When the word first came out that Saints left tackle Jammal Brown was injured, the news was that he'd be out approximately 8 weeks. At the time I thought the injury was incredibly significant, but I was somewhat relieved by the ideas that Zach Strief played well in spot duty during his short career at left tackle and that Brown had a scheduled return date. At that point, all Strief really needed to do was hold down the fort. As the season started and unfolded, though, the news broke that Jammal Brown would not return this season, and Jermon Bushrod was the unlikely player who stepped up and assumed the role of left tackle ahead of Strief. Bushrod has had high and low points during this season, but it's undeniable that he's performed much better than any of us ever expected. His games against the Giants and Cardinals this season, specifically, were so good that I didn't miss Brown at all. He even handled John Abraham and Julius Peppers much better than Brown ever did. His performance against DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys, however, was not worthy of a spot on the Saints' offensive line during the Archie Manning era; and we all know that Archie was running for his life on every snap in those days. Come Sunday in the NFC Championship against the Minnesota Vikings, Bushrod will face off against the defensive league MVP candidate Jared Allen. If you listened to Forecast Radio this week then you heard my call in towards the tail end of the show outlining this. This will be the matchup to watch.
Vikings vs Saints coverageJonathan Goodwin just got nominated to the Pro Bowl, thanks to Andre Gurode pulling out. He's now the third of five offensive linemen on the Saints elected to the game, so finally the Saints' o-line is getting the national recognition it's deserved for some time. I wrote about this during the past week on my blog, Saints Nation. The timing is interesting because they'll face their toughest test in the Minnesota defensive line. I'd argue that this is the matchup of the #1 offensive line in the NFL vs. the #1 defensive line in the NFL. The Vikings feature 2 Pro Bowl defensive linemen themselves in Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, as well as Ray Edwards and Pat Williams. While the latter two didn't make the Pro Bowl, Edwards had 8.5 sacks on the year and 3 last week against Tony Romo's Cowboys, and Pat Williams is an accomplished veteran that's been to the Pro Bowl 3 times (and as recently as last year). You get it, there's significant pedigree on the field come Sunday in the trenches.
So it's a simple question: is Bushrod ready for this test?
Here's what's a given: We know the Vikings' offense can be prone to turnovers with Favre's history in big games and Peterson's severe fumbling issues. We also know they're going to move the ball on the Saints and score points. We know the Saints' offense will make plays and score points. On paper it should be a fantastic game. The Superdome will be a major advantage to the Saints.
But again, how will Bushrod perform against Jared Allen? As the game unfolds he'll have his victories and defeats, no doubt. He's going to get chips from Jeremy Shockey and Pierre Thomas to help, and Carl Nicks will rotate over to double team Allen at times. I'm mostly comfortable with this, because while Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will get less attention, I think Jahri Evans and Jonathan Goodwin can match up pound for pound with them. Jon Stinchcomb, on the other hand, will be mostly isolated one on one with Ray Edwards, and I don't know how comfortable I am with that. So much is being made out of how Bushrod will handle Allen, and yours truly is certainly a culprit, but Stinchcomb is going to have his hands full. The attention and help that Bushrod will get will cause more pressure on Stinchcomb. I hope he's up to the task, and I think that he is, despite welcoming his first child to the world this week (congrats to him for that, by the way). Ultimately if Brees gets sacked, hit, or hurried, it could result in turnovers. We all know that the name of the game is winning the turnover battle. This will be a tough game to do that in. Make no mistake, this Vikings team is very good and this is the Saints' toughest challenge yet.
So how do you think Bushrod fares? Do you think he completely whiffs on this opportunity and gets manhandled by Jared Allen? Does he hold his own and do just enough to keep Brees mostly clean? Does he shock the world and deliver his biggest performance of the year shutting Allen out? Thoughts please.