Key matchup: Former teammates face off

John Sullivan is used to taking on B.J. Raji during Packers week. This time, Sullivan gets to block a former teammate, Letroy Guion, and their success rates have them on different levels.

The short week of preparation between the Vikings and Packers is going to have all of the players who see significant playing time a little sore as they forcibly shake off the rust and get back into competitive action Thursday night at Lambeau Field. There’s a reason why games are typically played seven days apart. One advantage the physically exhausted players will have is their familiarity with each other. They play twice a year and there is plenty of familiarity. However, in this week’s key matchup, there is a lot more familiarity – as Letroy Guion and John Sullivan renew acquaintances for the first time as opponents.

For six years, from 2008-13, Sullivan and Guion were teammates. They went up against each other every day in practice for six years. When the Vikings opted not to re-sign Guion after the 2013 season, he became a free agent and the Packers jumped on the chance to sign him.

Guion seemed like a curious fit with the Packers, because he had spent his entire time in the Vikings’ 4-3 defense. Green Bay runs a 3-4 defense in which the defensive tackle is a nose tackle whose job isn’t supposed to necessarily make tackles but to occupy two offensive linemen and open up opportunities for the defenders behind. The Packers had one of those space-fillers in B.J. Raji, but when Raji went down in the preseason, the onus of being the run-stuffing nose tackle fell to Guion.

Guion seemed ill-equipped to be a full-time nose tackle and the results have followed. Through four games, the Packers have allowed opponents to rush 153 times for 704 yards and five touchdowns. Opponents are averaging 4.6 yards a carry and the disparity in the run game has been painfully obvious.

Green Bay opponents have averaged more than 38 carries a game, while the Packers have rushed the ball less than 21 times a game – a byproduct of the defense’s inability to stop the run. As a result of that massive difference, the Packers have one of the league’s worst time-of-possession numbers – opponents have had the ball for 9 minutes, 10 seconds more per game than the Packers.

While Guion isn’t the only reason the Packers haven’t been able to stop the run, Green Bay is allowing 176 yards a game on the ground. According to the statistics website Pro Football Focus, of the 72 defensive tackles that are ranked based on a series of variables that identify their performance level, Guion ranks 66th. That isn’t reason for optimism that the Packers will turn that deficiency around any time soon.

Of the 34 centers ranked in the PFF database, Sullivan is 12th and, if not for a pair of penalties called against him, would be ninth on the list. He is a veteran tactician who consistently gets his assignment done and grades out well, and he is accustomed to playing against Raji when the Vikings play the Packers. Having gone up against the likes of Vince Woolfork and holding his own, facing off with his former teammate is a challenge Sullivan looks more than capable of completing.

It seems strange that, in 2008, Guion was a fifth-round draft pick and Sullivan was a sixth-rounder taken 35 selections later.

With questions at quarterback heading into Thursday night’s game, the Vikings game plan may well involve running the ball early and often, serving the dual purpose of moving the ball up and down the field and keeping the Packers’ high-powered offense on the sidelines. If Sullivan can steer Guion and open the running lanes the Vikings are going to need, it may not matter whether Teddy Bridgewater or Christian Ponder starts, making this a potentially game-changing matchup.

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