Artis Hicks/Marcus Johnson vs. Dwight Freeney
The Vikings knew when they lost Bryant McKinnie to a four-game suspension that they would have to re-tool on the fly at the critical left tackle position. What complicated matters with the McKinnie suspension was that the first four opponents the Vikings would face were all playoff-caliber teams and all of them have pass-rushing right defensive ends that can create havoc in the backfield. But, of those four teams, none is a bigger difference-maker than Dwight Freeney, making his battle with Artis Hicks and/or Marcus Johnson this week's Matchup to Watch.
When the Colts took Freeney in the first round of the 2002 draft, many draft analysts scoffed, claiming he was a ‘tweener that wasn't suited for the kind of 4-3 defense the Colts run. He has spent the last six years proving those critics wrong again and again. While undersized for the standard DE in a 4-3 front, Freeney has incredible burst off the line and is a relentless pass rusher. Even at full strength, Freeney would create a lot of problems for McKinnie – acknowledged as a well-above-average left tackle. Against either Hicks or Johnson, neither of whom has any tangible experience at left tackle, this matchup on paper looks like a mismatch.
Hicks was expected to be a four-game stop-gap at left tackle, but a right elbow injury has left his availability in doubt for Sunday's game. If he can't go, the Vikings will almost surely turn to Johnson instead of rookie Drew Radovich – who would be taught a lesson in playing left tackle in the NFL that the Vikings aren't willing to let him get yet. The combination of Hicks and Johnson held their own against the combination of Cullen Jenkins and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in the season opener against Green Bay, but Jenkins isn't a premier pass rusher and KGB is viewed by many as a one-trick pony that can steered out of plays quite often. Freeney brings a entirely different set of problems.
Freeney's calling card is his explosiveness off the snap, but, unlike KGB, he has a variety of pass rush moves that keep offensive tackles off balance. He has the speed to power rush to the outside, he has a prototype spin move back to the inside and he is able to mix and match those moves so OTs don't know which one they're going to see on any given play. His ability to get free in space makes him a dangerous asset for the Indianapolis defense because he is coming from the quarterback's blind side. With a young QB like Tarvaris Jackson, he will likely get at least one or two chances to deliver a big hit from the back side. If that happens, one of two things are likely to happen – he will deliver a blow that jars the ball loose and creates a fumble or he causes a pass to float like a wounded duck and be intercepted.
There are several key battles that will go on all game long on both sides of the ball, but few have the game-changing potential of the inexperience at left tackle that the Vikings come into the game with and the dominance Freeney is capable of bringing to the table, making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
Matchup to watch: Left tackles vs. Freeney
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