Vikings-Steelers Key Matchups

Posted Oct 23, 2009

Every Friday during the regular season, will look at 3 matchups that will help determine the outcome of the Vikings upcoming game.

QB Brett Favre vs. S Troy Polamalu

Polamalu is again dealing with a knee injury he suffered in Week 1 and aggravated last week against Cleveland, but assuming he plays, the Vikings offense, and specifically Favre, will have to account for Polamalu on a play-by-play basis.

Polamalu is one of the league’s best defenders, and his strengths include versatility and a nose for the football. In the 2 games he’s played this season, the 5-10, 207-pound safety has grabbed 2 INTs and has made a countless number of impressive defensive plays. He is aggressive in the run game, often times sneaking up near the line of scrimmage just before the snap and knifing into the backfield after the snap, and he possesses tremendous cover skills and ball skills.

Favre’s responsibility will be to identify Polamalu before every snap and discern what exactly Polamalu’s responsibilities will be on a given play. Once the QB has figured this out, he must make the appropriate adjustments (or not make any adjustment) so that the offense can overcome any tactic Polamalu might choose to execute.

T Bryant McKinnie vs. OLB James Harrison

All the talk surrounding Pittsburgh’s defense this week has centered on Polamalu, but the Steelers also have an All-Pro caliber LB in Harrison, who was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 after breaking the franchise’s single-season sack record with 16.0. He was also named to his 2nd straight Pro Bowl after last season and signed a 5-year contract extension this past offseason.

Harrison is another versatile defender who is adept at stopping the run and also at rushing the passer. At 6-0, 242 pounds, he might be a little undersized, but his production is anything but small. He was named the team’s MVP last year and he also returned an INT 100 yards in last year’s Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

It’s hard to believe, but Harrison originally joined the Steelers as a rookie free agent. He’s blossomed into one of the best defenders in the league. He’s a tricky player to block because of his size, but also because of his blend of pass-rushing moves and his mix of strength and quickness. He has the feet to dance around offensive lineman but also the strength and will power to bull through the offensive line and support the run defense.

McKinnie’s challenge will be to block Harrison, who most often lines up on the offense’s left side. On many plays, Harrison will be rushing the passer, and McKinnie is charged with protecting Favre’s blind side. On almost a play-by-play basis, McKinnie will have to determine what Harrison is doing, and how he’s going to do it. Is he dropping into coverage? Is he rushing the passer? And if he’s rushing the passer, will he utilize an inside move or an outside move?

Leslie Frazier vs. QB Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger is clearly Pittsburgh’s #1 offensive option, and assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is charged with finding a way to slow him down. Big Ben has a passer rating of 104.5, 4th best in the league, and he is affective because of his ability to move around and out of the pocket to buy time and find his receivers. This puts heavy pressure on the secondary because they are forced to cover a talented group of receivers for extended periods of time.

Frazier’s challenge manifests itself in that he must find a way to shrink the amount of time Roethlisberger has to make plays by increasing the intensity of the pass rush. Pittsburgh does allow a lot of sacks (16 in 6 games), but more important than bringing Big Ben down might be trying to take the ball away from him. Because of his size and strength, Roethlisberger is hard to tackle/sack, but if the Vikings can be aware of where they are in relation to the QB on a given pass rush, perhaps they can extend their arms/hands and try to knock the ball out of the QBs hands.

This is all easier said than done, however. Roethlisberger has just 1 lost fumble on the season.

Another element to this matchup is a tactic the Steelers may very well employ against the Vikings – the no huddle offense. Pittsburgh has used the no huddle extensively this season and it’s something Roethlisberger embraces. Though he’s limited by the personnel grouping in the game, Roethlisberger told reporters this week that he has complete control over the play calls when his team is in the no huddle. Additionally, the no huddle can be an advantage to the Steelers this week because it will force the Vikings to stick with their personnel grouping and won’t allow them to sub defensive linemen and members of the secondary to keep them fresh on a play-by-play basis.