Key matchup: Kalil vs. Quinn

Matt Kalil is trying to regain his form after a knee injury last year. He will have a huge test Sunday against a quickly emerging star defensive end.

As the Vikings were preparing for the St. Louis Rams Sunday, one of the first things that jumped out at them on film was one of the most impressive defensive fronts in the league – a group that got even stronger with the drafting of defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Few teams can bring the heat like the Rams, but one player in particular will be a focus of the Vikings offensive game plan, making the battle between Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil this week’s key matchup.

After a very strong rookie season, Kalil battled nagging injuries last season and, by his own admission, his level of play dropped off. He’s healthy now and trying to regain the form he showed in the Vikings’ 2012 playoff run.

The Vikings coaching staff tested Kalil during the preseason to get its own assessment of where he’s at in his return to form. During the first three games, especially the third game against Kansas City, the Vikings left Kalil alone on an island without chip help from tight ends or fullbacks.

While Kalil had a couple of leverage mistakes, he can’t afford those against Quinn, who, in a short period of time, has developed into one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL.

“They have a lot of talented players, but Robert Quinn is an excellent, elite pass rusher, one of the best in the league,” center John Sullivan said. “Everybody’s got to do their job in pass protection, got to do their job in the run game and if we execute we should be successful.”

Quinn became a starter for the Rams in 2012 in his second season but was something of a one-trick pony as a pass rusher. He had just 29 tackles in 16 games (14 starts), but recorded 10.5 sacks. As he matured as a player last year, his production spiked significantly.

He started all 16 games in 2013 and became a dominant all-around player. Both his tackle numbers (57) and sack total (19) almost doubled. At times, he was almost unstoppable.

He had at least one sack in 11 games, two or more sacks in five games and three sacks in three games. He got stronger as the year went on, recording 16 tackles and six sacks in the final three games.

The Vikings know all about him, as he was one of the jersey numbers represented by the scout team and even offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in practices this week.

The biggest problem Rams opponents may face is that with the addition of Donald in the draft, the Rams may have the best front four in the NFL with Quinn and Chris Long at the ends and Michael Brockers and Donald at defensive tackle. The future looks bright for the Rams defense, but the brightest star of the group is Quinn, who is only getting better as he enters his fourth season.

The Vikings used the fourth pick in the 2012 draft to select Kalil to be a blindside foundation blocker for the offense for the next decade. Part of that expectation is that he will be asked to neutralize some of the game’s top pass rushers. As things currently stand, the NFL’s best pass rusher may well be Quinn, making the all-day war being waged between Quinn and Kalil the season-opening 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 topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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