The talk most of the week heading into this week's game with the Houston Texans has centered on attempting to contain Houston's offensive stars – quarterback Matt Schaub, wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Steve Slaton. But the biggest individual battle that will likely have the most impact on who wins or loses will be the war between Bryant McKinnie and Houston defensive end Mario Williams, making it this week's matchup to watch.
The Texans stunned the football world in April 2006 on the eve of the NFL draft. It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that the Texans were going to use the first overall pick on an offensive difference-maker – either running back Reggie Bush out of USC or quarterback Vince Young (a native of Houston) from the University of Texas. Instead, when the Texans couldn't reach a contract agreement with Bush in the days leading up to the draft, they announced the signing of Williams.
The immediate reaction was that of stunned silence. Although there was little questioning Williams' talent, he wasn't viewed as a clear-cut first overall pick and many thought at the time that the Texans dropped the ball on draft day and passed on a pair of sure-fire superstars. Less than three years later, nobody is laughing at the Texans' pick anymore.
After an up-and-down rookie season, Williams came into his own last season – finishing the year with 14 sacks and getting recognized as one of the top pass rushers in the league. A year later, little has changed. Williams is among the league leaders with seven sacks and is the dominant player in an improving Houston defense. A rare combination of size (6-7, 291) and speed, Williams has become the game-changer that Houston desperately needed when it made its investment in him being a lynchpin to the future of the franchise.
Like some of the game's other top defensive ends, he is a player that can change the complexion of the game with one pass rush. He has become adept at not only sacking quarterbacks, but forcing fumbles and bad passes that have led to interceptions. He is a disruptive force that never seems to take a play off.
On the other side of the line, McKinnie is playing in just his third game season. While forced to sit out the first four games of the season, he missed facing the likes of Dwight Freeney, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Julius Peppers. That will all change today, when he faces arguably the stiffest test any Vikings left tackle has faced to date. Not only can Williams make plays in the running game and virtually eliminate runners getting a head of steam to the sideline, his relentless pass rushing and variety of pass-rush moves will keep McKinnie on his toes the entire game.
One mistake by McKinnie – or even right tackle Ryan Cook, as Williams can switch sides of the line – and Williams will have a free shot at Gus Frerotte's blind side. In each of the last three games, Frerotte has been temporarily flattened by a defender on a pass rush. With the ferocity in which Williams delivers a blow, a clean shot at Frerotte could easily end his day. It will be McKinnie's job to protect his quarterback and make sure Williams doesn't have the opportunity to make the kind of play for which he is becoming famous – the big hit that creates a critical turnover.
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