NFC North: 2013 Week 4 PIT at MIN

Vikings' pass rush shows up in big way

September, 29, 2013
LONDON -- In their first three games, the Minnesota Vikings' defense has been vexed by quarterbacks who were often able to get rid of the ball quickly, either by dumping it off to a running back (Detroit's Matthew Stafford), finding holes in the Vikings' porous pass coverage (Cleveland's Brian Hoyer) or both (Chicago's Jay Cutler).

The Vikings had only nine sacks in three games, despite pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 43 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That was the 10th-best total in the league, but it only left the Vikings tied for 14th in sacks. A team that is at its best with pressure from its front four wasn't taking quartebacks down enough to protect the rest of its defense from looking vulnerable, and in their past two games, the Vikings were left stunned by quarterbacks who engineered last-minute comebacks.

That Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- who has led 25 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, including one in Super Bowl XLIII -- wasn't able to pull the Pittsburgh Steelers even on Sunday night reflects mostly on the Vikings' defensive line. The group had four of the team's five sacks, including the final one from Everson Griffen that forced a game-sealing fumble, and harassed Roethlisberger throughout a game where the Steelers were forced to throw the ball 51 times.

Roethlisberger threw for 382 yards on Sunday night, burning cornerback Josh Robinson for large chunks of it, but he also threw 18 times in the fourth quarter as the Steelers tried to erase a 17-point deficit. The Vikings' pass rush helped create that deficit by getting to Roethlisberger enough early in the game to thwart the Steelers' drives.

"We kind of say when the rush and coverage matches up, that's when you make plays," safety Harrison Smith said. "The rush was there all night long. Still got to shore some things up on the back end, but ultimately it was enough to win."

The Vikings have major reasons to be concerned with their secondary, especially with Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford out on Sunday night. Both could be back after the bye, but Roethlisberger picked on Robinson all night, and A.J. Jefferson has also struggled in coverage this season.

But Jared Allen devoured Steelers left tackle Mike Adams, and fought through some of the double-teams Pittsburgh started throwing at him later in the game. Sharrif Floyd shared a sack with Allen. Greenway got another one on a linebacker blitz, and Griffen, who hadn't had one in three games after entering the season with high expectations, made the biggest play of the game.

After the Vikings' offense had played it safe on third down and cost themselves the chance to put an opponent away for the third week in a row, Frazier turned to his defense. Fittingly enough, when Minnesota was reeling again, its pass rush was what had the last word.

"Our defense went out and did a great job," Frazier said. "I just did not believe that we were going to lose that game, even though we looked precarious at times."
CasselKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMatt Cassell was 7-of-10 against eight-man fronts, capitalizing on Pittsburgh's focus on Adrian Peterson.
LONDON -- For as much as the Minnesota Vikings talked about the inconvenience of giving up a home game to play in Wembley Stadium -- and as sour as they were about a 4,000-mile flight across the Atlantic after back-to-back last-minute collapses -- it was startling just how comfortable the Vikings looked on Sunday evening in London.

They got much of the support from the Brits in attendance, who joined with some 3,000 fans who bought tickets from the Vikings to drown out a hearty Steelers contingent that arrived with Terrible Towels in tow. The Vikings surged through a tunnel display built specifically for this game, with Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" blasting like it always does at Mall of America Field. And for the first time this season, they adhered to the formula that worked so well for them during last season's surprising playoff run, with Adrian Peterson romping for 140 yards and the defensive line surging to protect an early lead, sacking Ben Roethlisberger four times and covering up for some of the considerable holes in the Vikings' secondary.

Though caveats must be issued for a performance that came against a dreadful Pittsburgh Steelers team, which nearly became the third team in as many weeks to score a last-minute TD against Minnesota, the Vikings looked for stretches like the team that went 10-6 last season. What was most striking was how seamlessly Matt Cassel fit into all that.

Cassel didn't officially find out he was starting against Pittsburgh until Friday, when Christian Ponder was ruled out with a broken rib, but it had looked increasingly obvious throughout the week that he would get the start against the Steelers. And in reality, things might have been building toward this for longer than that.

The Vikings signed Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million deal in March to give themselves a veteran backup should anything happen to Ponder, but the move also provided some insurance if the third-year quarterback continued to be as ineffective as he was in the middle eight games of last season. Ponder threw five interceptions in the first three games -- poison to a team that didn't win a game where it lost the turnover battle last year -- and again looked too tentative to drive the ball into tight coverage and give his receivers a chance to make something happen.

Cassel did that on Sunday. Jerome Simpson's 51-yard catch in the second quarter began with a 17-yard strike from Cassel into the middle of the Steelers' defense on second-and-11, which allowed Simpson to catch the ball between two layers of the Steelers' defense and race upfield. Cassel made a quick, decisive throw on a hitch route to Greg Jennings in the first quarter, and Jennings did what he'd done so many times in Green Bay, turning away from a Steelers defender and stretching a 5-yard throw into a 70-yard touchdown. Cassel's 16-yard strike to Jennings for another touchdown came after he pumped twice, stood in the pocket and threw a dart to the receiver in front of Cortez Allen.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Matt DunhamAdrian Peterson was one of the Vikings players who talked about Matt Cassel's confidence in the huddle.
And then there's this: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cassel went 7-for-10 against eight-man fronts, throwing for 77 yards and a touchdown. Ponder has a 58.1 career completion percentage against those fronts, and has never hit more than six throws in a game. The Steelers put eight men in the box more than any other team the Vikings have faced this season, and Cassel did what Ponder has often struggled to do: He took advantage of the matchups Peterson affords the Vikings' quarterback, and helped the Vikings generate an offense that looked surprisingly balanced.

Coach Leslie Frazier did his best to defuse a quarterback controversy before the Vikings' bye week, first saying, "If you're asking, our quarterback is Christian Ponder," before adding the coaching staff would "talk about a lot of things" during the bye and saying if he made a declaration now, he'd be betraying his normal, measured evaluation process in favor of a snap judgment born out of relief over a badly needed win.

"I don't know what I would base it on [now] other than what I've seen with the naked eye," Frazier said. "I'd have to look at the tape, look at our football team and then come back and evaluate what we need to do to come back a better team. That's what I base it on. I think it would be premature for me to say anything other than what I'm saying now."

The coach will have to consider how many players -- from Jennings to Simpson to Peterson -- talked about what a confident, commanding presence Cassel had in the huddle. He will have to weigh the fact that the Vikings' top two receivers had 216 yards and two TDs on Sunday after no Vikings receiver had scored all season. And he will have to weigh what it would mean to take the starting job away from a third-year quarterback the Vikings drafted 12th overall in 2011, believing they could rebuild their franchise around Ponder after their two-year run with Brett Favre ended in shambles.

Ponder seemed to grasp what Cassel's night could mean for him, saying "I have to pick up my play. That decision's out of my hands," and adding Cassel "played a tremendous game." And Simpson thought the performance could make Ponder "even hungrier to come back and be a better quarterback.

"He'll learn from it, and he sees somebody else coming into his position. I think it'll put even more fire up under him."

As well as Cassel played on Sunday night, though, it might not matter. The Vikings need wins, both to rescue their season and possibly to save Frazier's job, and while they've had other issues play into their three losses this season, Sunday was the first time they could legitimately talk about their quarterback play as something other than a liability.

Cassel has certainly had his issues -- he was benched and lost his own job last November in Kansas City -- but at least on Sunday, he was exactly what the Vikings needed. That might be enough to keep him in the middle of their plans for a while.

LONDON -- My thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings 34-27 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Wembley Stadium.

What it means: In short, the Vikings' season isn't over. They're 1-3 headed into their bye week, and where an 0-4 record would have killed their season, a win at least gives them a little life headed into their bye week. The game might have also prompted a quarterback change (more on that in a minute) after Matt Cassel led the Vikings to victory and the defense managed not to blow a late lead for the third week in a row.

Stock watch: Rising -- Cassel. In his first start for the Vikings, Cassel did more than fill in admirably for Christian Ponder, who missed the game with a rib injury. He might have made the Vikings think seriously about making a permanent switch at the position once they return from their bye week. Cassel hit 16 of his 25 throws for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He had the confidence to pull the trigger on throws over the middle that Ponder has been loath to attempt. He turned Greg Jennings into a factor, letting the receiver run after the catch on a quick throw that Jennings turned into a 70-yard touchdown. And Cassel was sacked once a week after the Cleveland Browns took Ponder down six times.

Peterson breaks out: Adrian Peterson had his best game of the season, romping for a 60-yard touchdown in the second quarter and gaining 140 yards to go with a pair of TDs. He looked more comfortable with Jerome Felton back, and Peterson got a key block from quarterback-turned-receiver Joe Webb, of all people, on the touchdown run. Peterson also helped the Vikings get an early lead, which was so important to the team in its 10-6 season last year.

Front four hassles Roethlisberger: The Vikings' pass rush had its best game of the season, with Jared Allen getting two sacks of his own and sharing a third with Sharrif Floyd, and Chad Greenway notching one on a blitz. Minnesota's depleted secondary had issues before injuries to Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford, and Josh Robinson struggled at times on Sunday, but the Vikings' defense has always been about their pass rush getting enough pressure to mask any issues behind them. They were able to do that on Sunday, and with the Vikings in danger of allowing a last-minute touchdown for the third week in a row, Everson Griffen and Greenway sacked Ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble that Kevin Williams recovered.

What's next: The Vikings get an early bye week after their long week in London before returning to Mall of America Field on Oct. 13 to take on the Carolina Panthers.