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The Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers meet at Wembley Stadium in London this weekend, as both teams seek to put an end to their miserable recent runs of form. Both teams came into the season confident of improving on their 2012 seasons, and despite being applauded for their offseason additions, they are both winless after three games, and will hope that a change of scenery in London can help turn around their poor starts to the season.
It is not unfair to say that Minnesota’s aspirations this season live and die with star running back Adrian Peterson, and when Peterson took off for a 78-yard touchdown on his first play of the 2013 season, things looked very promising in Minnesota. Unfortunately, Peterson has been restricted to just 203 yards on his 78 carries since, as teams’ specific game plans to stop last year’s MVP, seem to be working. If the Vikings had a top quarterback, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Christian Ponder has struggled so far this season, throwing just two touchdowns to five interceptions. Ponder needs to improve, and improve quickly, or his time as starter could be coming to an end in Minnesota, especially with some significant talent around him in the form of Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph, and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Minnesota’s struggles don’t end on offense either, with their defense struggling to contain teams, particularly in the passing game. Second year safety Harrison Smith’s form has been a cause for celebration in the Vikings’ secondary, but with their pass rush only managing four sacks in their first three games, opposing quarterbacks have had plenty of time to dissect the beleaguered Minnesota secondary. If the Vikings can get more from a defensive line which boasts the talents of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and first round pick Shariff Floyd, then their defensive frailties may begin to subside.
If anything, things are even more foreboding in Pittsburgh, as they struggle with many of the same issues as Minnesota, but also have to contend with a number of other problems. Despite a poor outing against Cleveland in their last game, the Vikings’ offensive line has been solid, if unspectacular, so far this season, but the same certainly can’t be the said for the Steelers. The Steelers have invested a lot in the likes of David DeCastro (first round pick), Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert (both second round picks), but they aren’t currently playing like it. The loss of center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending injury is a hammer blow to the Steelers, but these younger linemen need to step up, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggling for pass protection on almost every play, and it’s only due to his great pocket awareness that he hasn’t been sacked more.
Pittsburgh also have serious issues at the running back position, averaging just 51.7 rushing yards per game (31st in the NFL), something which seems alien when compared to the traditionally potent power running of the Steeler teams of old. Second round pick Le’Veon Bell could well be the answer to Pittsburgh’s struggles, but the rookie has been suffering from a foot injury, and was listed as questionable in the run up to Pittsburgh’s loss to Chicago. This weekend’s game in London could be Bell’s first game for the Steelers, but they will need him to perform like a seasoned veteran, rather than a rookie, if they want to pick up their first win of the season.
On paper, the Vikings should be favorites for the Wembley game. They have been competitive in all three of their losses so far, and were unlucky to not beat both Chicago and Cleveland in the last two weeks. The Steelers on the other hand have looked bereft of talent offensively in their games so far, and even the misfiring pass rush of the Vikings could have a successful night against Pittsburgh’s offensive line. The run defense of the Steelers has been formidable however, and if they can contain Peterson, then their chances of beating Minnesota increase dramatically. It would not be surprising to see Troy Polamalu assigned with hunting down Peterson on a consistent basis, and the battle between these two stars could be the deciding factor in the game.
Image credit: Minnesota Vikings via Facebook