Few players have been criticized by the local media more during the Vikings’ struggles over the last two weeks than left tackle Matt Kalil. Using stat numbers that includes sacks allowed, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries, Kalil is grading out as the worst left tackle in the NFL, at least according to Pro Football Focus, which will make his battle with Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora this week’s key matchup.
The numbers through three games for Kalil haven’t been pretty in those key tackle comparative categories. Of the 187 snaps Kalil has been part of, he has committed two holding penalties, allowed three sacks, surrendered two QB hits and a league-high nine quarterback hurries. The only tackle who has allowed more sacks is Washington right tackle Tyler Polumbus, who has given up six sacks in four games.
While, for the most part, he has been able to keep his quarterbacks relatively clean, Kalil has forced them to be on the move because pressure is coming his way and, when it is his quarterback’s blind side, things can get dangerous. The Vikings have already lost starting QB Matt Cassel – that one during a 5-yard scramble – and can’t afford to have rookie Teddy Bridgewater uncomfortable in the pocket.
The Falcons run a hybrid 3-4 defense and both Biermann and Umenyiora are going to be lined up opposite Kalil looking to apply heat from the right side of the defense. Neither of them has been dominant and they split time on a 2:1 ratio. Through three games, Biermann has been on the field for 164 plays. Umenyiora has been on the field for 82 plays – exactly half of the plays Biermann has played. Neither of them has been overly productive.
They have combined for 18 tackles through three games, but neither of them has a sack despite having two knockdowns and eight QB hurries. As a team, Atlanta has just three sacks and, as the Vikings prepare for Teddy Bridgewater to make his first career start, the need for the Vikings to keep him clean and running by choice, not by force, is at a premium.
The Falcons have the NFL’s most formidable offense, but their defense isn’t their calling card. In 85 career games, Biermann has just 16½ sacks. He is more of a technician than a pure pass rusher and does several things well but isn’t elite in any aspect of his game. He is player that, if Kalil is a dominant left tackle, should be dominated.
Umenyiora is another story. He earned his stripes with the Giants and recorded 75 sacks in nine years (he played 10 seasons in New York, but missed the entire 2008 campaign due to injury). In his first season with Atlanta in 2013, he had 7.5 sacks. He hasn’t recorded one this year, but, as a player on a pitch count, his job is to bring the heat on those plays when he’s on the field. Despite being a part-time player, he has one responsibility on his plate – rush the passer and create the play that changes the momentum of a game. In his 12th season, he has seen better days, but on a pitch count he can still bring the heat and make plays.
Kalil is currently under the microscope, a position a left tackle rarely wants to be in. Part of their job description is to shut down an opponent’s top pass rushers and protect the blind side of his quarterback.
“I know everybody has gotten on this Kalil kick and I think it’s easy to see some of those things on TV or sitting in the press box or on the field,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “When guys get beat it’s easy to see and we’ve had corners get beat, we’ve got linebackers that get beat, we’ve got guards that get beat, but everybody is on this Kalil kick.
“For 93 percent of the game he plays pretty good, but unfortunately the three or four bad plays he has show up and then guys get on him. I’m not that discouraged as everybody else is on it. We’ll just try and get those four bad plays out of him and just keep going.”
Kalil has struggled to do that, but the Falcons don’t have a 20-sack type of player on the right side of their defense. If he fails to grade out well Sunday, there may be questions as to whether he can be the long-term foundation block on the left side of the offensive line, because Biermann in not elite and Umenyiora is past his prime. It has all the makings for a rebound Sunday as Kalil looks for redemption as well as giving Bridgewater the protection he will need, making the left tackle’s collisions with Biermann and Umenyiora this week’s matchup to watch.
Key matchup: Can Kalil rebound for Vikings?
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