Key Matchup: Defending the WRs

The Steelers have a dynamic duo in the receiving corps that brings different skills to the position – Hines Ward underneath and Santonio Holmes over the top. With the Vikings shorthanded on healthy cover cornerbacks, expect to the see the ball in the air early and often.


In any game, there are matchups that teams believe they can exploit to their advantage. As the Vikings head into Pittsburgh Sunday to face the world champion Steelers, the anticipated loss of Antoine Winfield has set up something of a perfect storm for the Steelers – making the battle between the Vikings cornerbacks and the dynamic duo of wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes this week's matchup to watch.

Even if Winfield was healthy, this would likely be the matchup that would garner the most attention. The Vikings have long maintained the status as the NFL's top run-stopping defense, which has transformed opposing offenses into being one-dimensional – passing out of force rather than choice. However, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have been throwing at will against their first six opponents this season. Big Ben is averaging more than 300 yards a game and both Ward and Holmes are among the league leaders in receiving (even rookie receiver Mike Wallace is a big threat). Ward is an ageless wonder who leads the NFL is receiving yards with 599 and is tied for the league lead with 41 receptions. Holmes, the Super Bowl hero who made the game-winning catch in the end zone, is eighth in the league with 438 receiving yards on 28 catches. Each brings his own special set of skills to the table that will cause problems for the Vikings secondary.

Ward is about as tough as any receiver in the league. Not blessed with great speed, he makes up for it with precise route running and an innate ability to find the soft spot in zone defenses and settle in to receive throws from Roethlisberger. He has about as dependable a set of hands as any wide receiver in the game today and is fearless going over the middle. It should come as no surprise that he is averaging about seven catches and 100 yards a game because Roethlisberger has so much confidence in his abilities. Holmes is the other end of the spectrum. When it became apparent that Plaxico Burress wasn't going to be a long-term solution, the Steelers drafted Holmes with the anticipation that he would replace Burress as the big-play receiver. Although it took a couple of years for him to come into his own, Holmes has become the big-play clutch receiver the Steelers front office believed he would become. He is averaging 15.6 yards per reception and, when the Steelers look deep, it's often with Holmes in mind.

With Winfield expected to miss Sunday's game after his injured right foot failed to respond quickly to treatment, keeping these two in check will fall on Cedric Griffin, Karl Paymah, Benny Sapp and rookie Asher Allen. Griffin has made big strides over the last year-plus – so much so that the Vikings made a point to sign him to a contract extension at the end of last season to make sure he was with the team for years to come. The same isn't true with the other three. Both Paymah and Sapp were plucked from the AFC West – Paymah from Denver, Sapp from Kansas City – in free agency, but both were brought in primarily because of their abilities as special teams players. The fact they could play cornerback was merely a bonus. Both of them will be on the hot seat trying to cover the savvy veteran in Ward and the game-changer in Holmes. Of all the solid wide receivers the Vikings have faced thus far this season, none can compare to the problems that the combination of Ward and Holmes bring to the table.

If the fourth quarter of the Vikings win over Baltimore is any indication, there is every reason to believe that the Steelers are going to come out throwing and looking to take advantage of the same kind of breakdowns Joe Flacco saw in the Vikings secondary last week. The Steelers have proved that they can win with a pass-happy offense and get away from the time-honored grinding running style that has been the hallmark of Steelers teams of years past. Roethlisberger is looking forward to going against his childhood idol Brett Favre and, often times when that is the case, the "anything you can do I can do better" mindset takes hold. Expect to see Roethlisberger throwing the ball all day in an attempt to burn the Vikings with controlled short passing to Ward and bombs to Holmes.

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