For 12 years, Jeff Backus was a fixture at left tackle for the Detroit Lions. While viewed as a savvy pass protector, he had his share of troubles with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who had a pair of three-sack games running over and around Backus. But, knowing the end was near for Backus, the Lions used their first-round pick on Iowa's Riley Reiff in 2012.
With Backus now retired, Allen will line up against Reiff, who is making just his second NFL start at left tackle. His assignment to stop Allen is going to be a tall order for the youngster, making this the key matchup of the Vikings' season opener.
It's going to be an unusual experience for Allen, who has never played against the Lions without Backus on the other side of the ball. It makes the 10-year veteran Allen feel a little long in the tooth.
"The weirdest thing is, it makes you realize how old you're getting when guys you've played your whole career start retiring," Allen said. "But I think he was a few years older than me, so I'm good."
Having to change his preparation to face a new face is something Allen views as a positive. When you play against the same opponent twice a year for five seasons, you get accustomed to a player's tendencies. While he never gets complacent, having to study up someone he's never faced will be a motivator for Allen, who had become overly comfortable preparing for his battles with Backus.
"There was some familiarity there," Allen said. "Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it can be a bad thing because you can prepare the same way – thinking you're going to get the same process. But it doesn't always happen. We had some good matchups throughout my career, but we're excited. Having a new, young guy over there just motivates you more to be on your P's and Q's."
Reiff's downside prior to being drafted was that he doesn't have long vine-like arms that elite left tackles possess – prompting some to believe that his ideal NFL position might end up being at guard. He has less-than-ideal arm length and was more of a finesse blocker in college, using technique to stymie most defensive ends. But he hasn't faced a player of Allen's caliber and it could change the way the Lions try to neutralize Allen.
Reiff's inexperience and shortcomings against big power rushers could change a lot of what the Lions plan to do against the Vikings. Allen will likely have tight ends lining up alongside Reiff to help him and, if the Vikings cornerbacks can jam Calvin Johnson at the line, Matthew Stafford may not have the time he needs to get the ball down the field to Megatron.
When a young player gets abused by a veteran, the standard mantra is "Welcome to the NFL." With Reiff expected to be the left tackle of the future under the current plan in Detroit, his first game as the starting left tackle of the present will be one of the most difficult he may face in his entire career, making this a potentially game-changing matchup to watch.
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: Jared Allen vs. the newbie
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