It will be a star-studded game between the Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, but not between two potential division contenders as expected. Instead, both teams will be looking for their first win of the season.
That may not sound particularly interesting on paper, but it could make for some good football, as each team is playing for their playoff lives. According to ESPN.com, only four percent of teams starting the season 0-3 have made the playoffs over the past 35 years.
The Steelers will lean on veterans including Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel as they try to turn their season around heading into the bye week. These players have a lot of pride and are not going to give up after a poor start.
If the Steelers are going to win they are going to have to play a smart, physical football game and take advantage of several key matchups. Here is a breakdown of those matchups.
Heath Miller vs. Linebackers/Safeties
Heath Miller made his return from an ACL injury last week against the Chicago Bears and showed little signs of rust.
Miller caught three passes for 35 yards while playing most of the team’s snaps on Sunday night.
“It’s good to be back out there with the team,” Miller said, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “It’s the first step and hopefully something to build off of.”
While he was not the focal point of the offense, he did provide Ben Roethlisberger with a much needed big target. As he gets more comfortable, Miller should once again become one of Roethlisberger’s top targets and a red-zone threat.
That time may come as soon as this week as he matches up against a Vikings’ defense that has been burned by tight ends this season.
According to the box scores on ESPN.com, the Vikings have allowed 18 receptions for 175 yards. Six of the nine passing touchdowns that they have allowed have gone to tight ends.
This is a good sign for Miller, who had a career-high eight touchdown receptions last season. The Steelers could use his presence to increase their scoring production, particularly in the red zone.
Lawrence Timmons vs. Kyle Rudolph
Minnesota is loaded with talent at the offensive skill positions.
Each of these players presents a unique problem for Pittsburgh’s defense, but it is the starting tight end for the Vikings that could give the Steelers a lot of problems.
The 6’6” Kyle Rudolph has a distinct size advantage over the Steelers’ defenders and is always a threat to score. He has 10 receptions and a touchdown this year, but is coming off of a 2012 season in which he had nine touchdown receptions.
William Gay is one option that the Steelers could use, but one could envision a repeat of Rob Gronkowski burning the Steelers for three touchdowns in 2010—though no one will mistake Christian Ponder for Tom Brady.
Troy Polamalu is another potential option, however he has been too good near the line of scrimmage and will be a key player in stopping Adrian Peterson.
Instead, the Steelers should allow their most athletic linebacker—Lawrence Timmons— to focus on defending Rudolph.
Timmons was a part of defense that limited Martellus Bennett to two receptions for 10 yards. This was a week after the Cincinnati Bengals’ tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert had a strong game as they combined for nine receptions for 132 yards.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller ranked Timmons as the Steelers’ best coverage linebacker and he is going to have to show that as he helps contain Rudolph.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Turnovers
The Steelers offense will surely take advantage of the Vikings’ pass defense which ranks 28th in the league. In three weeks, they have allowed an average of 315.7 yards per game.
That means that the Steelers will count on Roethlisberger to make plays to help earn them their first win of the season.
But Roethlisberger has struggled this year, particularly with his accuracy. He will have to correct this if the Steelers are going to get a win on Sunday.
For the season, he is completing just over 60 percent of his passes, but has been plagued by overthrows. Of greater concern has been the number of turnovers—particularly interceptions—that he has thrown.
Roethlisberger already has four interceptions—including two last week—and the Steelers cannot win if he continues to turn the ball over. He was so bad last week that CBSSports.com's Ryan Wilson called Roethlisberger a "Coach killer."
The offense has not been able to produce enough points and continually sets up their opposition for scores by handing them the ball. Since 2007, when Roethlisberger throws two or more interceptions, the Steelers are dismal. We all saw this when he threw two interceptions on top of two fumbles lost.
While there is no particular matchup with a defender to watch for, Roethlisberger will need to eliminate his turnovers to provide the Steelers with a better chance of winning.
That does not mean he shouldn't take his chances. Brown has proven to be a playmaker at receiver and made a couple of tough catches on perfectly placed balls by Roethlisberger. However, the poor reads need to be eliminated from Roethlisberger's game.
There is no room for error for the Steelers at this point and any mistake by Roethlisberger is going to increase the Steelers' odds at a loss.
Note: All stats for this article were via ESPN.com.