Marshal Yanda’s play at right guard had been the bright spot on an inconsistent Ravens offensive line.
Yanda is playing under a five-year, $32 million contract extension that he signed days after the lockout ended, and his value was never more evident than two weeks ago against the Denver Broncos. Snapping a streak of 44-consecutive starts, Yanda was sidelined with an injured right ankle. Despite the stat sheet showing only three sacks allowed, quarterback Joe Flacco spent most of the game running for his life.
Even though he plays alongside Matt Birk, who at one point was considered the best center in the NFL, Yanda is the most solid piece of the line and commands the best efforts of opposing defenders who try to break him down on a weekly basis.
This season, Yanda has already faced Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who many – including Yanda – believe will win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Heading into the final game of the season against the Indianapolis Colts, Watt has 15 batted passes and 20.5 sacks, trailing Michael Strahan’s single season record by just two.
Given his accomplishments, many would believe that Watt was the toughest player Yanda has had to deal with this season. However, Yanda feels that a guy he faces this Sunday (and twice per season in the AFC North) doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ statistics are impressive, but pale in comparison to Watt’s. The former Georgia Bulldog has 13 sacks, forced four fumbles and five batted passes this season.
Yanda was noncommittal when asked if Watt or Atkins was tougher to deal with.
“It’s tough, they’re both having really good years,” he said. “I just don’t want to name one.”
“J.J. has got a lot of power and he does a lot of great things, no doubt about it,” Yanda stated. “Geno, he’s shorter, but he’s just really powerful. He has the power to run you over on a bull rush…but so does JJ, so I’d just call it a tie.”
The popularity of fantasy football and 24-hour football networks has made the common fan place more value in statistics than ever before. Seeing how much credit Yanda gave Atkins despite what Watt has accomplished statistically reminds us that this game is far more than just numbers.
Yanda’s return last week injected life into an offensive line that – despite a few penalties -played extremely well in division-clinching victory over the New York Giants.
Given their teams’ respective playoff positions, the starters may not play much this Sunday. When they are on the field though, keep an eye on Atkins and Yanda. While not a “marquee matchup” that the national media will hype, the fact is that two of the NFL’s best will be smashing into each other repeatedly.