The Minnesota Vikings' 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers lifted a huge weight off the psyches of Vikings fans worldwide. The win moves the Vikings within one-half game of the idle Green Bay Packers and two games behind the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in the NFC North.
After three heartbreaking defeats, the Vikings still have plenty of concerns that need to be addressed, but they are so much easier to overlook when the team wins.
Backup quarterback Matt Cassel led the Vikings to a 17-point lead through three quarters that was just enough to secure the seven-point win and drop the Steelers to 0-4 on the season. Cassel gave the offense a shot in the arm, leading the team to its highest scoring total of the season, tossing two touchdown passes to Greg Jennings.
Just like last season, Adrian Peterson had a breakout game in Week 4. He finished with 140 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns, including a 60-yard run that gave the Vikings a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Just like the previous two games, this one was not decided until the final minute of the fourth quarter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had the Steelers offense on the Vikings' 6-yard line with 24 seconds left in the game. On 3rd-and-goal, the Minnesota defense came up with a huge sack and a fumble recovery that sealed the win.
The following grades reflect the improved play by many parts of the team that gave the Vikings their first win of the season.
This was almost the perfect setup for Matt Cassel. The Vikings had lost their first three games, the last two within the final minute of the fourth quarter. Christian Ponder was ranked 30th in the NFL with a 65.9 passer rating, and his head coach kept insisting Ponder is the guy, telling NFL.com as late as Thursday before the game that the Vikings want Ponder to play.
So with no real pressure, Cassel played very composed, leading the Vikings offense on six scoring drives. The entire offense seemed to play better. The offensive line played well, providing very good protection, giving up only a single sack and no quarterback hits.
Cassel responded by completing 16-of-25 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. In the second half, he was 10-of-10, with 120 yards and a touchdown—a passer rating of 150.
It was also the first game this season that the Vikings did not throw an interception—although it was against the Steelers, a team without a defensive turnover yet this season.
Let the quarterback controversy begin.
Adrian Peterson: A
As noted on the first slide, this was a breakout game of sorts for Peterson. Even though he came into the game averaging 93.7 yards per game, it was not considered a good start of the season. A lost fumble the past two weeks contributed to low grades for Peterson.
This week, he backed up a 60-yard touchdown run with a second touchdown, when he drove the team the final 25 yards in the third quarter. He finished with 140 yards on 23 carries.
Toby Gerhart: C
With Peterson getting the ball 23 times, the only contribution from Toby Gerhart was a single catch for seven yards. No doubt this will be his last season in Minnesota.
Overall Grade: A
Cassel was able to do something that Ponder could not—get Greg Jennings a touchdown. Jennings was targeted four times, catching three passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. His 70-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter gave the Vikings an early 10-0 lead.
Jerome Simpson: B
Ponder's favorite target in Week 1, when he caught seven passes for 140 yards, Jerome Simpson was Cassel's favorite target against the Steelers. Targeted 11 times, Simpson finished with seven catches for 124 yards. It was his second 100-yard receiving game of the season. It's been feast or famine for Simpson with only 79 yards in the other two games. He still has not found the end zone for the Vikings.
Cordarrelle Patterson: C
Before the Cleveland game in Week 3, head coach Leslie Frazier said the team was going to look for more ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson in the game. Against the Steelers, he finished with one catch for nine yards. It's not his fault he's not in the game.
Jarius Wright: C
Jarius Wright's only catch in the game came on a 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter. It was good for only six yards. It set up a 44-yard field-goal attempt that Blair Walsh missed.
Joe Webb: D
Joe Webb continues to underwhelm. Targeted only once in the game, Webb finished without a catch again. He's still looking for his first reception of the season.
Overall Grade: B
Only three catches for Jennings, and no touchdowns yet for Simpson.
Kyle Rudolph: C
This was supposed to be a breakout year for Kyle Rudolph. After leading the Vikings with nine touchdowns last season, he only has one this year. Against the Steelers, he finished with only two catches for six yards.
John Carlson: F
John Carlson had one catch for four yards on Sunday. That gives him three receptions on the season for 14 yards.
Overall Grade: D
For some reason, the tight end is not a part of the Vikings' offensive scheme.
The Steelers only recorded one sack of quarterback Cassel on Sunday—and that one came when Cassel decided to run the ball. On the play, he was hit as he approached the line of scrimmage and was stripped of the ball. Fortunately, the Vikings recovered it for a first down. It's the fewest sacks given up by the offensive line so far this season.
Not only was there only one sack, the Steelers did not record a single quarterback hit in the game.
Run Blocking: A
Peterson's best game of the season was facilitated with some good blocking up front. On his second touchdown, a seven-yard run, Peterson was not touched as he ran into the end zone.
Overall Grade: A
The best all-around game of the season for Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt.
Jared Allen: A
Finally. We got to see the Jared Allen that has led the Vikings in sacks every season since 2008. Allen finished with 2.5 sacks to regain the team lead, two tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits.
Kevin Williams: B
A solid game by Kevin Williams plugging up the middle of the line. He finished with only two tackles but came up with the big fumble recovery at the end of the game to seal the victory.
Letroy Guion: D+
Letroy Guion did not make the stat sheet. But he gets partial credit as part of the defensive line that limited the Steelers to only 77 yards rushing. The Steelers themselves should get as much credit; they came into the game averaging only 51.7 yards per game.
Brian Robison: C
Brian Robison finished with only one tackle for the game and no quarterback hits.
Everson Griffen: B
Everson Griffen finished with two tackles and a sack. His sack came on the Steelers' last play of the game. He forced Ben Roethlisberger to fumble the ball that was recovered by Williams.
Sharrif Floyd: C
Still waiting for big things from the Vikings' top draft pick as they ease him into the game. He finished with only one tackle and one quarterback hit. He did end up sharing a sack with Allen.
Fred Evans: C-
Fred Evans recorded only a single tackle in the game. That's the entire contribution from the Vikings' nose tackles against the Steelers.
Overall Grade: B-
An improvement for the unit, but still not everyone is hitting on all cylinders.
Chad Greenway: A
Chad Greenway has a knack of being around the ball as the team's leading tackler. He finished with 10 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a sack and his second interception of the season. The interception came in the third quarter, giving the Vikings the ball deep in Steelers' territory. The offense quickly turned it into a touchdown and a 34-17 lead.
Erin Henderson: B
Erin Henderson has done a very good job transitioning to the middle linebacker position this season. He's second on the team in tackles behind Greenway. On Sunday, he finished with nine tackles.
Marvin Mitchell: D
Even though Marvin Mitchell typically comes off the field on passing situations, he needs to be making a few more plays. On Sunday, he did not make the stat sheet against the Steelers.
Desmond Bishop: C-
Desmond Bishop has not cracked the starting lineup yet. In Sunday's game against the Steelers, he was credited with making a tackle—that's more than what Mitchell can claim. He was on the field more against the Steelers than previously this season—this could be the start of the transition.
Michael Mauti: Incomplete
Michael Mauti was finally activated for his first game of the season. Although he did not see any action on defense, the rookie from Penn State did record a special teams tackle.
Overall Grade: B-
A good game, but the Steelers are proving they are a bad team.
Xavier Rhodes: C
Xavier Rhodes saw significant action against the Steelers and finished with three tackles. He made a great play, breaking up a pass when he stepped in front of Emmanuel Sanders and knocked the ball away in third quarter.
Josh Robinson: D
It was obvious that Roethlisberger and the Steelers planned to pick on Josh Robinson. That's how he ended up leading the team with 12 tackles. Stepping more into the spotlight this season has exposed him a bit.
Marcus Sherels: C+
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Marcus Sherels was on the field for 77 of the Vikings' 79 defensive snaps. With the Steelers picking on Robinson, Sherels had a pretty good game—considering I didn't see him having to chase down a receiver to make the tackle.
Overall Grade: C-
Sure Ben Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, but giving up 383 yards is way too much. The fact the Vikings won the game raises the grade slightly.
Harrison Smith: C+
With only seven tackles in the game, it feels like a down game for Harrison Smith. The leader of the Vikings' defensive secondary, there just wasn't any big plays from him that we are accustomed to seeing.
Andrew Sendejo: C
Making his first start filling in for Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo finished with four tackles. He's been a good special teams player, and once Sanford is ready to go, he will move back down the depth chart.
Mistral Raymond: C-
There's a reason that Mistral Raymond has been inactive for the first three games. He finished with four tackles as Sendejo's backup.
Overall grade: C
Just like for the cornerbacks, the safeties have to take some heat for Roethlisberger passing for 383 yards. Plus, it's never a good thing when your safeties wind up making 15 tackles in a game.
Blair Walsh: B
Blair Walsh finally missed a field. If he would hit a 44-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, it would have given the Vikings a 13-point lead with 6:53 in the game. Instead, it gave fans another nail-biter finish as the Steelers had the ball on the 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.
He did hit his 12th straight field goal from over 50 yards when he opened the scoring with a 54-yard field in the first quarter. On the negative side, only three of his seven kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
Jeff Locke: B-
Jeff Locke averaged 41.8 yards on four punts. While the average yardage came up a little short, only one of his four punts were returned.
Cordarrelle Patterson: B
Patterson returned five kickoffs for an average of 28.8 yards, with a long of 42 yards. Not bad when you compare his numbers to Percy Harvin, who averaged 27.9 yards per return in his four seasons with the Vikings.
Marcus Sherels: D
Sherels doesn't seem to do well with the double duty of playing cornerback and returning punts. He only returned one of four punts for one yard. He was also penalized for an illegal fair catch signal. On the play, it appeared he tried to change his mind halfway into his fair catch signal. The penalty negated a 68-yard return, when he took the ball all the way to the Pittsburgh 6-yard line.
Overall grade: B-
Not a bad game for the special teams, but unfortunately, the expectations are extremely high for each one of these players—Walsh because he has been perfect, Locke and Patterson because they are rookies, and Sherels because he has been very consistent.