As the Vikings prepare to play a home game in England against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that may have more fans in the stadium cheering for them than the Vikings, it seemed improbable a month ago that one of the two teams would drop to 0-4 and almost assuredly be reduced to playing the role of spoiler, not Super Bowl contender, in the final three months of the season. But, as they prepare to meet Sunday at Wembley Stadium, that is the scenario facing both teams.
The Steelers are a team that has lost each of its three games by a wider margin than the previous game (seven, 10 and 17 points), while the Vikings are a team that has collapsed in the fourth quarter and lost its last two games in the final minute. They are teams that have the history and the personnel to be successful, but, to date, have yet to show it.
The biggest difference in the Steelers this season has been the lack of a running game. While losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey has been a devastating blow, the Steelers have built a longstanding reputation of being a team that plays smash-mouth football and mixes in the deep pass to find a balance. However, the running game has been so dismal that Pittsburgh has increasingly become a pass-only team.
How bad is the Steelers' running game? The have rushed the ball just 52 times as a team and averaged just three yards a carry. They have had three different leading rushers in three games and none of them has gained 40 yards in any game to date. Dallas re-tread Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have all been given a shot and none of them have produced. With rookie Le'Veon Bell returning for his NFL debut, the expectation is that Pittsburgh will have its fourth leading rusher in as many games because the others have all ruined their chances of being the featured back based on their pedestrian performances. The Vikings have every chance of making the Steelers one-dimensional on offense, but, given the injuries in the Minnesota secondary (starters Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford have already been ruled out), that may not necessarily be a bad thing from the Steelers' perspective.
Pittsburgh doesn't have a designated deep threat – that went away when Miami overspent for Mike Wallace – but they have talented role players that will test the Vikings defense. Antonio Brown is the player to keep an eye on. Coming off a huge game against the Bears – nine catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns – he will be the focus of the Vikings game plan. But Emmanuel Sanders has been targeted most often (30 times) and has 16 receptions and at least one catch or 20 or more yards in each of the first three games. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery is also in the mix. He's been targeted 20 times and caught 10 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
However, the critical player in the passing game could well end up being Heath Miller. Returning from a horrific knee injury suffered at the end of last season, Miller returned last week and, given the Vikings' problems covering tight ends, this could be a recipe for disaster. No tight end was targeted in the red zone more last year than Ben Roethlisberger targeted Miller last season. He became his red zone security blanket and was one of the most dangerous goal-line threats in the league from the tight end position. Given that the Vikings have allowed five passing touchdowns to tight ends over the last two games, it isn't hard to envision that Miller will have a big role in the Steelers offense.
While the offense in Pittsburgh has been inconsistent, the Steelers defense has been the hallmark of the team and, despite being 0-3 and not being able to consistently keep opponents off the scoreboard, their defense isn't as bad as the numbers would indicate.
Opponents are averaging just 3.3 yards a carry, but because opponents have run 104 times against them, Pittsburgh has a huge disparity in time of possession – seven-and-a-half minutes a game. The Pittsburgh pass defense has been quite strong, allowing just 188 passing yards a game and two touchdowns. But what has been the key ingredient missing from the Steelers has been the opportunistic turnover-creating machine that has made the Steel Curtain one of the more feared defensive units in the league.
There is talent at all three levels of the Pittsburgh defense. Veterans Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are both solid bookend defensive ends in the Pittsburgh 3-4 defense. Even without linebacker Larry Foote, who was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago, the Steelers still have LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. In the secondary, the Steelers may have the best safety tandem in the AFC in Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, and Ike Taylor is an elite cornerback. While depth is razor thin and Pittsburgh can't afford to have any more injuries to key players on the defensive side of the ball, they have the talent to run off a string of wins – if they can change the one glaring stat that has haunted them through three games.
For a team known for creating offense with its defense, the Steelers have yet to get a takeaway on defense. The Steelers offense has turned the ball over 10 times, while the defense doesn't have a single interception or fumble recovery. Given that the Steelers have always been one of the league-leading teams in giveaway-takeaway ratio, being at minus-10 is unacceptable. For a defense predicated on pressing the issue and creating turnovers, that needs to change – the Vikings hope it starts after Sunday, not on Sunday.
With two teams that had legitimate playoff aspirations as the season began, the reality is that they're both in deep trouble at this point and the loser Sunday will be in a hole likely too deep to climb out of to have a realistic chance of making a playoff run. There is a "must-win" feel to this game and both teams are likely going to be in full desperation mode.
From the outside looking in, the Vikings should be the favorite. They could have and should have won their last two games, which would have them in a much different frame of mind heading into the London game. Instead, they're in the same boat as Pittsburgh – a loss Sunday could spell the end of any playoff aspirations they might have. To the winner goes optimism and hope. To the loser, it's going to be a very long flight home heading into its bye week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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