It's a game matching two teams off to disastrous 0-3 starts.
It's been well documented in the Twin Cities this week—and probably in the other five cities where their NFL teams are off to winless starts—that no team has started 0-3 and made the playoffs in 15 years.
And while that onerous note has led to much teeth-gnashing in Minnesota, a win over the Steelers would do wonders for the team's psyche as it heads into its bye week.
Vikings starting quarterback Christian Ponder's status for Sunday's game remains up in the air as of Thursday afternoon, but as Chip Scoggins reports on the Star-Tribune's website, Ponder felt much better at Thursday's practice, after suffering a rib injury against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.
It's been a baffling start to the 2013 season for the Vikings, who had high expectations after 2012's surprising 10-6 season that ended with a playoff berth.
Minnesota opened with two frustrating road losses at Detroit and Chicago. Both games were winnable in the fourth quarter, but the Vikings couldn't come up with enough plays on either side of the ball to get the job done.
Week 3 brought the Cleveland Browns to town for Minnesota's home opener. It was a game the Vikings had to win to generate any sort of confidence about the 2013 season. If you can't beat the sorry Cleveland Browns, who'd just traded away their top skill-position player and were starting their third-string quarterback, well, you'd be in a heap of trouble.
The Vikings lost.
So what happens now?
The Vikings and Steelers will play Sunday in a game that will give one team at least momentary solace. The loser? Well, its fanbase may just want its team to stay on the other side of the pond.
Here we take a look at some key matchups to watch in Sunday's game.
Christian Ponder vs. Troy Polamalu
It's getting harder and harder for the Vikings' coaches and front office to stand behind their starting quarterback and have anyone take them seriously.
But they continue to do so—at least for now—and their crutch following the Browns debacle was that the entire team was so bad that you couldn't just lay the blame on Ponder.
That's true enough, but Ponder continues to be the main reason the Vikings are playing awful football. Getting criticized for poor individual and team play is part and parcel of the job as an NFL quarterback. Ponder continues to play at a level that warrants him getting the lion's share of the blame.
We've often been told that year three is the season at which point it's justified to judge an NFL quarterback—that if he isn't showing improvement by then, it might not happen.
The numbers say Ponder isn't getting any better: His passer rating for his career is 75.8. Through three games in 2013, it's 65.9. His total QBR for his career is 43.0; in 2013, it's 43.1. To paraphrase Denny Green's infamous postgame rant, Christian Ponder just might be who we thought he was.
The numbers aside, Ponder continues to fail the eyeball test. He's just not a very good passer.
Yes, the offensive line has been terrible through three weeks, and Ponder's performance has suffered because of poor protection, but there is just too much mounting evidence that Ponder isn't consistent enough to be a solid NFL quarterback.
Completions to Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson against the Browns were poor throws. Wright was wide open over the middle with room to run, but he had to dive just to secure the reception. Patterson got loose on a deep route but had to wait for the ball and make the catch down by his feet.
More damning were crucial misses on throws to Joe Webb and Greg Jennings. Webb was a full step clear of his defender in the end zone, and Ponder simply overthrew him. Webb got his fingers on the ball, but couldn't pull it in. It would have been a great catch but better touch from Ponder would have resulted in a TD.
The final dagger for the Minnesota QB came late in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-4 from the Vikings' own 20. A first down would give the Vikings the ball for at least three more plays, eat some clock and, should they eventually have to punt, provide better field position for the Minnesota defense. Greg Jennings got open on a simple seven-yard out, and Ponder missed him so badly that Jennings didn't even make an effort to catch the ball.
After the game, Ponder was quoted as saying the following in the Star-Tribune:
We’ll have to see [what happened] on film...I don’t know. I kind of changed my throwing angle a little bit and I just missed him. That’s typically a ball I can complete 99 out of 100 times. Unfortunately, that was the one miss.
If you've watched Ponder during his career, you don't need to see the film to know what happened. He threw a terrible pass. Unfortunately, he doesn't come anywhere near to completing it 99 out of 100 times.
In one of his posts this week, ESPN's Mike Sando quoted a seasoned NFL personnel evaluator who gave a none-too-favorable assessment of Ponder's abilities:
The thing that is unique about him...is he is not really football smart or instinctive or the position even though he is intelligent. He does things that make you just shake your head...If you had interviewed 15 personnel people when Ponder finished his final college season, they would have told you he'd come in and be a No. 2 for a few years, and then maybe he'd develop into a solid player.
Is Ponder taking too much heat for the Vikings 0-3 start? Probably. But again, that comes with the territory. And the truth is that the NFL now is such a passer's league that good quarterback play can cover up a lot of other warts.
While a good quarterback can help you conceal other flaws, a bad one only reveals them.
Sunday brings perhaps another opportunity for Ponder to show some progress. His sore ribs could also provide the opportunity for the Vikings to give backup quarterback Matt Cassel a look without completely bailing on Ponder.
Polamalu leads a Steelers defense that has yet to force a takeaway in three games.
It'll have an opportunity in Week 4.
Jerome Felton vs. Lawrence Timmons
So how much of Adrian Peterson's (relatively) slow start was due to missing his blocking back, Jerome Felton, for three games? We'll get a glimpse of an answer against the Steelers, as Felton returns to the field following a three-game suspension.
The Vikings offensive line has perhaps been the most disappointing unit on the team so far (although the special teams would give them a run for their money).
Peterson has had very few holes to attack and has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry since his 78-yard touchdown scamper on his first carry of the season.
The good news is that Peterson averaged nearly two full yards more per carry with Felton on the field in 2012. The bruising fullback attacks holes and usually eliminates the first man in Peterson's way. The Vikings are obviously hopeful that Felton's return to the lineup spurs the running game toward its 2012 form.
Timmons highlights what is always a formidable linebacking group for the Steelers. Playing on the inside, his 22 tackles rank second on the Pittsburgh defense. Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has also made an immediate impact for the Steelers, racking up 15 tackles on the season, two for losses.
Felton will have more than one encounter with Timmons on Sunday, and his ability to tie up the active linebacker will have a direct impact on how much room Peterson has to run.
Vikings Cornerbacks vs. Antonio Brown
It's a wounded group of cornerbacks that the Vikings bring to London. Both starter Chris Cook and backup A.J. Jefferson have been held out of practice so far this week. Cook is nursing a sore groin, and Jefferson is dealing with an ankle issue.
Starting safety Jamarca Sanford is also questionable for Sunday with a sore hamstring.
At any rate, whoever lines up on the corners for the Vikings, be it Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels or one of the injured players, they'll have their hands full with Steelers speedster Antonio Brown.
Brown blew up against the Chicago Bears (a team with excellent corners) in Week 3 with nine catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns. His 324 receiving yards rank fourth in the NFL.
The Vikings had more than they could handle with Cleveland's Josh Gordon last week, and while Brown isn't the big, physical receiver Gordon is, he's a burner who will have the Vikings on their heels.
The Steelers' rushing offense has been terrible so far in three games, ranking 31st in the league, and while Pittsburgh will get its first look at rookie back Le'Veon Bell, he's a power runner—the kind of back the Vikings normally shut down.
If Bell can't get Pittsburgh's ground game untracked, the Steelers will go to the air, where they rank 10th in the league in passing yards and will be going up against a Vikings' defense that ranks 28th against the pass.
Look for the Steelers to throw often against a suspect and injured group of Viking cornerbacks.
Each week provides another chapter in every NFL season, and Sunday is an opportunity for one of these two teams to get things going in the right direction. The playoffs are a long shot for either, but both teams want to avoid a dreaded 0-4 start and the prospects of a very dismal season.
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