Every year the NFL supplements itself with a fresh crop of young players that provide the next generation of talent that sustains the league. Whether they are first-rounders or sixth-rounders, if they possess those special qualities that can make them dominant NFL players, they bring with them a swagger and a cache that makes them elite at their position.
As the Vikings meet the Detroit Lions Sunday, two such players will be banging heads from start to finish – one of them a blue-chip first-rounder, one of them a blue-collar sixth-rounder. Of all the battles that will be ongoing Sunday, the collisions between Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Vikings center John Sullivan will be a marquee matchup to watch.
Nobody questions Suh's ability. At Nebraska, he often seemed like a man among boys throwing players around like rag dolls. Not a whole lot has changed in the NFL. While the level of competition has raised exponentially, it hasn't taken Suh long to establish himself as one of the game's elite interior defensive linemen. Yet, he has also established himself as a player with a hot temper, a trash talker and the clear reputation of being the dirtiest player in the league.
In a recent Sporting News survey of more than 100 current NFL players, players from all 32 teams were asked to give their opinions on various topics with the caveat that they couldn't vote for someone on their own team. One of the questions asked was who is the dirtiest player in the NFL? One in every three respondents answered Suh. He has built a reputation as a high-motor, high-energy player, but also one who isn't afraid to take a cheap shot – playing to and after the whistle and being a recidivist when it comes to butting heads with the NFL fine police.
Suh and Sullivan have played against one another for three seasons and, to date, there hasn't been an incident that has led to bad blood – unlike the disdain Jared Allen has for Gosder Cherilus after he took a clear cheap shot at Allen's knees with the intent to injure. Sullivan said he has yet to see the dark side of Suh.
"He's a good defensive tackle in the NFL," Sullivan said. "I've never had any issues with him after the whistle. I'm not a big trash talker. He just plays hard. That's fine. I respect that. It's just like any time you're playing a good defensive tackle. You have to be ready for the game to be physical."
Suh is not only an effective pass rusher – he is second on the team with 3.5 sacks – he is the anchor in the middle for stuffing runs up the gut. Given that the Vikings run more directly over Sullivan in their running game, if Adrian Peterson is going to have consistent success against the Lions defense, much of it will be predicated on Sullivan being able to neutralize Suh at the point of attack and consistently steer him in the direction he wants his to go.
In addition, given the struggles that Christian Ponder has experienced in recent weeks, it will be just as important that Sullivan keep Suh out of the Vikings backfield. Ponder has had a case of "happy feet" in recent games – feeling the need to get the ball out of his hand or take off from the pocket before he has to – and if Suh can collapse the pocket from the middle and force Ponder into the waiting arms of the defensive ends, it could be catastrophic for the Vikings offense.
Both Suh and Sullivan have been to Pro Bowls because, more times than not, they control their opponents and dominate weaker opposite numbers when they have the opportunity. On Sunday, both may be facing the strongest opponent this will face the rest of the season – Suh being the toughest test for Sullivan and Sullivan being the most technically sound center Suh will face. It will be a battle of strength vs. strength and has all the makings of an epic key 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: Blue collar vs. blue chip
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