Key Matchup: Matt Birk vs. Pat Williams

Matt Birk and Pat Williams know each well after years of pushing each around on the practice field. Now they'll get the chance to do it again during a real game.


For years, the Vikings have had one of the league's top rushing attacks. Whether it has been the last two seasons with Adrian Peterson leading the way or in 2006 when Chester Taylor was a 1,000-yard featured back, since taking over as head coach of the Vikings, Brad Childress has stressed a strong running game. Until this year, the offensive line that helped open holes for the Vikings featured back was anchored by veteran center Matt Birk. But Birk was allowed to leave via free agency and is making his Metrodome return Sunday, making his battle with Pat Williams this week's matchup to watch.

It would seem Birk hasn't missed a trick moving from the NFC to the AFC. He and his Ravens linemates are again near the top of the league in rushing. Baltimore has rushed 136 times for 668 yards (a 4.9-yard average) and seven touchdowns this season and have three runners that have all made significant contributions – Ray Rice (63 carries, 364 yards, one touchdown), Willis McGahee (38-199-1) and Le'Ron McClain (14-44-1). Although the Ravens have opened up the passing game much more than they have in recent years – Joe Flacco's 182 pass attempts trail only Tom Brady (207) and Kerry Collins (185) for most in the league – running the ball is still the bread and butter of the offense, and it will be up to Birk not only to make all the line calls against his former team, but to line up opposite Big Pat Williams for most of the game.

Williams, who has gone up against Birk thousands of times in practice over the years, has experience against him – having played with the Vikings when Williams was a member of the Buffalo Bills. He said Birk was a difficult challenge, but said he's looking forward to renewing acquaintances on the field Sunday.

"Birk is a heck of a player," Williams said. "Nobody's going to deny that. But we have the best defensive line in football and it's going to be our job to stop the run. I'm looking forward to playing Birk because I'm going to it bring all day and I know he will too. It should be fun."

The Ravens will pose a stiff test for a Vikings defense that, after leading the league in rushing defense each of the last three years, has struggled somewhat, at least by their own lofty standards. Through five games, the Vikings have allowed 480 yards rushing – a solid number, but one that has them ranked 10th in the league, six spots behind Baltimore. Perhaps more troubling is that opponents are averaging 3.8 yards a carry against them, a total considerably higher than the Vikings have allowed the last few seasons.

It is going to be a priority for the Ravens to control the clock and keep Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and the rest of the Vikings on the sidelines. The best way to do that, as well as taking the Metrodome crowd out of the game, is to grind the clock by running early and often. The Vikings have an excellent pursuit defense that gets help from the outside by Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin and through the gaps from E.J. Henderson, Ben Leber and Chad Greenway. To be effective, the Vikings are going to need Williams to take away the middle of the field as a running option. If he can push Birk backward and consistently move the line of scrimmage a yard or two backwards, Ravens runners will have to bounce carries outside, which typically plays into the Vikings' hands.

With his experience with the Vikings defense during practice for the last several years, Birk knows all of the strengths and weaknesses of the offensive personnel. The extent to which he can use that knowledge to help neutralize Williams will go a long way to determining if the Ravens can end their two-game losing streak and snap the Vikings' five-game winning streak, making this the key matchup on Sunday.

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