Injuries are part of every NFL season and go a long way to determining the success or failure of an NFL team. As the Vikings face their first significant pressing injury concern of the season, with cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford both ruled out for Sunday's game with the Steelers, the Vikings secondary will be depleted, making the battle between Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels and rookie Xavier Rhodes going up against Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders this week's key matchup.
The problem from the Vikings' perspective is that the Steelers are likely a team that is going to come out and pass against the Vikings – both because Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin knows his season is on the line and will likely put the game on the broad shoulders of QB Ben Roethlisberger and because the Vikings haven't been able to stop the pass all season.
Even with Cook in the lineup the first two games, the Vikings got lit up through the air and it continued against Cleveland third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer. Through three games, opponents have completed 86 of 136 passes for 981 yards and nine touchdowns. That translates into a per-game average of completing 29 of 45 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Those are the kind of numbers Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers put up … on a good day. Those have been the numbers amassed by second-tier quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler and journeyman Hoyer. Don't think the Vikings' struggles, much less with two of the four secondary starters out of the game, will be overlooked by the Steelers' coaching staff.
What makes this perceived weakness even more pronounced is that the Steelers have been dismal running the ball. They are 31st in rushing with just 155 yards (52 a game) and have abandoned the run several times during the course of the season. They will have rookie running back Le'Veon Bell for this matchup, but opponents have twice as many rushing attempts (104) and have forced the issue with the Steelers offense that they have to pass. The Vikings look like a team that is eminently burnable in the secondary given the absence of Cook and Sanford.
In the loss to Cleveland, the game came down to a handful of critical plays in which the Vikings defense could have gotten off the field, but the replacements for Cook and Sanford – A.J. Jefferson and Andrew Sendejo – both got burned on key plays of drives that resulted in touchdowns. Both of them could be asked to play pivotal roles Sunday because, like or not, the Steelers see a wounded animal and are ready to go for the kill.
In many ways, this game has all the makings of when the Vikings played New England the night before Halloween in 2006. Minnesota got off to a 4-2 start and had the Patriots coming to the Metrodome in prime time. The Vikings had a stout run defense that had been one of the reasons they were 4-2. A win over the Patriots would have been the proverbial "statement game" that let the world know that the Vikings were a force to be reckoned with.
There was definitely a statement made, but it was that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady decided they could beat the Vikings as a one-dimensional offense. Brady had 20 passes before New England ran the ball for a third time and the Patriots blew out the Vikings. The smell coming from across the pond is that Pittsburgh is going to employ a similar strategy with what it anticipates will be similar results.
In the shadow of England's Big Ben, Pittsburgh's Big Ben is going to be armed and dangerous when it comes to the depleted Vikings secondary. The Vikes will have to stand up and be a force to be reckoned with in the secondary, especially Rhodes and Robinson, making their battle with Brown and Sanders this week's matchup to watch.
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.
Key matchup: Depleted secondary vs. Big Ben
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