Every team the Vikings play has someone on the opposite side of the ball that is special. Teams that play the Vikings fear players like Adrian Peterson, Brett Favre and Jared Allen. As the Vikings bring their perfect 6-0 record into Heinz Field, they do so against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers and their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger was initially a caretaker of the Steelers offense when he won his first Super Bowl ring. Last year, he won his second in an offense that was much more centered around his skills than the power running game that had been a Steelers staple for so many years. This year has been even more pronounced that this Pittsburgh team is Roethlisberger's to run as he sees fit.
Big Ben is averaging more than 300 yards passing a game, which historically has translated more to losing than winning. At 6-5, 240 pounds, in many ways he has some of the same attributes than made Daunte Culpepper so dangerous on the move. You can have a linebacker chasing him, but when the quarterback is bigger, it creates an unusual mismatch.
"Guys can't get him down," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "If you don't get his arm, he's still trying to make plays with you draped all around him. We've got to make sure we tackle him arm."
Roethlisberger's ability to avoid trouble and keep plays alive is the primary concern of the Vikings defense heading into Sunday's game. For the linebackers, it could be a "damned if you and damned if you don't" scenario when it comes to picking their spots with blitzes. Not enough pressure on Big Ben will give him time to throw. A mistimed blitz will leave an area open over the intermediate area of the field. Linebacker Chad Greenway said it's going to be a matter of timing – dialing up blitzes when the Steelers don't have the protection and staying back at times to take away Heath Miller and Hines Ward dragging over the middle.
"We have to stay in our coverage when we're back and, if we're blitzing we have to get there in a hurry," Greenway said. "He's a big body and is actually better when he's on the move, has pressure around him and has people at his feet. He can make big throws. They don't have two (championship) rings with him for no reason. He makes a lot of plays."
The problem in defending Roethlisberger is that, aside from his size and strength, the confidence level of the coaching staff in his ability has given him a lot more freedom to improvise and make plays. Much like the formula used by the Patriots and Colts against strong run defenses like the Vikings, eschewing the running game completely isn't out of the realm of possibility. It probably isn't too likely, but they have the weapons to do it, and with Antoine Winfield likely out for Sunday's game, Big Ben could be salivating at the chance of throwing 40 or more times by design, not force.
"Some games they don't even look to run," Williams said. "But (running back Rashard) Mendenhall has been doing good for them the last few games. They've be trying to establish the run, but a lot of it has been on Ben's arm and he's been making plays."
The issue the Vikings defense will face is that the Steelers can be dominant in all phases of the game. They can run the ball to wear people down, they have a strong short-to-intermediate passing game and Roethlisberger has a strong enough arm to launch bombs 50-60 yards down the field with accuracy. For guys like Benny Sapp, who will likely see a lot of playing time Sunday, knowing Roethlisberger's penchant for keeping plays alive after it appears he is down will make his job and the jobs of the rest of the guys in the secondary that much more difficult.
"They can beat you throwing, they can beat you running, they can beat you any kind of way," Sapp said. "We just have to play fundamental football and make plays. He makes it tough on you because he can extend plays and force you to cover your man for six, seven, eight seconds while he's running around in the backfield. It's going to be a test because we're going to have to stay on our assignments longer than you usually have to."
The Vikings' defensive mantra every week is to stop the run and force teams to become one-dimensional and rely on their passing game. But with Roethlisberger's gunslinger mentality, it may actually play into his strength by stopping the run and putting the onus on him. Linebacker Ben Leber said he's like a Hulked-up version of Brett Favre in his gunslinger mentality and, unlike most quarterbacks they face, may actually be better when he's flushed and forced to move than we he takes a standard five- or seven-step drop.
"At times I think he enjoys scrambling and making plays outside the pocket," Leber said. "He's very accurate on the move and seems like he's comfortable when the pocket collapses. Most quarterbacks don't necessarily panic when the pocket breaks, but they're not comfortable. He doesn't play that way. He likes being on the move. For us as defenders, you can't give up, because he can make plays. Hopefully, the front four will get after him and he won't be able to get on the move."
The Vikings know their unbeaten streak is in jeopardy Sunday, especially being shorthanded with the potential loss of Winfield. But the player who likely has as much pressure as anyone on his shoulders – cornerback Cedric Griffin – said he isn't worried about Roethlisberger making big plays. He's confident the defensive line will do its job and turn his responsibilities from a nightmare scenario into business as usual. His theory is the bigger they come the harder they fall and Big Ben will fall on Sunday.
"It's going to be tough for him to get away from our pass rush," Griffin said. "A lot of teams have one or two good players, but we've got Jared Allen, Ray Edwards, Kevin and Pat. They're going to be able to get pressure on him. We're going to have to hold up in coverage early and not give him those quick throws. With our pass rush, if we can do that, he will go down."
John Holler has been writing for Viking Update for more than decade. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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