When Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford left last Sunday's game in the fourth quarter with a hip injury, Lions fans held their collective breath hoping that the injury wasn't too serious. He will play Sunday, but still has lingering effects from his ailing hip and will likely be a stationary target, making the battle between defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison and Detroit offensive tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus this week's matchups to watch.
Stafford has become an elite NFL quarterback on the strength of his arm and the accuracy of his throws, not his scrambling ability. In his first two seasons, Stafford missed more games (19) than he played (13) and was starting to get the tag of being a player who gets injured and misses time. In 2011, he played all 16 games and showed why he was the first overall pick – throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. He was healthy and was in command of most games he played. But he isn't healthy now and has never been mobile, which could have Allen and Robison looking for blood.
While the two have combined for just one sack through three games, it hasn't been due to a lack of pressure. They consistently forced quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert, Andrew Luck and Alex Smith to bail out of the pocket to avoid sacks and take them out of their comfort zone. The difference is that all three of those QBs have quick feet and the agility to turn potential sacks into scrambles for positive yardage. Stafford is neither agile nor nimble with his feet when healthy, much less when playing with an injured hip.
In 16 games last year, Stafford was sacked 36 times and ran 22 times for just 78 yards. By comparison, in 10 games, Christian Ponder was sacked 30 times and ran 28 times for 219 yards. Stafford's lack of mobility is much more likely to make him a statue in the backfield and give Allen and Robison chances to track him down and make big defensive plays.
Out to prevent that will be Backus and Cherilus – a pair of former first-round draft picks have become the bookends of the Lions offensive line. But they have struggled against Allen. Vikings fans will remember Cherilus for a cheap shot he took at Allen's knees in 2008 that infuriated Allen to the point he needed to be restrained by teammates. He vowed revenge and was serious about it – owning the Lions throughout his career.
In two games last year, six of Allen's team-record 22 sacks came against the Lions. But, it has gone beyond that. One of his four career interceptions has come against Detroit. So has one of his four career safeties and, perhaps more importantly, two of his four career touchdowns. Backus, a 12-year veteran who isn't at the end of his career but getting closer all the time, is going to have his hands full. With the Lions not using a fullback (they don't have one on the roster) and typically using three wide receivers on most plays, Backus and Cherilus will spend more time taking on Allen and Robison one-on-one. The onus for protecting Stafford and his limited mobility will fall on them.
The stat sheet doesn't tell the whole story on Allen and Robison. Both have got the 2012 season off to a strong start and both have consistently created pressure on the opposing quarterbacks with their speed and power pass rush. It hasn't translated into sacks yet, but they have forced quarterbacks to exit the pocket on numerous occasions. It doesn't appear as though Stafford will have that luxury and, if the Vikings can force him to throw passes early or take a lot of hits, the Detroit offense will struggle to move the ball and could create the turnovers needed to tilt the game in the Vikings' favor. There will be plenty of individual matchups that will impact the outcome of the game, but perhaps none will be as important as Allen and Robison trying to get to Stafford, and Backus and Cherlius looking to stop them.
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: Starting at the ends
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