Rice has the team's three longest catches of the year, the top two coming last week against the Baltimore Ravens when he came up with catches of 63 and 58 yards. One was the result of an adjustment he made in his route when he saw the safety coming across the field and turned his slant route upfield before Brett Favre fired a pass that ended 63 yards later in the third quarter, setting up a field goal. Another was an adjustment to a route down the field with cornerback Frank Walker in the single coverage for a 58-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal.
"I'm not the fastest guy, but I feel I can get down the field, stretch the field and just be able to make plays on the ball," Rice said. "Hopefully we'll continue to just stretch it, depending on what kind of defenses we're facing, and it's been good for us the last couple of weeks."
Favre just believes that Rice has the football savvy and the physical skills to make those plays.
"If you would have told me at the start of the season that I'd hit Sidney on a little slant and he would run it 60 yards, I would have told you he may score or he may not. That's not his forte, the speed part of it. I mean that with a lot of respect, as I said after the game. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in his physical (skills) and really his knowledge," Favre said. "You either have football savvy or you don't. You can take the fastest guy – and it's happen in the NFL – you take a track guy or something and try to make them a receiver. They can fly, but can they adjust to the ball? Can they catch it back shoulder? Can they go up and high-point a ball? Leverage a corner? Those things you can't coach."
The last two weeks have been particularly explosive for the Vikings. Five of their top eight pass plays of the season have come against the Ravens and Rams in the last two games.
Vikings coach Brad Childress measures explosive plays as rushes of 12 yards or more and receptions of 16 yards or more. The Vikings actually publish those plays a bit differently, denoting rushes of 15 yards or more and catches of 20 yards or more.
Last year, the Vikings had 33 rushes that fell into the latter category and 40 receptions. The rushes accounted for 45 percent of their explosive plays, leaving the receptions at 55 percent. This year, receptions are making up 65 percent of the explosive plays and the team is on pace for 41 catches of 20 yards or more and 21 rushes.
Last year, Bernard Berrian had six of the top seven explosive receptions. This year, he has only one of the top seven. Rice has been the go-to deep threat so far because of the confidence Brett Favre has in him to come down with a reception when in single coverage.
Rice said there are a few reasons for the increase.
"Just communication. I think the coaches are doing a great job of putting the plays in first of all, giving us the opportunity to make plays," Rice said. "They have just as much confidence in us receivers now as Brett does, so that's great. They give us the opportunity to make those plays. Having Brett back there, and also the other guys, it wouldn't possible without the other 10 guys on the field at that time. We feel like we're responsible and we can count on the guy next to us to do their job. So it's great just having that type of communication with each other."
Rice didn't just explode onto the NFL scene. The skills were apparent his rookie season, but he struggled with an ankle injury while compiling 396 yards. Last year, an early-season sprain to his posterior cruciate ligament stopped him from making steady progress and he finished with only 141 yards – for the season. On Sunday, he had 176 yards to give him 409 for the season.
According to Scott Grams, only four other NFL players have had more receiving yards against the Ravens in the history of the team – Jimmy Smith (291), Isaac Bruce (229), Steve Smith (189) and Anquan Boldin (181).
Childress credits Rice's offseason dedication, from spending 2½ weeks this summer working out with Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. to going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shortly after the 2008 season was complete.
"He went down to Florida and probably started very close to the end of the season and was working out with a number of guys down there in the Fort Lauderdale area and really pushed himself in terms of conditioning, leg strength, stamina before he even got back here," Childress said. "He did have an exceptional offseason and wanted to come in, stay healthy and make it right, and he's managed to do that so far."
While Rice's emergence has been one reason for the uptick in explosive passing plays, Favre said he is gaining more confidence in his rotator cuff, which was discovered to be partially torn when he had biceps tendon surgery in late May. That progressive confidence in the shoulder is allowing Favre to throw further downfield of late.
"The play I threw to Sidney toward the end of the game, I didn't know if I could make that throw before I made it the other day, but I was willing to take that chance," Favre said. "After I threw it, I was kind of like, whew, all right. But I was pretty concerned. I knew I could throw a 5-yard hitch, a 10-yard hitch, a 15-yard out and things like that. But there are times that you have to pull the trigger."
Lately, that's been the case more often.
"They stay on routes. They're not going to quit on a run," Childress said of Pittsburgh's receivers. "Just because the quarterback moves doesn't mean all the sudden you're going to start running back downhill on the quarterback. They stay with it. And then the other thing is that Roethlisberger has the ability to find them … He can throw with people around his waist or heading to the ground. He has a strong arm."
"We'll just wait for the trainers to let me know what (Winfield) is capable of doing," Childress said. "He's been in here from the early hours treating. I'm sure he'll continue to do so."
For the Steelers, DE Travis Kirschke, S Troy Polamalu and WR Wines Hard did not practice, but their absences weren't injury-related. Also for the Steelers, RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) was limited.
"He texted me and told me he likes the beard and I said, "Yeah, if you're doing this when you're 53 years old, it will look salt and pepperish like this with no hair as well, because his (hairline) is heading back. He gave me the laugh-out-loud deal."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.