For the Minnesota Vikings, when the 2013 NFL schedule came out, this Week 4 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers figured to be a big game—just not for this reason. Both teams enter the the game still looking for their first victory of the season. Neither team ever figured this is how the season would open.
The Vikings were looking to build on their surprising success of last season that saw them improve by seven wins over 2011 and make it to the postseason. For the Steelers, 2012 was only the third time in the past 12 seasons they failed to make the playoffs. They were looking to improve on their 8-8 record of last year and make it back to the playoffs. The last time the Steelers failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons came back in 1999 and 2000.
The Steelers are a hard team to figure out—their defense ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed and third in passing yards allowed. But they are also 21st in the league, yielding 25.3 points per game.
Their offense is an enigma as well. They have the 10th-best passing offense but have only scored an average of 14 points per game.
This seems to mirror the Vikings offense—they are ranked 24th in passing yards, but as a team, the 27.0 points per game is seventh in the league.
This is definitely one of those games where something has to give and someone finally wins a game. This is the same scenario the Vikings faced last week when they hosted the Cleveland Browns in their home opener. Like the Vikings' past two games, this one will most likely come down to the last minute of the game.
The Vikings gave up one of their home dates this season to play in London. Hopefully the change of scenery will produce a different result—after all, they're 0-3 on U.S. soil.
Here's what the Vikings need to consider in their overseas matchup with the Steelers.
When the Vikings Have the Ball...
The Pioneer Press tweeted Wednesday that Christian Ponder suffered a a rib injury in the Cleveland game.
QB Christian Ponder is battling rib injury he suffered vs. Browns. Will practice Wednesday but status for Sunday vs. Steelers is uncertain— Pioneer Press (@VikingsNow) September 25, 2013
This could be the out that head coach Leslie Frazier has been looking for. Since the Vikings signed veteran Matt Cassel, he as been adamant that Ponder is the starter. Even after opening the season with only two touchdowns and five interceptions, and a 65.9 passer rating, Frazier has stood behind his quarterback.
Now, a rib injury that might prevent Ponder from playing Sunday will allow Frazier to make the switch without going back on his word, and Cassel might be exactly what the Vikings offense needs to infuse some energy.
The Steelers are ranked third against the pass in yards allowed, but Dick LeBeau's defense has yet to intercept a pass. The switch away from Ponder, who has thrown five interceptions in three games, would be a move in the right direction. Cassel will know when to try to extend a play, and when it's wiser to throw the ball away.
A little veteran presence might help to settle things down and provide some balance to the passing game—just what they will need against a pretty good passing defense.
The Vikings would be wise to build their attack behind the running of Adrian Peterson. Last season, it was Week 4 when he first rushed for a 100 yards in a game. The timing is right for Peterson to have a breakout game against a Steelers defense that ranks 22nd against the run.
Surprisingly the Steelers defense has fewer sacks than the Vikings. Averaging one sack per game, the Vikings offense might have some time to operate. It might also take advantage of the running game by spreading out the defense. By going with a multireceiver set, it will move defenders out of the box and give Peterson more room to run.
In the following play, the Vikings go with four wide receivers and Peterson next to Ponder in the backfield. The Chicago Bears only have four players within five yards of the football, giving the Vikings an edge with five blockers on four defenders.
This seems like a much better formation than what the Vikings typically run.
Here the Vikings use two tight ends and a single wide receiver. They bring Cordarrelle Patterson in motion, toward the formation.This brings another defender with him. That gives the Browns nine players within five yards of the line of scrimmage. On this play, the Browns stop Peterson for only a one-yard gain.
By establishing the running game, the Vikings will take advantage of their strength and expose Pittsburgh's weakness. It also keeps the Steelers offense on the sidelines.
When the Steelers Have the Ball...
Look for the Steelers to play to their strength, passing the ball—it just so happens to be the Vikings' Achilles' heel.
Last week against the Browns' third-string quarterback, Brian Hoyer, the Vikings gave up 306 yards passing. Things don't get any easier when they face Ben Roethlisberger.
The Vikings pass defense has been horrendous, and it has taken a couple of more hits. In the Browns game, starter Chris Cook left the game with a groin injury. His replacement, A.J. Jefferson, left the game with an ankle injury. They also lost starting safety Jamarca Sanford to a hamstring injury.
Behind the leadership of Roethlisberger, the Steelers have the 10th-best passing offense. Yet, they have only scored four touchdowns through the air.
The Vikings defense has done one thing pretty good this season—intercept passes. The team has five interceptions already through three games. Last year, it finished with only 10 the entire season.
If the Vikings are to turn things around, they will have to continue that trend in London. So far this season, Roethlisberger has thrown four interceptions. In 2012, he only threw eight all season.
It would be a good week to turn up the pressure on defense. The Steelers have yielded 10 sacks on the season, Roethlisberger cannot complete any passes if he's on his back.
Against the Browns, the Vikings finally found a way to get to the quarterback by bringing some extra pressure.
On this play, the Vikings blitz linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. Greenway blitzes early, picking up a blocker, and Henderson comes on a delayed blitz behind him.
There's an open lane for Henderson to get to Hoyer.
The result is a 10-yard loss on the play. Hoyer had no time to find a receiver.
The best way to protect the defensive backfield would be to bring as much pressure as possible and limit Roethlisberger's time and space in the pocket.
It's a high-risk, high-reward proposition, but at this point, the Vikings don't have a whole lot to lose—and look how it worked out for Cleveland last week.