Steelers Preview

The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the Metrodome Sunday with their season perhaps hanging in the balance. But, in the powerful AFC, any losses at this point could be playoff suicide, so this game should have all the intensity that teams on the outside looking in at the playoffs right now can muster.

The Vikings head into Sunday's game with the Steelers as one of the league's hottest teams, having won six games in a row. Despite that, some have claimed that the Vikings haven't beaten any playoff-quality teams with the exception of the Giants – which many wrote off as merely a fluke because the offense produced just three points in that game. However, with Pittsburgh coming to town, the Vikings can dispel that talk and heat things up in the NFC North.

The Steelers come in having lost three of their last four games, but they did the Vikings a favor by beating the Bears last week. The big question in Pittsburgh all week has been the injured thumb of Ben Roethlisberger. He's playing through the injury, but many of his passes have sailed – especially when pressed to throw. If the Vikings can keep him off-balance, he could make a big mistake. But few QBs are as sound a game manager as Roethlisberger, who has 16 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a passer rating of 102.2. He doesn't make many mistakes.

To protect Big Ben, the Steelers plan to run the ball early and often. Last week, ageless Jerome Bettis slogged his way to 101 yards and two TDs, bumping his season yardage total by about 50 percent. But on the dry track, expect to see more of youngster Willie Parker. A speedy, shifty runner who can bounce plays outside, Parker needs just 146 yards in the final three games to go over 1,000 yards for the season. Duce Staley also fits in the mix as a power runner, but expect to see smaller doses of Staley and Bettis, as the Steelers try to run wide away from Pat Williams and Kevin Williams and try to get Parker into space.

When the Steelers do throw, they have a decent arsenal of weapons – but one that has been depleted since last year's 15-1 season when the team refused to talk a new deal with Plaxico Burress. Hines Ward remains the No. 1 option. Of his 59 receptions this year, 10 have gone for touchdowns and he has been the go-to receiver on a team that has run 100 times more than it has passed. He's joined by elusive playmaker Antwaan Randle El and possession receiver Cedrick Wilson. The new face to watch is rookie TE Heath Miller. He's scored six touchdowns this year – most of them early in the season – and has grown into a favorite target. With Keith Newman out, the Steelers may try to exploit Miller even more.

The biggest challenge for Pittsburgh Sunday could be protecting Roethlisberger. Left tackle Marvel Smith, who protects Ben's blindside, isn't expected to play, which could push rookie Trai Essex into the starting lineup. While Smith is a huge loss, the Steelers still have an impressive O-line anchored by center Jeff Hartings and guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons. Right tackle is also a problem with inconsistent play from Max Starks. If the Vikings are going to shut down the Steelers offense, it will all start by attacking the outside of the Steelers offensive wall and forcing the team to play in the middle of the field.

As always, the Steelers are paced by their defense and have one of the most consistently effective 3-4 alignments in the league. Casey Hampton rides the nose and beat the daylights out of Olin Kreutz in their win over the Bears. That may not bode well for Melvin Fowler. He's flanked by ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen. They have limited opposing teams to 3.4 yards per rush and have held opponents to 90 yards a game rushing. If the Vikings are going to be successful with Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore on the ground, this will be a key battle.

Any team that runs a 3-4 needs a solid linebacker corps and the Steelers have always been among the best in that regard. James Farrior is a dominant run stuffer, Larry Foote is their top coverage guy and Clark Haggans and Joey Porter lead the team in sacks with eight and seven, respectively. They are constantly blitzing to fill holes and blitz the quarterback, so Brad Johnson will need to be on notice – these will be coming and won't be letting up.

The secondary of the Steelers is also a strength. Troy Polamalu has emerged as one of the top big-play (and big-hair) safeties of the NFL. He's joined by free safety Chris Hope who leads the team with three interceptions. On the corners, they are solid with Deshea Townsend, third-year man Ike Taylor and second-year man Ricardo Colclough. The Steelers like to play man to man in coverage, so if Johnson gets time, Koren Robinson, Nate Burleson and Marcus Robinson will likely all be manned up in single coverage.

The Steelers are a team the Vikings need to be concerned about. They went 15-1 a year ago and need this game to keep their own playoff hopes strong. This could be a playoff elimination game and the team that makes the least mistakes will likely win. Seeing that the Steelers make as few mistakes as any team in the league, it will be a tall order.

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