Key matchup: Robison, Griffen need pressure

The Patriots have solid offensive tackles, but the offense may have to offer help to their interior linemen. Guess who could be facing one-on-one matchups?

With an opponent like the New England Patriots, there could be a dozen matchups worthy of isolation as a key matchup. Players like Tom Brady, Cordarrelle Patterson, Vince Wilfork, Matt Kalil, Darrelle Revis and Rob Gronkowski could all be legitimate candidates. But the battle that could go the longest way between winning and losing Sunday will be waged between Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer against Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, making it this week’s key matchup.

Solder and Vollmer are both veterans, with Solder in his fourth season and Vollmer in his sixth. Solder is entering the final year of his contract and is looking for a big payday. While he graded out the highest among any Patriots offensive lineman, the Patriots allowed 40 sacks last season and surrendered four sacks and 10 knockdowns of Tom Brady last week at Miami. Vollmer, who missed half of last season with a broken leg, has had durability issues, but, when healthy, has been a solid foundation block for the Patriots’ line.

The bigger issues on the New England offensive line are in the middle, where Logan Mankins was traded away at the end of the preseason and the team is trying to make due with a shuffled lineup. When you have problems in the middle of the offensive line, the pressure is on the tackles to take on players one-on-one and, by the three sacks they allowed – one charged to Solder and two against Vollmer – as well as the amount of hits Brady absorbed, played a critical role in the New England second-half collapse in which they were outscored 23-0 by Miami.

On the other hand, one of the vital components of the Vikings’ beat-down of the St. Louis Rams was the consistent pass rush generated by Minnesota’s defensive ends. Griffen recorded two sacks, Robison consistently brought pressure from the edge that got the Rams quarterbacks on the move, backup DE Tom Johnson recorded a sack and so did safety Harrison Smith, who came off the edge and got by the offensive tackle to record his sack.

The Bill Belichick offense is predicated on giving Brady time to pass and survey the field. Few quarterbacks can read his progressions faster or more accurately than Brady. But when he takes his standard seven-step drop, he needs time to deliver the pass. The Vikings don’t intend to give him that kind of time and Griffen and Robison will be key to getting that done.

When the Patriots played the Mike Zimmer-led Bengals defense last year, they lost 13-6 and Brady was harassed all game. He completed just 18 of 38 passes, didn’t score a touchdown, threw an interception and was sacked four times. If there was a magic formula to frustrate and batter Brady, Zimmer had discovered it. In 16 games last year, the Patriots were limited to less than 20 points in two of them and the only game in which they didn’t have a touchdown was against Zimmer’s defense.

The Vikings will continue to incorporate a rotation of defensive linemen, but Robison and Griffen will be the key pass-rushing component from the defensive end spot. They’re going to look to replicate the kind of performance Zimmer got from his Bengals defense last season. For it to be a success, the Vikings will have to collapse the pocket and the lion’s share of that responsibility will fall on Griffen and Robison, making their battle with Solder and Vollmer this week’s 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.

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