side drill shot from Allen to Rodgers. As a result, whoever starts at left tackle for the Packers will likely get an assist on a lot of plays from a tight end or a fullback, but Green Bay can't do it on every play. Allen will have numerous one-on-one opportunities and will likely make the most of those chances.
While the Vikings have been struggling as a team, no fingers can be pointed at Allen. His strip sack of Jay Cutler last Sunday gave the Vikings hope when the offense converted it into a touchdown (only to have Devin Hester not only deflate that momentum, but shoot it down completely with a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff return). Allen has the ability to make the same kind of game-changing play against the Packers and, if nothing else, he is going to give them something to be legitimately worried about when it comes to game-planning the offense – which has found very little to be concerned about to date.
How the Packers choose to handle the Allen problem is something the coaching staff has been working on all week. They know Clifton won't play, but are likely formulating multiple schemes to stop Allen, which, given the amount of attention he is going to receive, makes this the Border Battle matchup to watch this week.
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: Allen vs. second-team tackles
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