5 Bold Predictions for the Vikings' Week 4 Matchup Against the Steelers
The International Series certainly adds flavor to the NFL season, but fans of the teams involved might be a little miffed to see their teams play so far away and potentially at disadvantage because of the travel.
An unusual environment could lead to unusual outcomes. More to the point, it can cause unusual quirks to appear throughout the game and give odd advantages to players you wouldn't expect. As a result, the game has been more difficult to predict than most, and heavy favorites have lost just as easily as they've won.
That situation is ripe for bold predictions and this year is no different. Vikings players could fall flat, like Eli Manning—who only passed for 59 yards—or they could have a career game, like Kyle Orton—who passed for 370 yards with a 70 percent completion rate.
Any of the following could come true.
1. The Vikings Defense Holds the Steelers to Under 300 Yards of Offense
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Not too long ago, it wasn't too bold to predict a top-tier defensive performance from the Vikings, but after allowing over 400 yards of offense to a team that started its third-string quarterback and traded away its best offensive skill player, it's not easy to have faith in what an underperforming unit can do.
But despite the news that second-round pick Le'Veon Bell could play significant snaps after missing the season to a Lisfranc injury, the Vikings do have a chance to limit Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense.
Injuries to tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, center Maurkice Pouncey, wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling as well as an underperforming offensive line could mean the Vikings bottle up a once-potent Steelers attack.
Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers as having the 28th-best offense in the NFL after adjusting for opponent strength. Some of this can be attributed to a poor offensive line, and the Steelers don't seem comfortable or on the same page.
At the same time, impressive performances from Desmond Bishop, Harrison Smith and even Marcus Sherels could signal a turnaround for the Vikings. Despite having a poor showing against Cleveland, the Minnesota defense isn't in the same tier, ranked 20th overall.
The Vikings match up well to the Steelers. Bell is a bruiser, not a scatback, and that plays to the Vikings relative strength in limiting plodders instead of more versatile "space" backs. With that, the leaky offensive line will allow a traditionally strong defensive line to get pressure on Roethlisberger and limit the passing game.
The Steelers have also not been passing as well downfield as they have in the past, and haven't been precise in attacking zone coverages. Instead, they've had more success playing what the defense gives them underneath coverage, which is how the unsuccessfully attempted to move the chains on the Bears. The Vikings prefer that, and might be able to use that to limit the offense.
2. The Vikings Will Pass for over 300 Yards
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A more bold prediction than the last, the Steelers passing defense may not have declined as much as people initially claimed. Pro Football Focus ranks Lamarr Woodley as the most productive pass-rusher of the year so far, according to their proprietary statistics.
Their two-gapping defensive linemen, (Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon and Ziggy Hood) have also been effective and Christian Ponder traditionally doesn't do well under pressure.
With the news that Cortez Allen could return and strong safety Troy Palomalu playing as well as he ever has, it might seem a strange proposition that Ponder would have a game good enough to be his third-most productive passing performance.
But growing chemistry with Greg Jennings and increasing snaps from Cordarrelle Patterson could mean a more effective passing offense.
While it might seem odd, the fact that Christian Ponder may not even be able to play could help the passing game—not because backup quarterback Cassel is a better quarterback, but because quarterbacks tend to vary wildly in unexpected appearances, as Brian Hoyer proved to the Vikings a week earlier.
The Steelers have been adequate in pass defense—allowing 5.6 net yards per pass attempt, ranked 11th in the NFL. But cracks exist: they have zero interceptions and have been league average in allowing first downs.
Pittsburgh likes to play with a single-high safety and eight men in the box, something they'll surely do against the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, who had the third-most runs against such defensive personnel in the league last year. That could give the passing offense the opportunities it needs.
3. The Vikings Will Score a Defensive Touchdown
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Defensive touchdowns constituted eight percent of all touchdowns scored in the NFL, and as such are "low-frequency" evens subject to a lot of variance and randomness. It's difficult to predict one with any degree of accuracy, and defensive scoring tends not to be sustainable.
But the Steelers have ended their offensive drives with turnovers 25 percent of the time, which is the second-worst in the NFL. That includes a high interceptions rate (3.6 percent) and the second-fewest "expected points" in the league—a metric that comes from how well an offense moves the ball downfield relative to field position and the likelihood of scoring.
Paired with that, the Vikings defense has had a high turnover rate (the third-best in the NFL per drive) and already have a defensive score to their name.
It would be difficult, but a leaky offensive line, a rookie running back and an uncomfortable offense all point to signs of a turnover-heavy game from the Steelers and the Vikings could well take advantage of it.
4. Marcus Sherels Will Repeat His Impressive Performance
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Marcus Sherels, the primary punt returner for the Vikings, has been subject to massive criticism for his coverage ability in his time with the Vikings after being pressed into service multiple times due to injury.
It's been a fair criticism, and he's been found wanting more than once. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherels gave up more yards per snap in coverage than any qualifying cornerback in the league—fifty percent more than the worst one.
Picked on again and again by Aaron Rodgers in the Vikings' playoff loss, Sherels entered the offseason under a cloud of disappointment.
Called instinctive by the Vikings' official blogger, Sherels has made improvements in the offseason but could hardly be considered a breakout candidate after several poor series of plays.
But against the Cleveland Browns, he only allowed 50 yards in the air despite being targeted 18 times—an astonishingly low 2.8 yards per attempt. He also was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded corner of Week 3.
Brian Hoyer and Ben Roethlisberger are different in more ways than one, but it's entirely possible that Sherels has turned a new leaf in his career.
5. Cordarrelle Patterson Will Have 200 All-Purpose Yards
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The Vikings' exciting first-round talent, Cordarrelle Patterson, has yet to take significant snaps on offense, but still has been electric on the field.
With a small sample size caveat, it is significant to note that Patterson has the second-best kickoff return average in the league, behind Devin Hester and could have the best return yard average since the merger if things keep apace—a singularly impressive accomplishment for a rookie.
In 11 snaps against the Browns, he pulled in 49 receiving yards. In six snaps against the Bears, he had 14 receiving yards.
In addition to that, he has had snaps in college as a running back and could very well feature in the Vikings' plans as a runner. Should he put together another 50-yard receiving game and grab another 15 or 20 yards on the ground, it's easily conceivable that he could grab over 125 yards in returns.
Shaun Suisham has had the second-highest percentage of his kickoffs returned in the NFL (behind Nick Novak), although they've allowed the fewest kick return yards on average—so the going won't be easy.
Patterson's playmaking capability has demanded more and more time on the field, and he could prove he deserves it come Sunday.