Times are becoming desperate for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings. As we enter Week 4, neither team has been able to crack the win column, and the teams and their individual fanbases are nearing the grumble zone.
The good news is, one of these teams should get off the snide this week. I say should, because when two teams playing bad football face off, anything can happen.
The Steelers had a performance on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears that should have been good enough to win. Should. That being said, as well as the offense and defense played, four turnovers undermined the entire performance and the Bears won going away.
But the past is the past and it's time to look ahead to the Vikings. The most significant storyline in this week's game is the fact that it is being played at Wembley Stadium in London. I'm sure the people of London are overcome with excitement about having two 0-3 teams to square off in the heart of their storied town. It's payback for giving us One Direction, I say.
Let's take a look at the Steelers' gameplan as they do their best to lose that losing feeling.
When the Steelers have the football
The Steelers passing game awakened in a big way on Sunday. There was some excellent play design, and even better execution that gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger opportunities.
Of all the units, the offensive line did the best job of holding their own. The inclusion of center Fernando Velasco seems to have really added a spark. He is a high energy type of player who makes up for some of his deficiencies with effort and energy.
The offensive tackle position worked a three-man rotation with starters Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert giving way to backup Kelvin Beachum during the course of the game. It seemed to help. And while I can't absolve the play of the line, they did give Big Ben enough time to make his downfield reads, and the skill players held onto the football.
Pittsburgh also seemed to find something that resembled a run game. They did it by incorporating much more basic run-blocking schemes and quickly developing run plays led by Felix Jones. This week, it has to be more of the same. If the Vikings show two deep safeties, check to the quick run or the short pass; if they move a safety up, check to the play action.
Obviously, the other key is to minimize mistakes. Ball security on Sunday night was abysmal. No one is asking them to never turn the football over again, but a repeat performance of last week, and this team is on a bullet train to 0-4.
When the Vikings have the football
The defense must focus its attention on running back Adrian Peterson. He is the best running back in the game, and the centerpiece of the Vikings offense. The Vikings love to run Peterson out of 21 and 22 personnel groupings using fullback Jerome Felton as a lead blocker.
Here you see a pretty typical base set for the Vikings, and how the Browns failed to defend it. Playing man coverage, the Browns safety TJ Ward is stuck on the other side of the field, and Tashaun Gipson is too deep. At the snap Peterson goes off right tackle and the Vikings execute their assignments. A basic play designed for a nice gain, but in the hands of Peterson, those nice gains can turn into long runs, or even scores.
The Vikings aren't afraid to trot out their jumbo sets anywhere on the field to create matchup problems. Below you see them run out two tight ends and two running backs in a run set. The Steelers must account for this and those back-end players for Pittsburgh have to come up and fill and re-direct those plays. Players like Jarvis Jones and Troy Polamalu will be key.
The Steelers must counter this power run attack with smart defensive groupings and an aggressive nature. The Vikings offensive line does a nice job with assignment football. The Steelers need to mix up their fronts and try to confuse the Vikings offense. We haven't seen a lot of disguised fronts this season, but this could be the week for it.
This will not only serve the run defense, but should allow them to come at the Vikings quarterback whether it's Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel with more exotic pressures, thereby forcing bad throws.
The goal on both sides of the football should be to keep it simple. There is no reason to try to outthink the room this week.
Stat to Watch (via NFL.com)
The Steelers and Vikings have each given up 10 sacks on the season, but have done a poor job getting after opposing quarterbacks.
The Steelers only have three sacks on the year, and the Vikings have just four. The team that does a better job of harassing the other team's quarterback this week will have a distinct advantage.
Player to Watch: Steelers
Heath Miller, Tight End: Miller found his way back into the lineup last week, coming off a knee injury and he played well. This week, expect an expanded role for Miller with more snaps and, most importantly, more targets in the passing game.
Player to Watch: Vikings
Jerome Felton, Fullback: As good as Peterson has looked this year, getting his favorite lead blocker back this weekend should allow him to run with more confidence and more talent in front of him.
On the Injury Front
Cortez Allen, Le'Veon Bell, Steve McLendon all practice fully for @Steelers. Looks good for their participation in Sunday's game— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) September 25, 2013
Both teams are in must-win situations, and their playoff lives hang in the balance by a thread. The Steelers turned a corner last weekend with their offense, and so they go into this game with an edge.
It is hard to say that these are the same type of 0-3 teams. The Steelers are better on both sides of the football, running back aside, so while these two teams will trade punches early, the Steelers should pull away late and win this one going away.
If the Steelers cannot win this game, there will be a great deal of speculation about the futures of players and coaches. That is inevitable and part of the process.
The only certainty if the Steelers lose this weekend is that their playoff chances would shrink to a point where it would take not only a monumental effort by them, but a chain of events by other teams to salvage the season.