Typically, when there is a Matchup to Watch in a game, it will be players on opposite sides of the ball and, almost by definition, from different teams.
But as the Vikings prepare for the final preseason warm-up of the preseason, the biggest battle isn't how the second-team defense will approach Brad Johnson or how the Cowboys will look to pressure Kelly Holcomb or Brooks Bollinger. The primary battles to be watched against Dallas are going to be on the Vikings' own offensive line, where there has been a changing of the guard (no pun intended) on the right side of the Vikings line, making the performances of Anthony Herrera and Artis Hicks the Matchup to Watch.
Hicks, who was acquired over draft weekend 2006 from the Eagles in a trade, was anointed the starting right guard from the moment he was brought in. Head coach Brad Childress cited his position flexibility and his ability to hold his own whether it was at guard or even left tackle – which he had to play in a pinch for the Eagles in 2005. Hicks started all 16 games last year with mixed results, but still entered the 2007 season atop the depth chart.
It seemed the bigger position battle would be at right tackle. The team had allowed Mike Rosenthal to leave via free agency and converted center Ryan Cook seemed to have the edge over former starter Marcus Johnson. If there was a question mark in the starting lineup, it appeared right tackle would be that spot, not right guard.
However, that has changed. While Childress has not officially named Cook at the opening-day starter over Johnson at right tackle, they remain in the current spots at Nos. 1 and 2 on the RT depth chart. But at guard, Anthony Herrera moved ahead of Hicks on the depth chart last week and might have the inside track to start if he performs well. For Hicks, it could be viewed that the demotion could be trying to light a fire under him and win his spot back as a result of a brief fall from the top of the depth chart.
If Childress is to be taken at his word, the starting job is still up for grabs. As he said earlier this week "competition brings out the best" in those fighting for a starting spot.
"It's really body of work I think, but the competition is still there. I am not ready to crown anybody king at that position as say this is going to be the starter in our first game," Childress said. "With that said, I am glad those guys have competed and gotten all the reps they have gotten because you never know depth-wise when a guy has got to step up. It's going to be the body of work – different guys bring different things to the table, just like both of those guys bring different things to the table.
With an inexperienced quarterback, an offense that clearly intends to be dominated by a strong running game and a left side of the offensive line that is as strong as any in the NFC, having a weakness at the right side of the line is like having a supermodel's smile with a missing tooth. Weakness up front is unacceptable in any offense, much less one that wants to be predicated in pushing the ball down an opponent's throat with an oppressive running game.
Just as important is a sense of continuity. The best offensive lines are ones that have the same five people playing every week. They cultivate a familiarity with each other's style and they thrive off of it. Constantly taking one of those pieces in and out of the lineup on a weekly basis restricts the cohesion needed for an O-line to be effective. It's likely that the Vikings are going to pick one player over the other, put him in the starting lineup and keep him there.
If the performance in one game can make that big of a difference, the in-team battle between Herrera and Hicks could well be this week's Matchup to Watch, because the stakes for both couldn't be any higher.