There are some matchups in NFL games that are critical to the success or failure of a team. Perhaps nowhere is that more important than with a pass rusher and an offensive tackle, which makes the battle between Minnesota Vikings left tackle Jake Long and Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah this week’s key matchup.
It was desperation that brought Long to the Vikings. When Matt Kalil went down with a hip injury, the Vikings attempted to move right tackle T.J. Clemmings to left tackle. That plan didn’t work out as hoped, especially after Andre Smith was lost at right tackle, and, for better or worse, Long became the next man up.
Having missed all but a dozen plays in 2015 for Atlanta after recovering from knee surgery that ended his Miami career, when the 2016 season began, Long couldn’t find a home until the Vikings came calling during their bye week.
His debut against the Eagles was an unqualified disaster that saw him benched after just 13 snaps. With the struggles of Clemmings, Long was put back at left tackle against Chicago and played all 61 snaps.
Like it or not, at this time, Long is the best option at left tackle – a position that typically goes up against an opponent’s top pass rusher. In the case of the Lions, that is Ansah, who has had his own share of adversity this season.
Plagued with a lingering knee injury, Ansah has missed three of Detroit’s eight games and has yet to record a sack.
For Ansah, that is saying something. In his first three seasons, he record 30 sacks, including 14½ last season. He is a tenacious pass rusher who is a disruptive influence when he gets a step on a blocker. He blows up plays and is a difference-maker when he gets to playing at his typical standard.
He remains limited in practice, but last week against Houston, he played as many snaps as any defensive lineman on the Lions roster. He is working his way back into form and his history has been that, when the sacks start coming, they come in bunches. Given the current situation on the Vikings offensive line, that is what the Lions defensive coaches are counting on.
There are going to be a lot of changes made to the Vikings offense over time as the Pat Shurmur-based offense takes over for the style of play that Norv Turner had for his offense. The expectation is that the Vikings will be moving toward more of a quick-passing style to try to prevent the kind of pass-rush heat Bradford has been facing. The idea is that the quick-hitting plays will help the offensive line not have to hold their blocks for three or four seconds, which was often the case in the Turner five- and seven-step drop passing formations. They could also make greater use of blocking tight end Rhett Ellison.
Long is feeling more comfortable just three weeks into his 2016 season, which has been three months for the rest of his teammates. Ansah is close to being back at 100 percent after being out for three weeks and limited upon his return.
Both players are going to be looking to get back to the level of play that made them both Pro Bowl players. Neither will be at top form, but if one can dominate the other, it will go a long way to determining who wins or loses, making this the matchup to watch Sunday.