Tomorrow the afternoon tea party begins with the crumpets and scones, but will you sip on your tea and watch the Vikings record their first win of the 2013 season? Daniel House serves all the "tea party" essentials in his latest game preview.
The Vikings arrived in London late Monday night and have spent the week in the UK preparing for a matchup at Wembley Stadium with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both the Steelers and the Vikings will head into Sunday winless, which wasn't the international showcase that the NFL was hoping for when they scheduled this meeting last year. Still, both teams seem to have a great international following and enough talent to make this an interesting game. The Steelers enter the week four with a ton of adversity after three losses to start the season. Week one the Steelers picked up a 16-9 loss versus Jake Locker and the Tennessee Titans. Week two brought Pittsburgh on the road to Cincinnati where the Bengals sprinted forward with a 20-10 victory. Finally, week three provided the Steelers with a home Sunday night matchup against the Chicago Bears in which they were blown away 40-23. The Vikings announced Christian Ponder will miss Sunday's game and Matt Cassel will see the start, which provides another interesting storyline, as we outline in this post. Furthermore, both of these teams are facing must-win situations, which will add a sense of urgency to this London matchup. How do the Vikings separate themselves and win in London?
Television: CBS (Channel 4 in Minneapolis)
Play-by-Play: Jim Nantz Analyst: Phil Simms
KFAN-FM 100.3/KTCN-AM 1130
Play-by-Play: Paul Allen Analyst: Pete Bercich
Sideline Reporter: Greg Coleman/Ben Leber
Pre-Game Show: Mike Mussman -10:00 a.m. CT
The Vikings and Steelers will meet in the 7th matchup of the NFL International Series. The Vikings have a deep history in London and played the first game ever in the city of London during a preseason matchup with the St. Louis Rams in 1983. In addition, the Vikings took part in the first NFL game played in Sweden, squaring off with the Chicago Bears during the 1988 season. The Vikings have split the all-time series with each team winning 8 of the 16 games played. The last time the Vikings and Steelers met was on 10/25/09, in which Pittsburgh won 27-17. This will be head coach Leslie Frazier's first matchup with the Steelers as a head coach in the league. A win would provide the Vikings their first win over the Steelers since 9/24/95. Furthermore, a win would provide the team with their fifth consecutive win heading into a bye week; a steak dating back to 2009. It would mark the second longest active streak in the NFL (New Orleans).
The Primary Focus:
The Vikings announced Friday that Christian Ponder suffered a fractured rib and will miss Sunday's game in London versus the Steelers. Many Vikings fans have been yearning for the moment to see backup quarterback Matt Cassel in action. Cassel spent four seasons in New England and Kansas City and this could arguably be his last chance to become a starter in this league. Cassel squares off with an aging Steelers defense who ranks 28th in rushing yards allowed and has forced zero takeaways this season. This is Matt Cassel's opportunity to solidify himself as the quarterback of this team and given the next 6 games are against opponents all under .500, this could be the perfect opportunity for a switch. Matt Cassel has a dynamic arsenal of receivers and needs to show he can develop continuity with his pass catchers. The offensive front will need to protect well and provide Cassel with opportunities to make the throws necessary to win the game. The Vikings offensive line has zero excuses to not block well against a Steelers front seven that has recorded just 3 sacks this season. I'm anticipating the debut of fullback Jerome Felton to effect the Vikings running game in a very positive way. Adrian Peterson is averaging under four yards per carry and the hope is that Felton can provide Peterson with the lanes to return to his 2012 form. Finally, tomorrow we will have our first opportunity to witness whether the offense was simplified for Ponder or if Musgrave is truly the instigator of the Vikings offensive woes. If Cassel can play well, lead the team with more urgency, and more importantly provide the team with a win, there is no doubt he could be the starter for the remainder of the season.
On the Defensive:
Despite being second in total takeaways behind the Bears and first in the NFL in INT's with six, the Vikings defense has failed to bend and not break. The fourth quarter has been an absolute disaster and the group has ripped at the seams in the final two minutes during consecutive games. Given the offense hasn't produced as well as anticipated, this could contribute to the Vikings defensive woes, but it still isn't a valid excuse. The defense faces a Steelers team who leads the AFC with nine giveaways including four INT's and five fumbles lost. Pittsburgh's offensive line has struggled all season and only four QB's have been sacked more than Ben Roethlisberger. The Vikings need more production from the defensive line, which will in turn provide the secondary with more stability. In fact, the secondary could be rolling with three cornerbacks tomorrow, which is a dangerous proposition. A.J. Jefferson has an ankle injury and Chris Cook has been ruled out as he deals with a nagging groin injury. This rests more playing time on the shoulders of Marcus Sherels, Josh Robinson, and rookie Xavier Rhodes. Big Ben will definitely be looking to exploit weaknesses among the Vikings secondary and considering the injuries exploding within the group, this could be dangerous. Roethlisberger and the Steelers will add another weapon as rookie running back Le'Veon Bell returns to the field after missing the first three games of the year with a foot injury. Bell was drafted in the second round and is expected to upgrade the Steelers rushing attack which is currently ranked 31st. Overall, the Vikings defense needs to explode to the scene early, create turnovers, and convert on sacks frequently on Sunday.
Special Teams Primer:
The kick coverage team played much better last week, but need to continue this trend into a critical game. Jeff Locke has been punting very well and has been displaying great hang time and loft on his coffin corner kicks. Field position will be key for a Vikings defense that has struggled against the pass this season. Furthermore, Blair Walsh is a perfect six of six this season and continues to be dynamite from 50 yards and beyond. The Vikings offense has converted in the red zone with touchdowns at a 50% clip, providing Walsh with plenty of attempts this season. The Vikings offense needs to do a better job in the red zone, but if Walsh is awarded an opportunity, we know he will convert.
Injury Report (via NFL.com):
|Name||Position||Injury||Practice Status||Game Status|
|Brett Keisel||DE||Hamstring||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Le'Veon Bell||RB||Foot||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Cortez Allen||CB||Ankle||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Heath Miller||TE||Knee||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Steve McLendon||DT||Hamstring||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Kevin Williams||DT||Knee||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Chris Cook||CB||Groin||Did Not Participate In Practice||Out|
|Christian Ponder||QB||Rib||Did Not Participate In Practice||Out|
|Erin Henderson||LB||Heel||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Adrian Peterson||RB||--||Limited Participation in Practice||--|
|Rhett Ellison||TE||Knee||Did Not Participate In Practice||Out|
|Matt Asiata||RB||Hamstring||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|Jamarca Sanford||S||Hamstring||Did Not Participate In Practice||Out|
|Cullen Loeffler||LS||Neck||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
|A.J. Jefferson||CB||Ankle||Full Participation in Practice||Probable|
The notable injuries include Ponder, Jefferson, and Cook as I referenced early in the post. In addition, Rhett Ellison will miss his second straight game with a knee injury. Jamarca Sanford will miss the game with a hamstring injury which bothered him late in last week's game.
From a Steelers standpoint, there are no major injuries and their roster is primarily healthy for the time being.
The Final Keys to Victory:
As I discussed earlier, the Vikings need Cassel to make the throws necessary to win, the secondary needs to play well despite injuries, and the pass rush needs to improve or the Vikings will fall into a deeper hole. Tomorrow I will be waiting to see how the Vikings perform with Cassel at the helm and whether Bill Musgrave is at the foot of the offensive woes. Through this experiment, we will finally develop a better understanding about Musgrave's offensive system and if Ponder truly is the only problem. One thing is certain, the next six games will be critical for the Vikings and will dictate whether the 2013 season is over before it starts. Next week the team hits the bye week, providing the team a chance to get healthy if they can escape with a "bloody" win in London.