There are times when players earn either respect or redemption. As the Minnesota Vikings meet the Denver Broncos, two teammates looking to make different impressions are going to face their stiffest test of the season, if not their careers, as the battle between Minnesota’s Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings and Denver’s DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are the key matchups.
For Kalil, this season of one of seeking redemption. Having played injured the last two seasons, he is finally feeling healthy and has been grading out at a high level in each of his three games. His challenge against Ware will be immense. Ware has 130½ career sacks and, with two more, he will tie Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neal for 11th on the all-time sacks list.
Kalil sees the progress the Vikings have made in all facets of the game the last two weeks, but doesn’t see the need to get content. His job is two-fold – protect Teddy Bridgewater and open running lanes for Adrian Peterson. The recent success the Vikings have enjoyed can all change in a hurry and Ware, who has 3½ sacks in the first three games of the season, will provide a significant threat to the progress that Kalil and the Vikings are looking to continue – on offense, defense and special teams.
“We’ve shown what we can do on both sides of the ball the last couple of games and it won’t get any easier with Denver,” Kalil said. “We’ve been able to rush their quarterback on defense and put him on the ground. On offense, we’ve done a better job of protecting Teddy and opening holes for Adrian. We all take pride when Adrian runs for 100 yards and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to out-physical the defense and dictate the pace. The beast is getting unleashed and that’s what we’re here for.”
On the other side, Clemmings has just as daunting a task, if not more so in facing Miller, an athletic freak who has already started crafting a Hall of Fame résumé. Miller has 50 sacks in 59 career games. In three full seasons in which he has played 15 or more games, he’s never had fewer than 11½ sacks in a season. His motor never stops and, for a guy playing his fourth NFL game, the all-day challenge he is going to get from Miller is as stiff a test as he has faced to date.
“He’s one of the best in the league,” Clemmings said. “That can always be a big challenge for you. They’re both fast, but I think Miller is a little faster than Ware. He gets off the snap extremely fast and it forces you to be in position instantly because you know he’s coming and you need to stick with your keys and your technique to keep him from getting in the backfield.”
Occasionally, the Broncos switch things up and flip-flop Miller and Ware to give the offensive tackles a different look, but, for the most part, Kalil will be on Ware and Clemmings will be on Miller. It’s going to be a long day for both of them and they will have to bring their best game and quickest feet to withstand the heat that’s coming.
“They’re both great players,” Clemmings said. “It’s going to be great competition and I’m going to have elevate my game to play at that level. I think I’ll be up to the challenge because you know they’re going to come into the game playing at a high level.”
For the Vikings players in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the Broncos are going to be the measuring stick that helps show the team whether or not they’re ready to make the jump to the rarified air of legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Denver has been there and done that already. Their window for success at a high level is closing and they’re holding onto their spot with dogged determination. The Vikings are on the other end of the spectrum, loaded with players in the 20s with their best years ahead of them. A win or a loss for either team will be the result of both sides of the ball executing its game – the Vikings offense protecting Teddy Bridgewater and letting the defense irritate Manning.
“We’ve been feeding off each other,” Kalil said. “Coach Zimmer has told us you don’t win games solely with offense or defense. It has to be a team effort. We’ve seen improvement in offense and defense and special teams has done a great job of flipping field position for us. It’s a lot easier to start drives on the 50-yard line than on the 5-yard line. When everyone is working together, we’re hard to beat.”
There will be a dozen or so plays that determine who will win and who will lose Sunday. The Vikings have a chance to head into their bye week at 3-1 and earn the respect and attention of the entire NFL. Of those dozen plays, a handful of them will emanate from the 60-70 plays that Kalil and Clemmings will be ask to shut down Ware and Miller, making this the key matchup Sunday at Sports Authority Stadium.