There are some games during the course of a season that can be defined by two players having at it from start to finish. Sometimes it can be a running back and a tackling machine at linebacker. Sometimes it can be a speed receiver and an elite cover cornerback. Thursday’s meeting between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys will include those types of ongoing battles, but it will be a war in the trenches between two gigantic men that combine to weigh 650 pounds – Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph and Dallas center Travis Frederick – that will be this week’s key matchup.
Anyone who has gone up against Joseph can attest that he has superhuman strength and is capable of dominating his opponent. Against Dallas, that will be a must.
The Cowboys have been able to get a lot out of their 2016 rookie class, as first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing and fourth-round pick Dak Prescott has quickly made veteran Tony Romo an afterthought. Both of them make their living in between the tackles. While he has good speed, Prescott prefers to stay in the pocket because his offensive line does a great job of protecting him and keeping the pocket clean. While Elliott can gain good yardage on the edge because he has a good blend of speed and power, he earns most of his money in between the tackles – due in no small part to Frederick’s ability to move defenders.
“He’s got very good technique and he likes to steer guys around,” Joseph said of Frederick. “You have to take it to him or he will push you around. He’s going to be a challenge, but that’s what I like.”
To call Frederick a challenge is an understatement. He has been named the NFL’s top center in the league the last two seasons – being named not only to the Pro Bowl both years, but being named All-Pro, a team that selects just one center each year.
Frederick is about as flawless as centers get. He is a master of leverage with jolting hand usage in the chest of defensive tackles and once he gets his hands on a defender, he has the ability to steer them off their pass rush or out of a running lane.
To most defensive tackles, that is. Joseph isn’t an average defensive tackle … not by a long shot. Although he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl last season, he was acknowledged by his peers as an elite interior defensive lineman and was named by Pro Football Focus as a 2015 All-Pro because, by PFF’s methodology, Joseph graded out on top of the list for all defensive tackles.
The gravity of this matchup can’t be understated. If Joseph can impose his will on Frederick and back him up at the line of scrimmage, it not only would funnel Elliott left or right – with the intention of having swarming teammates from the front level and second level of the defense closing in – the same would apply in the passing game. If Joseph can drive Frederick backward in pass protection, he can force Prescott to feel the pressure and slide off his spot in the backfield. Again, the end result would be essentially the same – Joseph forces Prescott out of the middle of the pocket and closer to the direction of the defensive ends trying to crash down the edge. Granted, it’s against two Pro Bowl tackles from a team that went 4-12 last year.
This week’s matchup to watch is going to be an epic battle of two players tipping the scales well in excess of 300 pounds each lining up about three feet apart from one another with bad intentions.
“I think every player wants the challenge of proving himself against the best the other team has,” Joseph said. “You have to do your job and execute. We know what we can do. It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
And while it may go largely unnoticed, as most trench wars do, it may be the key to whether or not the Vikings can snap the Cowboys’ 10-game winning streak.