Key matchup: McKinnie vs. Ware

The divisional playoff game between the Vikings and Cowboys offers intriguing matchups all over the field, but the most important one could be Bryant McKinnie's ability to hold up against DeMarcus Ware.

DeMarcus Ware vs. Bryant McKinnie

In playoff games, every matchup is magnified, from the battles up front on the line of scrimmage to wide receivers vs. cornerbacks to tight ends vs. linebackers to the battle of the respective quarterbacks. But few on-field battles will be as watched as closely as the war waged between two Pro Bowlers, as Bryant McKinnie locks up with DeMarcus Ware in this week's playoff edition of the key matchup.

There is no questioning the difference Ware makes to the Dallas Cowboys defense. It can be argued that nobody makes the Cowboys 3-4 defense work more than Ware. A relentless pass rusher from his outside linebacker position, he not only led the team with 11 sacks during the regular season, but dominated both of his battles against the Philadelphia Eagles, pressuring Donovan McNabb throughout the game and getting a strip deep in the Eagles end of the field that led to a Cowboys touchdown.

For Vikings fans, watching Ware is similar to watching Jared Allen. While he is giving up about 80 pounds to most offensive linemen, he never stops attacking and, when he gets to the quarterback, big things happen. Like Allen, when Ware gets to the quarterback, he not only wraps him up, but delivers a hammer shot with his right arm to the throwing arm of the quarterback, which often leads to the ball coming out. He has spent the last two weeks chasing down McNabb, who was able to use his foot quickness in the pocket to avoid even more sacks and potential turnovers. The Vikings may not be so lucky.

For all of the things he does well, one thing that can't be said about Brett Favre is that he has a lot of agility in the backfield. His scrambling days are long since gone and, while he is adept at moving a step or two within the pocket to avoid oncoming pass rushers, he doesn't have the escapability that allows him to avoid blindside shots by running away from them. Like other top QBs like Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, he is essentially a stationary target in the pocket and, if defenders blow through the blocking of the offensive line, he likely won't get away.

McKinnie was named a starter to the Pro Bowl this year, earning the recognition many of his teammates believe was richly deserved. But after being slowed by an ankle injury, McKinnie's play has regressed over the past few weeks, and the Carolina game was a cautionary tale that should give the Vikings pause and legitimate cause for concern.

In that game, McKinnie was asked to lock down Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers, one of the game's top speed-rushing defensive ends, schooled McKinnie throughout most of the first quarters. Although he alternated playing on each side of the ball, in those instances he was lined up one-on-one with McKinnie, he routinely got into the Vikings backfield and created problems for Favre. So concerned was head coach Brad Childress, he benched McKinnie in the second half of the game and contemplated benching Favre for his own protection, despite the Vikings holding a 7-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Although McKinnie has picked up his tempo in the last couple of games and played much closer to the form he had during the first three months of the season, don't be surprised early on to see the Vikings use tight ends, fullbacks and even running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor to give McKinnie an assist by chipping Ware to keep him from getting a full head of steam coming off the snap. It is a tactic teams have used the neutralize Allen over the last month or so and it has proved effective.

The downside to such a strategy is that it will consistently take a player who could be out running pass routes and keeping him behind the line of scrimmage blocking. As the game progresses, if McKinnie can hold up one-on-one with Ware, the people being used to provide chip blocks will likely be replaced by wide receivers that can run patterns down the field to potentially make big plays. If McKinnie isn't capable of standing up without help from his tight ends, the Vikings offense will be much more limited and a bit hamstrung having to devote two players to Ware.

It will likely become apparent very early on if McKinnie is up to the challenge Ware will provide. If he can neutralize the Cowboys best pass-rushing weapon, it will go a long way to opening up the Vikings offense and allowing Favre to do what he does best – attack the back seven of a defense.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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