Key matchup: Kalil vs. Allen

They have gone each other thousands of time in practice over two seasons together, but Sunday will mark the first time Matt Kalil gets to block Jared Allen in a game situation.

Typically when Viking Update identifies a matchup that can potentially go a long way to determining who wins and who loses a game, it’s two players at the top of their game, such as Xavier Rhodes vs. Calvin Johnson or Anthony Barr vs. a shifty dual-threat running back. But this week we have two struggling players at key positions that will be going head to head for the 1,000th time but the first time as opponents, as the ongoing war between Jared Allen and Matt Kalil is this week’s key matchup.

As recently as early last season, Kalil and Allen were viewed as elite players at their positions. Allen was just two years removed from coming a sack away from setting the all-time single-season sacks record and Kalil was viewed as a bookend left tackle and a foundation piece of the offensive line for the next decade to come. Flash forward two years and the situation is much different for both of them.

Allen saw the handwriting on the wall with the Vikings throughout the 2013 season. The Vikings made no effort to restructure Allen’s contract despite a $17 million cap hit that came with the final season of the contract he signed after being traded from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Minnesota Vikings. He had given Minnesota six solid seasons, but the Vikings weren’t about to commit long-term money to player past the age of 30 on a team in a youth movement. The Vikings opted to use their resources to sign Allen’s backup, Everson Griffin, to a long-term contract and let Jared hit free agency.

Allen eventually landed with the Bears, who were gearing up for a potential Super Bowl run. With a potent offense already in place, the Bears targeted defense in free agency, specifically the defensive line – signing Allen and Lamarr Houston to big contracts. To date, that hasn’t appeared to have been money well spent. Houston is out for the year after tearing an ACL celebrating a sack and, while Allen has been playing full-time (with the exception of one game missed after coming down with pneumonia), the results just haven’t been there.

During his stint with the Vikings, Allen consistently put together double-digit sack seasons and was one of the most dominant sack-masters in the NFL. Chicago was expecting much the same from Allen this season, but, through nine games, he has just 1½ sacks and has often been more of a liability than a benefit – bull-rushing his way past the pocket and taking himself out of plays too often and being neutralized by massive left tackles on a consistent basis.

Kalil has found himself in a similar situation. Once viewed as a perennial Pro Bowl prospect, Kalil has been much-maligned all season, grading out about as poorly as a starting left tackle can. He’s allowed sacks. He’s allowed plays to get blown up and hasn’t looked like the same player that went to the Pro Bowl just two years ago.

The familiarity Allen and Kalil have is deep. When Kalil first came into the league, he and Allen would line opposite one another every day in practice and one of Allen’s jobs was to put the rookie through his paces by showing him a variety of pass-rush moves. Of all the pass-rushing defensive ends Kalil has gone up against, their numbers dwarf to the number of snaps he has taken against Allen. Neither of them technically has to watch film on each other because they are so innately familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Both players have struggled, but with the Vikings looking to win on the road at Chicago for the first time since 2007, the battle between Allen and Kalil will be huge. Allen has always stated that he never worries too much about sack numbers because, when they come, they tend to come in bunches. He would love nothing more than to terrorize Teddy Bridgewater and record a couple of potentially game-changing sacks against him.

The same goes for Kalil. While he has looked better the last couple of games, he would love nothing more than to shut down his former teammate and mentor, and make him a non-factor.

Given their history and this being Allen’s first meeting with his former team, the spotlight is going to be on Allen and Kalil all day. Neither is playing at the top of his game, but combined they will be a must-see matchup to watch this Sunday.

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