In every game, there are a series of matchups that take place – the battle in the trenches with the linemen, the battles between wide receivers and defensive backs and the ongoing chess game between running backs and linebackers. But in Sunday's Vikings-Giants game, there is one matchup that stands out, making the down-by-down war between Vikings offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Ryan Cook vs. the trio of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck the clear-cut Matchup To Watch this week.
At first blush, this would look like the potential for a lopsided advantage to the Giants defensive ends. While McKinnie has played well most of the season, Cook has been up-and-down and inconsistency against these three pass rushers has been a recipe for disaster this season.
Nobody has more sacks in the NFL this season than the Giants' 34 – with 23 of those coming from their Strahan (eight), Umenyiora (eight) and Tuck (seven). All three rank in the top 10 in the NFC and all three are relentless. That doesn't play to the Vikings' strength because, while Tarvaris Jackson is entering his third consecutive start for the first time this season, he has struggled the most against teams that bring pressure from the end. Still learning a pocket presence, edge rushers have been able to force Jackson to throw early to avoid sacks. Several of those passes have been intercepted and just as many could have been if not dropped by defenders unaccustomed to the velocity with which Jackson throws.
While Strahan is in his 15th season, he doesn't appear to have lost anything over time, still a constant source of pass pressure that often requires a double-team with a tight end. Umenyiora emerged last year as a top-end pass-rushing threat and has done nothing to dissuade that opinion this year. Matched up against a team's left tackle, he is a non-stop bull rusher that blows up plays and forces turnovers. When Strahan needs a rest, Tuck is hardly a step down. As a situational player who spells both Mike and Osi, he has recorded seven sacks as well. To have one player with the kind of pass rush ability that can cause that sort of disruption is an achievement. To have three is a blessing few teams have ever had.
It is clear the Giants will have Priority One in their game plan to attack Jackson and force him to throw ill-advised passes. With the perception that the Vikings will need to play a near-perfect game to come away with a win in New York, keeping Jackson on the move will be critical for the Giants. While it is natural to assume the Vikings will try to establish the run, the trio of defensive ends for the Giants don't let down their production in that respect either.
"Those guys have the ability to disrupt the run and the pass, so you have to know where they are on every play," Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser said. "It's going to be a tough challenge for us because they do so many things so well."
As a result, don't be surprised to see Kleinsasser, Visanthe Shiancoe and fullback Naufahu Tahi all be asked to chip in to stop the Big Three. But, for the most part, the job of neutralizing the pass rush will fall on McKinnie and Cook. The extent to which they can keep them at bay and out of Jackson's face will go a long way to giving the Vikings a legitimate chance to win and making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.