For many Vikings fans, the announcement that Bryant McKinnie was going to have to serve a full four-game suspension stemming from his violation of the player conduct policy was a source of dread. At times, McKinnie can be dominant and some of his teammates believed the only reason he wasn't a Pro Bowler already in his career was due to politics as well as the Vikings not being an elite team during that span. It was going to be a huge loss.
The one place you weren't hearing the voice of concern was from within the team itself. Clearly, the Vikings knew that, even if the suspension was reduced, McKinnie would be out at least a couple of games. They made no effort to pick up a veteran off the waiver wire or swing a trade for someone else. They had a different plan – throw Artis Hicks out there and ask him to mind the store on the quarterback's blind side.
When that announcement was made, there was an audible groan from many die-hard Vikings fans. Not only had it been years since Hicks played left tackle in Philadelphia, he lost his starting job at right guard four games into the 2007 season in Minnesota and had seen only spot duty with the first-team offense since. That, compounded with the bad news on the doorstep that Hicks would be lining up with Pro Bowl players in Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Julius Pepper and Kyle Vanden Bosch in the span of those four games, made fans downright nauseas. There's no way Hicks could hold down those beasts. Right?
Through three of the four games before McKinnie returns, Hicks has graded out extremely well in all areas. In the season opener against the Packers, Hicks limited Cullen Jenkins and KGB to a combined three tackles and no sacks. In the home opener against the Colts, Freeney had just two tackles – but one of them resulted in a sack and forced fumble, that, it should also be noted, did not result in the Vikings giving up any points. Against the Panthers, Peppers had just three tackles and one sack.
For a guy nobody believed in too much, the best part of Hicks' performances has been that his battles are so anonymous. Anyone who listened to a broadcast of the first three games, you didn't hear Hicks' name mentioned too often. You also didn't hear much about KGB, Freeney or Peppers – other than the usual lauding of their talents in previous games. Hicks did his job and kept his name off the lips of those calling the action.
"That's what I'm supposed to do, right?" Hicks asked with a smile. "The only time a lot of us on the line get mentioned is when we do something wrong or have a penalty called on us. If we do our job, you don't hear much about us. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing."
It can be argued that Hicks has been as impressive as any lineman on the line, factoring in his minimal experience at left tackle and that he has played much of that time with an elbow injury. Not only has he kept players off the backs of his quarterbacks, but Adrian Peterson is the league's second-leading rushing and already has a pair of 100-yard rushing games.
"That's what is great about Artis," center Matt Birk said. "He's a professional. He does what the team wants of him. He got replaced last year, but, when he was needed, he was there and did his job. We needed a left tackle and he was the first choice. There was a reason for it and you can see what it was by the way he has played."
Hicks said the level of competition has forced him to raise up his play. When teams have played the Vikings in recent years, guys like Kenechi Udeze, Erasmus James and Darrion Scott didn't put the fear of the Apocalypse in the minds of offensive coordinators. The same isn't true about guys like KGB, Freeney and Peppers.
"You knew coming into those games that those guys know only one speed – full-speed ahead," Hicks said. "It's like going up against Jared Allen. You know he's coming full speed on every snap and you have to be ready for what he's going to try to do. You have to get off the ball just that much quicker because you know what they're trying to do."
It doesn't get any easier this week with Vanden Bosch. He made the Pro Bowl after a 12-sack season in 2007 and is the same type of "high-motor" pass rusher Hicks has had to face in the first three games. While there are subtle differences to what they do, the attack plan remains the same.
"No two guys are exactly the same when you're really good," Hicks said. "Some guys will bull rush. Others have spin moves. Some swim. Others get leverage to get you off-balance. My job is to get into their body and not give them the room or the time to do what they're planning. If you can stop them for a second, you can take them out of most plays."
Following the Titans game, McKinnie will return to Winter Park Monday and almost assuredly reclaim his starting job at left tackle. Hicks would then move back to his role as backup right guard behind Anthony Herrera and, barring injury, will stay there. Some athletes would grouse about that, especially considering how stout he has played at what is arguably the most important position on most teams other than quarterback. But you won't hear a peep out of Hicks. That's part of being a professional.
"That's my job," Hicks said of his pending demotion. "When you're playing on a team, you do whatever you can to help the team when you need it. I was needed at tackle and told them I would do my best. If the time comes that they need me again, I'll be ready to go in and do my job."
Hicks simply doing his job
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