Key matchup: Suh vs. Sullivan

John Sullivan might not be assigned to Ndamukong Suh on every play, but will be the double-team help needed often, and Sullivan is in charge of making the calls on the offensive line.

There are battles that go on during games that only become apparent when one player is clearly winning the war. In Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Lions, two accomplished players will lock up the entire game and try to wear each other down, making the fight between John Sullivan and Ndamukong Suh this week’s key matchup.

Sullivan has been one of the game’s best run blocking centers for years, often steering defenders out of the running lane the Vikings have sought to exploit. He has been the leader of the O-line for the last several years and, as the most vested member of the group with the Vikings and the man who makes the line calls, his leadership has never been questioned.

There isn’t much a defense can throw at the Vikings that Sullivan hasn’t seen. That will be a valued asset given that the Vikings are starting a rookie quarterback, are down to their third and fourth running backs and, perhaps even more importantly, have three starting offensive linemen now that were expected to be backups. It’s going to be incumbent on Sullivan to make sure everyone is in the right position to make plays and pick up what Detroit is throwing at them, because, after posting eight sacks in their first meeting, the Lions are sure to be coming with the pressure when they get the opportunity.

What makes Suh such a difficult challenge is that he is so dominant in the middle he not only can clog run lanes, he can collapse the pocket and bring down the quarterback with his pass rush. Defensive tackles aren’t typically known for being sack artists, but Suh is an exception to the rule. In his fifth NFL season, Suh has record 33 sacks, including 5.5 sacks this year. He is disruptive and often demands double-team attention from one of the guards flanking Sullivan. Vladimir Ducasse may be lined up most often with Suh, but Sullivan will be in charge of double teams that are sure to ensue on Suh.

The Lions have the best run defense in the league, allowing just three yards per attempt to opposing runners. A big reason for that is because Suh takes away the middle running lanes by occupying two blockers and forcing runners to the outside, which often bottles up plays and allows his Detroit teammates to swarm to the ball.

Even more dangerous is when Suh gets the chance to rush the passer. He has a history of playing mean – stomping on players, throwing down running backs and quarterbacks with ferocity, hitting after the whistle and playing with bad intentions to those wearing the opposing colors. He is the antithesis of Sullivan, a smart, soft-spoken player who lets his technique do his talking for him.

Both Suh and Sullivan have earned the praise that they have received from their peers. Both are viewed as being among the best players at their respective positions. When two elite players collide, big things can happen. If one of them gets an advantage over the other, they won’t hesitate to take advantage of it and beat the other guy up. It gets violent when 300-pound men crash into each other play after play after play. When you have a player with a history of playing with a mean streak like Suh going up against one the most fundamentally sound centers in the league, the chance for fireworks is there.

The first time the Vikings met Detroit this year, the Lions owned the line of scrimmage in a 17-3 blowout in which the Vikings could get nothing going offensively. Teddy Bridgewater had his worst game as pro, throwing three interceptions and being sacked eight times and the Lions defense was able to pin its ears back and come after Bridgewater. One of the primary reasons for their success was that Suh won his battle and he’s looking for a repeat as the Lions try to continue their march to the playoffs, making the battle between Sullivan and Suh this week’s matchup to watch.

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