Key matchup: Sullivan vs. Suh

John Sullivan has been considered close to a Pro Bowl center. Ndamukong Suh is a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro. Their matchup Sunday will go a long way to determining a winner between the Vikings and Lions.

There are plenty of matchups that are intriguing as the Vikings host the Detroit Lions Sunday, but perhaps none that could have the impact on who wins will be more critical than the matchup of two Pro Bowl-caliber players – Vikings center John Sullivan and Detroit defensive Ndamukong Suh – making this the key matchup at TCF Bank Stadium.

For Sullivan, it’s his second straight week as the primary matchup of note, but Suh arguably will be his stiffest battle of the season. Suh is a dominant space-eater who is equally adept at stopping the run up the middle and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. With one more sack, Suh will tie the Lions record for a defensive tackle (29.5) and he is just as imposing as a run stuffer. While Sullivan will be on him often, he likely will get help from either guard Charlie Johnson or Vladmir Ducasse because, quite simply, nobody can take on Suh one-on-one on a regular basis.

Suh forces teams to run wide because he holds the point of attack so well that few teams can push him off his spot. As a result, plays called up the middle are often either smothered for little or no gain or forced to be taken outside. The result has been predictable. The Lions have the top-ranked defense in the league and are fourth against the run, allowing opponents a scant 3.1 yards a carry. Suh is in the middle of that and one of the primary reasons for that lofty ranking. Even if he doesn’t make tackles, he forces the issue, which is where a veteran like Sullivan comes in.

The statistical website Pro Football Focus ranks players in terms of a play-by-play breakdown of their performance. Suh currently ranks fifth overall for grading and fourth in the number of snaps taken at his position. Sullivan is currently ranked 13th among centers, making his battle with Suh a clash of titans looking to set the tone for both the offense and defense. For both players, the run game is their strength. Sullivan rates out markedly higher as a run blocker than pass protector and Suh is second only to Damon Harrison in terms of run defending. For both players, it’s going to be a strength vs. strength battle that will be waged from the opening play to the final gun.

For Sullivan, his ability to neutralize Suh would have two benefits. First and foremost, he can’t allow Suh to collapse the pocket from the middle on pass plays. Teddy Bridgewater is making just his second NFL starts and aggressive defenses have a time-honored tradition of bringing pressure to a young quarterback with blitzes, stunts and disguised looks – trying to both confuse him and pressure him into making decisions faster than he wants. If offensive tackles are getting beaten, there is a failsafe option – using multiple tight ends, chipping them with tight ends or running backs etc. For a center who is lining up opposite an imposing run-stuffing DT, there is nowhere to go but forward or backward. Suh has a history of forcing to centers to move backward against their will.

When Bridgewater lines up to take snaps under center, Suh will only be about four feet away from him. It will be Sullivan’s job to make sure he doesn’t get any closer. It’s going to be a tall order because the Vikings know the heat will be coming and it will be up to the line to not only take on the defensive linemen, but pick up the others who may be coming on the blitz, making the game-long battle between Suh and Sullivan this week’s key matchup.

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