NFC North: Charlie Batch
|Ben Roethlisberger and the defending champion Steelers will take on Brett Favre and the undefeated Vikings in Week 7.|
As one of just four undefeated teams, the Minnesota Vikings (6-0) can make a claim as arguably the best team in football.
As defending Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) can also claim they’re the team to beat until someone else holds the Lombardi trophy.
So which team has the advantage when the Vikings meet the Steelers Sunday in Heinz Field?
ESPN.com’s AFC North blogger James Walker and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert debate the most important storylines in this high-profile matchup.
Which quarterback is more important to his team: Minnesota’s Brett Favre or Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger?
Seifert: Favre has already made a huge difference in at least two victories this season. Without his heroics, I think the Vikings lose to San Francisco (Sept. 27) and last week against Baltimore. Other than Favre and receiver Percy Harvin, the Vikings in essence are fielding the same team they had last year. Through six games in 2008, the Vikings were 3-3. I don’t know if a quarterback can have a bigger impact than doubling a team’s win total through six games. Roethlisberger is the cornerstone of the Steelers, but I like their chances with backup Charlie Batch better than the Vikings’ with backup Tarvaris Jackson.
Walker: Last I recall the Vikings were a playoff team in 2008 without Favre, and Jackson was their starting quarterback for the final four games, including the postseason. Favre is a luxury in Minnesota. At 40, he’s is not even the best player on his own offense. That award goes to tailback Adrian Peterson -- the real engine behind the Vikings. Without a doubt Roethlisberger means more to his team. At 27, Big Ben already has twice as many rings (two) as Favre (one), and Roethlisberger is just entering the prime of his career. He’s 55-22 (71.4 percent) as a starter and kept the Steelers afloat when Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu missed four games with a knee injury. But both deserve to be near the top of the MVP conversation. So look for the winning quarterback to make a huge push in that race as we approach the midpoint of the season.
Which defense is more likely to dominate?
Seifert: We’re not exactly at a high point for Minnesota’s defense right now. I’m pretty sure the Steelers will be scouring the tape of last week’s game against Baltimore, which rolled for 302 offensive yards IN THE SECOND HALF. The Ravens scored 21 points in less than five minutes of the fourth quarter and seemed to expose the Vikings’ pass defense. Most of that damage came after Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield left the game with a sprained foot. It’s difficult to replace a No. 1 cornerback, but can the loss of one player really decimate a defense that thoroughly? I like the Steelers’ chances of getting pressure against Favre more than the Vikings’ ability to cope with Winfield’s injury status.
Walker: I like the physicality of both defenses. But with home-field advantage, Winfield’s status uncertain and the return of Polamalu, the advantage goes to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the NFL’s third-ranked defense, and that’s with Polamalu missing four games. Now everyone on Pittsburgh’s defense can revert back to their normal roles. Minnesota’s defense is underachieving this year at No. 18. Pittsburgh will be the toughest defense the Vikings have faced so far. The Steelers have the talent to match up with Minnesota’s offense and keep the game manageable. But with four turnovers last week, Pittsburgh's biggest concern should be taking care of the football and not giving the Vikings a short field.
|Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI|
|Adrian Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher, has had his best games against AFC North teams this season.|
Seifert: You have to point out that two of the NFL’s four highest-rated quarterbacks are playing in this game. You have to give credit to any receiver, Pittsburgh’s Santonio Holmes included, who has made a Super Bowl-winning catch. But this game will feature a fascinating matchup between the NFL’s leading rusher (Minnesota's Peterson ) and its second-best rush defense (Pittsburgh). Peterson made quick work of the Ravens last week, rushing for 143 yards. But the Steelers are allowing only 74.5 rushing yards per game, and have given up only one rushing touchdown all year. If anyone can slice through the Steelers, it’s Peterson. But it will be a challenge.
Walker: With 10 combined wins, you can’t help but have a lot of playmakers in this game. For me, it’s a close race between Peterson and Roethlisberger. I believe these two players will most determine the outcome of Sunday's game. Peterson had his two biggest performances this season -- a combined 323 rushing yards -- against AFC North teams in the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Usually the Steelers have success against big, physical backs, but Peterson is special. If he runs wild Sunday, Minnesota has the advantage. On the flip side, Roethlisberger is just as capable -- and perhaps more capable -- of putting up numbers similar to Joe Flacco's (385 yards) last week. So I like Roethlisberger’s chances of controlling the game more, especially with Minnesota hurting at cornerback.
Brad Childress and Mike Tomlin, former colleagues in Minnesota, usually rely on defense and power running. Whose roots will show more clearly in this game?
Seifert: My guess is that Childress would love to follow his roots, relying on Peterson and the defense to win it. But as we’ve discussed above, this game doesn’t seem to set up that way. Whether he likes it or not, Childress is going to have to rely on Favre and the passing game in its most significant test yet this season. This year’s version of the Steelers doesn’t seem to get beat by the running game, and the Vikings' defense might not be suited to take on the pass-happy Steelers. This isn’t likely to be a Childress-like game.
Walker: This is an interesting question, because I think one of Tomlin’s biggest strengths is the ability to be fluid during games. Tomlin is a defensive coach, but he’s not afraid to let Roethlisberger chuck it 35 to 40 times if necessary. Tomlin’s also not afraid to go for it on fourth down at times most coaches would not. Tomlin rarely coaches tight, and the same cannot be said for Childress, who tightened up last week in the fourth quarter against Baltimore. But it’s hard to argue with Childress’ 6-0 record. I think this game will see a little bit of everything, not just smashmouth football and good defense.
Sean of St. Paul is one of several readers who is surprised by; (A) Chicago's apparent lack of interest in pursuing a veteran backup quarterback and; (B) that Byron Leftwich hasn't received any interest -- from the Bears or elsewhere:
I think Byron Leftwich is a good quarterback with lots of years left in him. While he's had some ups and downs, he would be a quality quarterback to have on any team. Why haven't the Bears pursued him at this point?
It's surprising to see Leftwich sitting idle while the likes of Dan Orlovsky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, J.T. O'Sullivan and others have signed new contracts. (And Leftwich is not the only one: See the charts for this month's transactions and non-transactions.)
But when you look at it, there are at least three distinct market timings for free agent quarterbacks.
The first is just as free agency begins, when teams looking for a new starter scramble for the one or two top-tier quarterbacks available. (See: Matt Cassel.) Then there is a market for players who are strictly backups and would not challenge the team's established starter. (See: Orlovsky, Fitzpatrick and O'Sullivan.)
Then it starts getting interesting. The quarterbacks remaining on the market now must decide how long they're willing to wait. Typically, the market expands a bit late in the spring and into the summer when a handful of teams' plans change -- or are changed. Some grow dissatisfied with their depth chart after offseason workouts. Others experience an injury early in training camp or in the preseason.
Leftwich has bounced around since Jacksonville released him, but he adjusted quickly to Pittsburgh's system after joining the Steelers late in training camp last year. Waiting until the summer can be nerve-wracking, but ultimately it can put the player in better position either to get on the field or otherwise play a significant role in the upcoming season.
I don't have an explanation for why no team has pursued Leftwich to this point. Are they concerned he won't view himself as a compliant backup in the way Orlovsky, Fitzpatrick and others would? Possibly. It also should be noted that the Steelers haven't re-signed the other candidate to back up Ben Roethlisberger in 2009, Charlie Batch. At this point, Leftwich's most fruitful route might be patience.
As for the Bears, coach Lovie Smith said last month that he felt comfortable entering training camp with Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez competing for the No. 2 job behind Kyle Orton. Smith might have a different opinion after minicamp next week, or possibly after the April draft. But as long as there is a glut of free agents available, there isn't a huge urgency for the Bears to get a veteran backup onto their roster.
The only downside arises in a diminished span of offseason work. A quarterback who joins his team after minicamp and Organized Training Activities faces a steeper learning curve when training camp opens. But is that challenge worth rushing into a contract agreement for either side? I don't think so.