The Vikings are in London this week preparing to host the Pittsburgh Steelers as part of the NFL’s International Series in a game that pits a pair of 0-3 teams against one another. Beginning the season with three consecutive losses is far from ideal, but opening with a 0-4 mark is the kind of hole most teams can’t escape. Which team will turn things around and record their first win of the season? Which team will head into the bye week with an extra bounce in their step?
Let’s take a look ahead at five things to watch this week that will help lead us to the answers as the Vikings prepare to face the Steelers in Week 4...
1. Dealing with distractions/pageantry of the International Series
It’s an honor to be chosen by the NFL to take part in the International Series. The NFL has been playing games internationally for decades (the Vikings played in the NFL’s first game in London back in 1983), but the current International Series games in London, which began back in 2007 when the NY Giants topped the Miami Dolphins, are a showcase for the NFL as it tries to expand its brand globally and reach fans in Europe. The Vikings and Steelers now take center stage in this series and also have a chance to expand their brand, reach their fans in Europe and enjoy life on the other side of the pond. But with this honor and pleasure comes burden and responsibility. Who can put the distractions and pageantry aside on Sunday? The Vikings arrived in London six days in advance of the game and will essentially replicate a normal game week about 45 minutes outside the city. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, will spend most of the week at home and will travel to London on Friday. It’s two completely different approaches by two teams who are looking to achieve the same outcome – notching their first win of the season.
2. Handling Pittsburgh’s aggressive 3-4 defense
While some of the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed over the years, the Steelers still come with that aggressive, blitz-heavy 3-4 defensive scheme. They are led by coordinator Dick LeBeau, who has a reputation for relentlessly bringing exotic blitzes and pressures that can confuse an offense. Pittsburgh’s use of safety Troy Polamalu this season is a great example of LeBeau’s style. Polamalu has lined up as an in-the-box defenders frequently this season along with playing centerfield from his safety position, and he’s also been known to lineup as the MIKE linebacker in some of Pittsburgh’s DB-heavy packages (dime). The Vikings saw a preview to some degree of this kind of defense last week with the Cleveland Browns – LeBeau disciple Ray Horton is their defensive coordinator. But nothing can prepare you for the real thing. LeBeau and his Steelers defense pose a unique challenge and it’s up to the Vikings offensive line and quarterback
3. Vikings pass rush/defense vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Only one team has more sacks than the Vikings 98 since the beginning of 2011 – Cincinnati with 102. But through three games in 2013, only two teams have fewer sacks than the Vikings four. So what’s been the problem? For starters, the Vikings have played a pair of teams – Detroit in Week 1 and Chicago in Week 2 – that aren’t allowing sacks to anybody, as the Lions rank first in sacks allowed (two) and the Bears ranks second (three). But this weekend’s game against the Steelers could be just what the Vikings pass rush needs to get going for the rest of the season. The Steelers have allowed 10 sacks through their first three games, which is sixth-most in the NFL, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is known for holding onto the ball an extra count or two to let his receivers work to get open. While Roethlisberger is also tough to bring down in the pocket, his penchant to hold onto the ball will give
4. Can the Vikings get
Adrian Peterson is the NFL’s reigning MVP, his 78-yard touchdown run in Week 1 remains the longest run in the NFL this season and his three rushing touchdowns lead the NFL. Even with all of that being true, something hasn’t quite clicked yet with the Vikings running game. At 4.1 yards per carry this season he’s well below his average of 5.0, he has just one 100-yard rushing game and last week against Cleveland his longest rush was nine yards. If the Vikings are to get the offense on track and ultimately pickup their first win of the season, you can be fairly certain a productive ground attack is going to be part of the equation. But you can also be certain the Steelers are going to be ready for Peterson. They are allowing 115.5 rushing yards per game, which is just 22nd in the NFL, but a more relevant number may be 3.33, which is the average yards per rush they’re allowing, and that number is sixth-best in the NFL. Since 2008, the Steelers rank first in rushing yards allowed (85.8 per game), yards per rush allowed (3.6) and rushing touchdowns allowed (39). Those numbers are impressive and LeBeau and his defense should be respected for their ability to stop the run, but those numbers don’t mean the Vikings can’t solve the Steelers scheme and be effective carrying the ball.
5. Vikings must keep an eye on Antonio Brown
The Steelers have a jack-of-all-trades type of player in Antonio Brown. He’s their best receiver and can hurt a defense catching passes and running with the football, but he’s also an electric returner. Brown is the type of player who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He had his breakout game of the season just last week against Chicago, hauling in nine receptions for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including as good a catch as you’ll see all season in the back corner of the end zone. For the season, Brown is first on the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (324) and receiving touchdowns (2), and he’s second on the team in targets (29). Also, Brown already has seven receptions of 20 yards, another indication of how explosive he can be. The Vikings defense must be aware of Brown on every snap – he can take a short pass and turn it into a long gain and he can run past a defense with vertical routes to bring in the long pass.
A few other notes…
-- Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin served as the Vikings Defensive Coordinator in 2006, a job that Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier assumed in 2007. Tomlin was a teammate of current Vikings Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams at William & Mary (1990-91).Tomlin played wide receiver while Williams played running back.