The Cincinnati Bengals have quietly become one of the elite teams in the NFL. When given time to operate, they have an offense that can compete with anyone. If the Vikings are going to keep the Bengals at bay, they will have to get pressure up the middle, which makes the battle between Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd against Bengals center Kyle Cook and their guards the matchup to watch.
Fans may remember Cook, but only if they remember the minutia of NFL history. Cook was an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State that spent the 2007 preseason as a member of the Vikings. He was released by the Vikings among the final roster cuts. On the last day of 2007, he was signed by the Bengals and has remained with the franchise ever since, making 64 starts at center.
Cook is a classic wide body at center, standing 6-3 and weighing 315 pounds. His primary strength is being able to hold his zone of the field, whether it's steering and pushing defenders backward in the run game or holding his ground in the pass game.
Although the Bengals have an electrifying perimeter threat in rookie running back Giovani Bernard, at their core, the Bengals have been and still are a team that makes its bread and butter in the ground game by running between the tackles. BenJarvus Green-Ellis fits the classic mold of running backs that head coach Marvin Lewis prefers hard-nosed runners who gain the tough yards up the middle, often following Cook into the hole.
Similarly, the Bengals passing game is one of quick, timing passes. If defensive ends are looping around to get to Andy Dalton, on average they have less than three seconds to get that job done. If the Vikings are going to get pressure on Dalton, it is going to fall on Williams and Floyd to shoot the gaps up the middle. While Williams is the primary starter at under tackle, Floyd has been seeing more time as his rookie season has progressed. Because the Vikings feel confident with either player on the field, they can rotate Williams and Floyd in and out and keep both of them fresh and on the attack.
For an offense that is predicated around running the ball between the tackles and getting passes out of Dalton's hand in a hurry, there may be no more critical battle Sunday than Cook holding up against Williams and Floyd. Whoever has the advantage will put his team in the best position to win, making this the key matchup Sunday.
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: Floyd, Williams vs. interior OL
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