Through their first six games, the one thing the Vikings have had going in the favor each week is that, from the point of view of football analysts, they have been the favorite to win every game they've played. They've proven to be up to the challenge, coming out of the gate with a 6-0 record and have entrenched themselves atop the NFC North. But, as they head east to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, they not only come against the defending Super Bowl champion, they meet a team that is very difficult to beat at home and, for the first time, a team that most believe will end the Vikings' perfect 2009 season.
The Steelers have a long and storied tradition that includes a record six Super Bowl titles, two of them won on the watch of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In both of their championship seasons, Roethlisberger wasn't necessarily the focus of the offense. The Steelers offense was predicated on a strong running game that could control the clock and wear down opposing defenses. This season, however, the Steelers have been wearing out opponents by letting Roethlisberger run the offense out of the no-huddle at points throughout the game and do what he does best. The results have been obvious. He leads the NFL in passing yards (1,887) and average gain per pass (9.12 yards), is second in both completions (150) and completion percentage (72.5 percent) and has 10 touchdown passes. He is as feared a quarterback as there is in the game today because of his ability to shake off pass rushers, avoid sacks and make plays down the field when it appears he is going down for a loss. If the Vikings are going to win Sunday, they're going to have to pressure Roethlisberger and record some sacks. He is prone to throwing interceptions when he feels consistent pressure, so that will likely be Job One for the defensive front four.
The Steelers running game is going through something of a metamorphosis. For years, Willie Parker was the mainstay of the backfield, but he has suffered through injuries each of the last three years. In past seasons, the Steelers didn't have the backup runner to push Parker and potentially replace him, but in 2009 we may be witnessing a changing of the guard at the running back position. When Parker was injured in Week 3 against Cincinnati, he was replaced by Rashard Mendenhall – a second-year runner who missed most of his rookie season due to his own injuries. Mendenhall has taken over in Parker's absence, rushing 68 times for 349 yards and four touchdowns – a sparkling 5.1-yard rushing average. Parker's pre-injury average per carry was just 3.1 yards, which may explain why head coach Mike Tomlin announced earlier this week that, despite Parker being back and ready to play, Mendenhall will remain the starter. The Steelers have another valuable running back in former Viking Mewelde Moore. Made expendable by the Vikings when Adrian Peterson was drafted and Chester Taylor became the third-down back, Moore has excelled with the Steelers in that role. He has 14 receptions for 100 yards and has carried the ball 17 times for 57 yards in limited duty. He is always a threat coming out of the backfield and will have a lot of attention paid to him by the Vikings defense on third-down passing situations. Mendenhall is going to be the lead dog in the running game, but expect to see a solid mixing in of both Parker and Moore Sunday.
The Steelers receivers are about as solid and deep as they come in the NFL. The group is led by ageless wonder Hines Ward. In his 12th season, Ward is showing no signs of slowing down. He leads the NFL with 599 receiving yards and his 41 receptions tie for the league lead. He is joined by deep threat Santonio Holmes. Holmes is averaging almost 16 yards a catch and provides a deep threat that is hard for teams to handle without committing a safety over the top. With Antoine Winfield expected to miss Sunday's game, look for the Vikings to double Holmes as often as possible. The team suffered a blow when third receiver Nate Washington signed a big free-agent deal with Tennessee, but he has been replaced by rookie Mike Wallace. A third-round pick in April's draft, Wallace has shot past 2008 first-rounder Limas Sweed to become a productive third receiver. He has 18 catches for 296 yards – his 16.4-yard average per reception is tops on the team – and he has been a very pleasant surprise. Sweed has yet to live up to his great potential and, through six games, has just one catch for five yards.
The Vikings have struggled of late against tight ends and seeing Heath Miller can't be a happy prospect. The veteran TE is having a career year with 34 catches for 315 yards and a team-high four touchdown grabs. He has always been a favorite of Roethlisberger's and, while he doesn't stretch the field like a lot of the new breed of tight ends, he is a dependable receiver who catches just about everything thrown his way. He will require a lot of attention from the Vikings linebackers, especially in the red zone where he is at his most dangerous.
Up front, the Steelers have a veteran group that is still young enough that potentially it could be together for the next several years – an offensive coach's dream scenario. The biggest problem teams often face with offensive lines is that they, as a group, are either too young or too old. The Steelers seemingly have the perfect blend. At the tackles, they have six-year man Max Starks and fourth-year pro Willie Colon. At the guards, they have fifth-year players Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex and at center they have eight-year pro Justin Hartwig. While none of them are viewed as being among the best at their positions in the NFL, the sum is greater than the collection of parts. The team is averaging almost four yards per rush and Roethlisberger's success is self-explanatory. Depth is thin, so the line can ill-afford any injuries, but for a group that was viewed at this time last year as being the weak link of the entire roster, it has become one of the steadiest and, barring injury, could remain together well into the next decade.
While the Steelers offense has been making headlines, the backbone of the team and the reason for its steady and continued success over the years goes to its defense. From front to back, it is a strong group that has seen its share of Pro Bowl performers. Up front, they have a 3-4 defense that has set the standard over the last several years as to how a successful 3-4 should operate. In the middle, they have 325-pound road grader Casey Hampton. He routinely requires double-teaming and rarely allows opposing running backs to take carries straight up the middle with any success. For any 3-4 to be successful, having a mountainous man in the middle at nose tackle is a must and Hampton delivers. He is flanked by 13-year vet Travis Kirschke and eight-year man Brett Keisel. Kirschke is a solid pass rusher and run defender who does everything technically sound. Keisel is the guy to watch here. He is deployed in different settings as a pass rusher, run stopper and a lineman who can drop into coverage. Depth is solid as well, with nine-year veteran Chris Hoke backing up Hampton and first-round rookie Ziggy Hood brought in on passing down at right defensive end. Although they are getting a little long in the tooth, they are the front line of the defense that makes it all come together in Pittsburgh.
The linebackers are headed up by sixth-year man James Harrison. An undrafted free agent in 2004, Harrison was named Defensive MVP of the league in 2008. He leads the Steelers with six sacks and can be an overpowering presence – both as a tackler and a pass rusher. He is joined by fellow OLB LaMarr Woodley and inside ‘backers James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Woodley recorded 11½ sacks last year and had multiple sacks in all three playoff games a year ago. While he has yet to explode this season (he has just two sacks to date), he is becoming almost a mirror image of what Harrison accomplishes on the right side. In the middle, Farrior has lost a step as he plays in his 13th season, but has the veteran instincts that all great linebackers possess – which makes up for a lack of pure foot speed. Timmons is a former first-round pick in his third season and is projected to be the next in a long line of star linebackers to play for the Steelers. He has exceptional speed and is a strong blitzer – he is second on the team with three sacks. Depth is decent with former starter Keyaron Fox in the middle and fifth-year man Andre Frazier on the outside. This is an active group of linebackers that will be in charge of both containing Adrian Peterson and blitzing Brett Favre – a difficult two-fer they are confident that can achieve.
The Steelers secondary suffered a huge blow early in the season when perennial Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu was lost with a knee injury. A future Hall of Famer, Polamalu is as big a game-changer in the secondary as there is in the NFL. His penchant for big plays is legendary and he has the freedom to break off called assignments to freelance and make plays. He missed two days of practice this week, but took part fully Friday and is expected to be close to 100 percent when they meet, which isn't good news for the Vikings. In his absence, Polalmalu's safety position was manned by former Viking Tyrone Carter. An undersized safety, Carter has made many big plays for the Steelers, but still has a tendency to get burned over the top and bite on play action. He isn't asked to do as much because Polamalu roams so freely through the middle, but he has found a home in Pittsburgh after not cutting it in Minnesota. Carter will likely return to spot backup duty, as Polamalu joins fellow starter Ryan Clark in the middle secondary. Clark is an eight-year veteran who is a big hitter and was outstanding for almost all of the 2008 season and the early portion of this year. At the corners, Ike Taylor and Randall Gay are very solid. Taylor is good in man coverage, but isn't a ball hawk. He tends to slap balls away rather than trying to make an acrobatic interception and can be burned by speed players like Bernard Berrian over the top. Gay is in his third season and his first as a full-time starter. He has excellent coverage ability and recovery speed, but could get drawn in by a pump fake from Brett Favre, which could lead to a big play or two. Depth is solid with former starter Deshea Townsend as the nickel back in his 12th season.
There is a good reason why the Steelers have been Super Bowl champs twice in the last five years and still are viewed by some as the favorites to repeat this year. They don't have a lot of weaknesses and have star power players on both sides of the ball. If the Vikings are going to improve their record to 7-0, they will likely need to play a near-perfect game because the Steelers are a team capable of beating teams in a high-scoring shootout or a defensive-minded, low-scoring affair. If the Vikings are ready to make the next step into the NFL elite, winning at Heinz Field would be a giant leap in that regard. Few teams have done it in the past and, if the Vikings can, it may cement their image in the minds of many as being the team to beat in the NFC.
Preview: Steelers still tough and deep
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