There’s a sight rarer than Todd Haley’s
El Camino Comet, the Blood Moon, and a solar eclipse all rolled into one. Yes, the Cleveland Browns can say they are ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standings. In a bit of scheduled irony, the Browns’ victim last Sunday is this week’s opponent for the Black and Gold. Let’s hope for a similar result because I really don’t think I could live with losing to a team that lost to Cleveland.
The Minnesota Vikings are not a particularly good team. Then again, neither are the Steelers since we’re both 0-3. Complicating matters is the game will be played at Wembley Stadium in London, England. Minny has been overseas since Tuesday while Mike Tomlin and crew decided to hop a red-eye last night in order to arrive in London on Friday morning (their time). Hopefully, this is one strategy which pays off.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs VIKINGS OFFENSE
The big question for Minnesota is who is going to start at quarterback. Following their ignominious loss to the Browns, it was revealed that Christian Ponder sustained fractured ribs. After Ponder practiced the majority of the week, the Vikes decided to go with backup Matt Cassel in his place. Cassel hasn’t started a game since week 11 of last season, the final of a disappointing four year run with the Chiefs.
Whomever starts at quarterback, it really won’t matter. The Vikings have a putrid passing game ranked 23rd in the NFL. They’ve tried to upgrade the receiver position by bringing in veteran Greg Jennings and drafting Cordarrelle Patterson although neither has done much to date. Bengals castoff Jerome Simpson is their current leading receiver having nearly tied his entire 2012 output (274 yards) through the first three games.
In order to stop the Vikings, you have to stop Adrian Peterson. AD is coming off a MVP season where he returned from ACL surgery to rush for 2,000 yards. He’s averaging a little over 90 yards a game this year – on pace to fall about 500 yards short of last season’s total – but could easily drop a buck fifty on you at any time. Peterson single-handedly powered them to a 10-6 record last year so never underestimate his ability to take over a game regardless of whether they have a Rock’Em Sock’Em robot behind center.
The Steelers defense will have their work cut out for them. They’ve struggled against the run this season, currently ranking a very un-Steelers-like 22nd (giving up 115 yd/game). Defensive lineman Steve McClendon and Ziggy Hood have not shown to be the run stoppers their predecessors were while the loss of Larry Foote at ILB has left another hole. Rookie Vince Williams and Kion Lewis had their ups and downs against the Bears, particularly Williams who had a clean shot at Michael Bush on 4th and 1 at the goal line but couldn’t make the play.
To compound matters, the D-line may be without Brett Keisel, who hasn’t practiced this week with a bum hammy. If he can’t go the suddenly impressive Cam Heyward would get his first career start. The secondary will get back CB Cortez Allen although against a light-passing offense like Minnesota, I’m not sure how much that will help. It’s all on stopping Peterson.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs VIKINGS DEFENSE
The good news is the Vikings are playing awful defense, surrendering over 300 yards passing per game while also allowing over 100 on the ground. The toothless Browns rolled up over 400 yards of total offense last week. The bad news is they forced four turnovers, one fumble and three interceptions.
For the Steelers to be competitive, they absolutely need better play out of Ben Roethlisberger. Ben was horrible last week and needs to reverse this trend where he’s gone from a modern-day John Elway to a latter day Bret Favre. The offensive line can certainly offer better protection – they should against a Vikings D that only has 4 sacks total through 3 games – but just because you get sacked doesn’t mean it’s okay to turn over the football.
Ben should get some help in the form of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. Stop me if you’ve heard this song before as we’ve been hyping up Bell all off-season only to see him constantly sidelined by a string of maladies. Steelers coaches and reporters raved about Bell during the off-season so it’d be nice to see if he lives up to billing. I don’t expect him to get 20-25 carries right out the gate but if he can contribute a dozen or so runs at healthy 4 yards a pop, it would certainly take some pressure off Ben and the passing game.
Antonio Brown is coming off a career game where he nearly topped the 200 yard mark and made two fantastic TD catches. Meanwhile, Heath Miller provided that third down safety blanket which allowed the team to finally sustain some drives. I’d still like to see more of Markus “One Ball” Wheaton as neither Manny Sanders nor Jerricho Cotchery have impressed anybody with their playmaking skills. Still, the offense definitely showed signs of life last week against a very good Bears D so there’s no reason not to believe the upward trend will continue against a unit that gave up 31 points to the Browns.
Sunday begins a true make or break stretch for the Steelers. They get a week off to recover from the England trip then face the Jets, Ravens, and Raiders. Two of those teams stink and I dunno what to make of the Ravens except it’s always important to beat your division rivals. A loss this weekend and you’re looking down the barrel of a 2-5 start. And I don’t think anybody wants that.