Why We Won

Posted Sep 29, 2013

The Vikings and Steelers, two of the NFL’s storied franchises, met in the seventh International Series game on Sunday and played in front of a packed house at Wembley Stadium in London. The two teams put on quite a show, combining for 827 yards of offense and 61 points in a game that wasn’t decided until the final moments. The Vikings came away with a 34-27 victory, and will depart London on Monday morning with an extra bounce in their step as they enjoy an early bye before taking on the rest of their 2013 schedule.

So what went right for the Vikings in the victory? Here are a few ideas…

Big players made big plays
In a game they had to have, some of the Vikings biggest players came up huge. It starts with reigning MVP Adrian Peterson, who was relentless against the Steelers from beginning to end. He had 84 yards and one touchdown on nine carries in the 1st half, including one of the more impressive runs of his career in which he broke five tackles along the way to a 60-yard score. Peterson kept rolling in the 2nd half, rushing 14 more times for 56 yards and another score to bring his game total to 23 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

Three other stars who made their mark on the game were defensive end Jared Allen, linebacker Chad Greenway and wide receiver Greg Jennings. Allen had 2.5 sacks and a pass defensed, Greenway recorded his first career game with both an interception and a sack (he also had 10 tackles), and Jennings caught two touchdowns. Jennings’ first score was a sensational play in which he caught a short pass on 3rd and 4 and darted through the Pittsburgh defense and sprinted between the hashmarks to outrace several defenders to the goal line.

There were many other individual performances worth noting, from backup quarterback Matt Cassel to defensive end Everson Griffen to wide receiver Jerome Simpson. But in a game like this on a stage like that, the biggest key may have been the Vikings biggest starts coming up huge.

Tough in the trenches
It was a high-scoring, flashy game played on a grand stage at London’s Wembley Stadium, but the tempo of this game was set by the boys who spend their time out of the limelight and inside the trenches, and it was set by the Vikings on both sides of the ball.

This was the best performance the Vikings offensive line has authored in 2013, as they paved the way for Peterson to average 6.1 yards per rush and score twice on the ground. Additionally, the offensive line allowed just one sack and no other quarterback hits, providing Cassel with a clean pocket for much of the night, and Steelers defensive lineman accounted for just six of the team’s 41 tackles.

The Vikings defensive line pestered Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all night, sacking him five times and knocking him to the ground on at least another five occasions. Allen dominated his matchup with Pittsburgh left tackle Mike Adams all night and had 2.5 sacks to show for it. Others who got in on the mix vs. Roethlisberger were Greenway (1.0 sack), Griffen (1.0) and Sharrif Floyd (.5). The last sack may have been the most important, as Griffen got to Roethlisberger and forced him to fumble on a 3rd and 6 play from the Minnesota 6 with the Vikings leading by seven and just :19 to play in the game. Kevin Williams recovered the fumble to end the game and send the Steelers home with the loss. In addition to quarterback pressure, the Vikings defensive line imposed its will against Pittsburgh by allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt.

Solid play from the QB
A rib injury to Christian Ponder opened the door for Cassel to get his first start with the Vikings, and the nine-year veteran capitalized on the opportunity by preparing well all week and then displaying complete command of the offense on the field during the game. Cassel completed his first two passes to Simpson for 13 and 9 yards (there was a 4-yard Peterson run in between the two completions), leading to a Blair Walsh field goal to give the Vikings an early 3-0 lead, and then on the next drive he hit Simpson again for 6 yards on 1st down and then connected with Jennings for the 70-yard pitch and catch two plays later. The second touchdown from Cassel to Jennings was a thing of beauty, as Cassel dropped back with perfect footwork, stepped up into a clean pocket and threw the ball on a frozen rope to Jennings in the back of the end zone after the veteran receiver turned his defender inside out on an outside-in shoulder fake post route.

For the day, Cassel was 16 of 25 for 248 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions and just one sack. Simpson was his favorite target with seven receptions and 124 yards on 11 targets, and for the night Cassel found seven different receivers, averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, had a passer rating of 123.4 and was generally smart with the ball and technically sound. That type of play from the quarterback position, particularly the early production Cassel generated, makes Peterson and the Vikings ground game even more lethal.

It’s cliché to point to turnovers when analyzing or predicting a game, and it’s not always accurate, either. In fact, the Vikings have won the turnover battle the last two weeks and lost both games. But on Sunday, this variable finally lined up properly for the Vikings, as they were 2 in the turnover battle and won the game. The Vikings didn’t turn the ball over once, thus they didn’t give the Steelers offense many short fields.

The first turnover of the game was Greenway’s interception in the 3rd quarter. The Vikings took over on the Pittsburgh 37 and scored in two plays, finding the end zone on the Cassel-to-Jennings laser I described above. The second turnover clinched the win for the Vikings, as Griffen closed in on Roethlisberger and jarred the ball loose to end the Steelers hopes of scoring the game-tying touchdown.