Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Facing an 0-4 start to the 2013 regular season, it is “nut up” or “shut up” time for the Pittsburgh Steelers. How will today’s game unfold between the win-less Vikings and the win-less Steelers? I have some thoughts on the matter:
Pittsburgh’s Offense vs. Minnesota’s Defense
On paper, the Steelers’ offense should enjoy a monster day passing the football against the Vikings’ defense. Minnesota will be without two of their starting four defensive backs (Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford), and A.J. Jefferson will be hobbled with an ankle injury.
Ben Roethlisberger needs to look to his wide receivers and tight ends early to take advantage of those particular absences, and Antonio Brown (nine catches, 196 yards, and two touchdowns) enjoyed a career day against the Bears last Sunday night. With Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, and Heath Miller to target, Roethlisberger should theoretically have a tremendous day.
Of course, for “Big Ben” to be effective, he must receive some protecting from his offensive line. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh’s signal-caller, his offensive line seems to crumble every weekend.
Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert are the two players I am particularly worried about, and Jared Allen and Minnesota’s pass-rush could have a “field day” if those two along with Fernando Velasco, Ramon Foster, and David DeCastro fail to improve. Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times through the first three games, and he might have to “Houdini” himself out of a number of potential sacks again today.
To keep the pressure off of Roethisberger, the Steelers had better hope that they can at least threaten Minnesota’s defense with a running game. Thankfully for Pittsburgh, rookie Le’Veon Bell is set to make his regular season debut while Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer (73 combined rushing yards) showed signs of life against Chicago.
Pittsburgh’s offense will be fine as long as Roethlisberger is not careless with the football and receives plenty of protection. I just hope that offensive coordinator Todd Haley will allow Ben to pick Minnesota’s weak secondary (27th in passing yards allowed) and use the pass to set up the run.
Minnesota’s Offense vs. Pittsburgh’s Defense
If the Steelers can contain Adrian Peterson, then they should coast to a win. Unfortunately, that task will be extremely difficult. Pittsburgh’s run defense is not as stout as it has been in recent years (t-21st in rushing yards allowed), and I am sure that Minnesota is well-aware of that fact.
Peterson and the Vikings’ ground attack will receive an added boost tomorrow when Jerome Felton makes his 2013 regular season debut. Minnesota was without their starting fullback for the first three games of the regular season, and Peterson is extremely excited to have his lead blocker back in the lineup.
While Matt Cassel is not the type of quarterback who can win a game by himself as a passer, he can hurt the Steelers if Peterson and the running game prove to be formidable. If the veteran can stay relatively upright in the pocket and execute play-action fakes and perform well with a rolling pocket, then Pittsburgh’s defense will be in an exorbitant amount of trouble. I just hope that Pittsburgh’s pass-rushers can make life difficult on Minnesota’s offensive line which has allowed 10 sacks so far this year.
To win, the Steelers must force the Vikings’ offense into 2nd and 3rd & long situations so they can put themselves in prime positions for takeaways. Pittsburgh’s defense has yet to force a turnover in 12 quarters of regular season play, and they must make Cassel uncomfortable to give the ball back to their inconsistent offense. Thankfully, Cortez Allen is back in the lineup at cornerback and he was a turnover-machine during the Steelers’ final two regular season games (six takeaways) last fall.
Pittsburgh’s Special Teams vs. Minnesota’s Special Teams
It would be really nice to see the Steelers’ coverage units carry over their strong performance against Devin Hester last weekend into tomorrow’s game against the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson. The rookie from Tennessee has already returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and he currently ranks second in the league behind Hester in average yards per kick return (37.5).
The game will also feature two of the league’s best kickers in the forms of Minnesota’s Blair Walsh and Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham. Points could be at a premium for both teams, so Walsh and Suisham could very well decide the game if their respective offenses are bogged down for extended periods.
Final Thoughts & Prediction
As promising as the matchup between Pittsburgh’s passing game and Minnesota’s secondary is, I just cannot trust the Steelers’ offensive line to protect Roethlisberger enough for him to take advantage. Moreover, I would not be shocked to see Todd Haley trying to establish a non-existent running game.
Despite the fact that Minnesota is missing Christian Ponder, Peterson should have a successful day running the ball against Pittsburgh’s defense. The Steelers have not stopped the run with any consistency all year long, and they are facing the league’s best running back today in the form of “Purple Jesus.”
Jet-lagged and possibly under-prepared from their late arrival in London, I expect Pittsburgh to come out flat and for Minnesota to keep this game close all afternoon. I think a late field goal by Walsh will win this game for the Vikings, and the Steelers will drop to 0-4 before the enter their bye week.
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