Most of the buzz heading into Saturday's game with the Washington Redskins centers around Jared Allen's pursuit of the all-time sacks record, but the Redskins are capable of making big plays on both sides of their defense, making their battle against Vikings offensive tackles Charlie Johnson and Phil Loadholt this week's key matchup.
The Redskins run a 3-4 defense, which is becoming more popular around the league thanks to the success of 3-4 teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and San Diego. What those four teams all have in common is that they play in the AFC, where the 3-4 is a more popular front. In the NFC, there isn't as much of a 3-4 commitment and the Vikings' main experience with such a defense is against the Packers, who have won all four of their meetings the last two years under coordinator Dom Capers' attacking style. The Redskins are looking for the same sort of success and, given his experience against the powerhouses of the AFC, transplanted head coach Mike Shanahan has brought the 3-4 to Washington D.C. in hopes of capturing that same level of consistent success.
For any 3-4 defense to be successful, the first requirement is to have active, aggressive pass-rushing outside linebackers. The Redskins have built such a dominant front by investing two first-round draft picks to get the job done – taking Orakpo in the first round of the 2009 draft and Kerrigan in the first round of last April's draft.
Orakpo has already established himself as one of the game's elite pass rushers and has seven sacks despite being consistently chipped by tight ends and backs who assist offensive tackles that struggle in one-on-one coverage. Kerrigan has more than lived up to expectations, leading the Redskins with 7.5 sacks as a rookie and already building an impressive on-field résumé. The Redskins bring one or both on about two of every three snaps and they are both capable of blowing up plays, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown by Kerrigan.
Keeping Orakpo and Kerrigan neutralized will fall on Johnson and Loadholt. Given the ongoing hip injury to Christian Ponder, keeping him "clean" is a top priority. Last week against the Saints, the Vikings struggled badly against pressure from the edge, and both Johnson and Loadholt left Ponder exposed and open to big hits from Saints defenders. It can be argued that the Redskins pose an even bigger edge threat in their two young star defenders.
By and large, the Redskins are a non-descript team devoid of big-name stars. But, they have a pair of budding superstars in Orakpo and Kerrigan that could be the foundation to building a winner in Washington. Loadholt and Johnson will be in for a long day, because the Redskins' linebackers have motors that never idle and they will be bringing the heat from the first whistle to the final gun.
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: Vikings tackles vs. 'Skins OLBs
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