The Vikings conclude their preseason schedule with a perfect opponent to test their new speed-oriented defense — the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Vikings looking to shut down the run and be more aggressive on defense, there may be no better barometer to how far the defense has come along than the Steelers.
Bill Cowher has always believed in running first, but former Vikings tight end and current Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mullarkey has opted to mix the power game with trick plays, gadget plays and home run plays. The combination was good enough for the Steelers to secure home field in last season's playoffs.
It all begins with QB Kordell Stewart. Once known as "Slash," he was at the verge of being a great QB but then regressed when the Steelers tried to make him a pocket passer. He improved a lot last season, mixing his timed runs with passes to give the offense an extra dimension. The Vikes are wary of Stewart, as shown last year when a linebacker spy was put on him the entire game. However, look for former Lion Charlie Batch and backup Tommy Maddox to see most of the action.
At running back, the Steelers have a wealth of talent. Jerome Bettis was the NFL's leading rusher until he was injured against the Vikings and missed the rest of the regular season. Although aging, he is a bruiser who can do damage and put defenders on their backs. Built in his mold is backup Fuamatu Ma'afala, who is a Bettis clone, only younger. Also in the mix is speedy Amos Zereoue. When Bettis went down, Zereoue gave the offense a bigger spark with his ability to go coast to coast with a handoff. All three of these guys likely will see time as the featured back in the preseason finale.
The receiver corps is undergoing some changes. Hines Ward set a team record for receptions with 94 last season, but he's not the big news heading into this season. In the second half of last year, Plaxico Burress came on to become the big-play threat the Steelers believed he would be when he was drafted in 2000. A huge receiver, he will test the Vikings corners with deep passes and fade routes. Unlike previous seasons, the Steelers have some depth at the position, led by versatile Antwaan Randle El, who will be to this offense what Stewart was a few years ago, veteran Terance Mathis and incumbent Troy Edwards.
At tight end, Mark Bruener remains one of the best blockers in the league.
Up front, the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines, which will test the Vikings' rotating defensive front. At tackle, the Steelers have veteran Wayne Gandy and youngster Marvel Smith, both perfect fits with the offensive scheme. At guard, Alan Faneca holds down one starting spot, but the other has been up for grabs. Some think Oliver Ross, who has backed up at both tackle spots, could be the ingredient to make up for the loss of Rich Tylski. Others think Ross is more valuable on the outside as a backup and that second-year man Keydrick Vincent should be the man to start the season. In the middle, after losing All-Pro Dermontti Dawson to injuries, the Steelers signed former Lions All-Pro Jeff Hartings and don't anticipate missing a beat at center for the next several years.
Defensively, the Steelers can throw some different looks at a team because they're one of the few that still operate out of a 3-4 defense. They struggled at times last year getting new personnel working together, but the trio of Kimo Von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith on the outside and Casey Hampton in the middle has become a solid unit that makes the system run efficiently.
However, for a 3-4 to flourish, the team has to have big, active linebackers — and the Steelers are loaded. With Jason Gildon and Joey Porter on the outside and 2001 rookie sensastion Kendrell Bell and free agent signee James Farrior on the inside, the Steelers have the best group of linebackers in the game — capable of shutting down the run as well as the short and middle passing game. With Clark Haggans and John Fiala, the Steelers have extensive depth at the position, as well as talent, making it the centerpiece of the defense.
In the secondary, there is little dropoff. Former Viking Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott have developed into a pair of solid cover corners. While Lee Flowers and Brent Alexander are getting a little long in the tooth (in their eighth and ninth years, respectively), they still have enough game and experience to be effective. The secondary has depth as well, with former starter Deshea Townsend and younster Hank Poteat serving as nickel and dime backs.
If the Vikings could pick a team that would be a great challenge for both the offensive and defensive units, it would be the Steelers. They were the team that ended Daunte Culpepper's 2001 season, and the Vikings ended Bettis' year. There will be some grudge matches at stake, and it could make what is typically a ho-hum preseason finale a lot more exciting.
Rarely is a coach part of a matchup, but this game could see a coach playing an unexpected (except by us) key matchup — Jay Hayes vs. the Steelers special teams.
Hayes, who was a respected coach with the Steelers, saw his special teams make a pair of huge mistakes in the AFC title game vs. New England. The direct result of those mistakes was a loss for the Steelers, and Cowher needed a fall guy. His choice was to fire Hayes.
Hayes felt a bit betrayed by being the scapegoat and was quickly snapped up by the Vikings. There is some bitterness on both sides in how the relationship in Pittsburgh ended. Hayes wants to prove the Steelers wrong and the Steelers have no choice but, after his dismissal, laying the blame for not making the Super Bowl at his feet.
Throw in the oft-discussed stat that VU pointed out four years ago. In the decade Dennis Green was head coach and Gary Zauner was special teams coach, the Vikings never attempted a fake punt or fake field goal. Not one. That is a stat that is incredible, since every other team has multiple fake kicks in their special teams training package. They're in the book now and Hayes may look to spring one on his old team.
The inexperience in working on fakes came into play in 2000 when the Vikings had a chance to beat Green Bay — a win that would have secured home field throughout the playoffs. When a bad snap came to holder Mitch Berger on a third-down play, instead of spiking the ball and trying another field goal, he tried a pass he hadn't practiced and threw an interception.
You can bet the Vikings will spend much of this week working on special teams and try to make a difference on special teams to allow Hayes to leave his old stomping grounds with his head up — instead of down after his release last February. The special teams will be spirited and will be the matchup of the game.
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