It isn't a secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3) have struggled so far in the 2013 NFL regular season. In nearly every aspect, the Steelers have experienced execution errors that have been painfully costly. While a trip to Wembley Stadium in London, England, may be a nice change of pace as far as location goes, the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday is still a regular season game. And, the Steelers still need to go out onto the field and show that they can win a game regardless of the locale.
The Steelers have seen their biggest struggles on offense at this point in the season. With a young offensive line and new zone-blocking scheme during the running game being less than effective, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the running backs corps of Felix Jones, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Le'Veon Bell are facing a critical time. Without the necessary protection, Roethlisberger hasn't been as effective in 2013. Although he has continued to extend plays, offensive line miscues have given up 10 sacks for a loss of 72 yards. Roethlisberger was responsible for four turnovers (2 fumbles and 2 interceptions) against the Chicago Bears. The rushing game has only put up 155 yards. Pass protection breakdowns have limited receiving to 776 yards.
Leading up to Week 4 in the NFL, the Steelers have accumulated a mere 173 yards of offense with a 5.4 yard-per-play average. This has forced the Steelers defense to try to win games or at least get the offense back onto the field. With a rather one-sided offense, the defense has still been at a much lower production level in 2013. The Steelers have recorded only three sacks; Brett Keisel has one and LaMarr Woodley two. Pittsburgh has yet to garner any interceptions.
The Minnesota Vikings (0-3) have had struggles of their own. Starting quarterback Christian Ponder (ribs) will watch as former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel takes his place. Ponder has completed just 59-of-100 passes for two touchdowns, has been intercepted five times and sacked 10 times for a loss of 44 yards. In total offensive yards, the Vikings have 1,009 with a 196 plays and 5.1 yards-per-play average. Adrian Peterson, who had a remarkable return following a serious knee injury in 2012 has only carried the ball 69 times for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Ponder has had the second-most carries with 15 for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Cassel isn't as nimble-footed. The Vikings' leading receiver is Jerome Simpson with 12 catches for 218 yards and no touchdowns.
Defensively, the Vikings have been able to sack opposing quarterbacks four times for a loss and have forced four fumbles. Minnesota has been somewhat successful in their defensive backfield. Erin Henderson and Harrison Smith lead the team with two interceptions. Chad Greenway and Kevin Williams have one interception respectfully. In this list we will examine key matchups between the two teams and five keys to the Steelers walking away as victors and redeeming a season that has yet to prove it will be anything other than mediocre.
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Roethlisberger must lead and execute without mental errors
If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expects to lead the Steelers, both as a veteran and the game manager, he will have to take personal responsibility for his own errors. Four turnovers against the Chicago Bears turned a possible comeback into an utter disaster. Roethlisberger also needs to be a team player and have some faith, even if that includes rookie running back Le'Veon Bell.
Roethlisberger has thrown errant passes and some that could have been caught if they'd been placed in a position where his receivers could make a play. For the better part of the Steelers' first three games this season, he has appeared to be a bit off. That includes communication. To beat the Vikings, Roethlisberger needs to control himself and then execute the playbook. He cannot afford to allow frustration to turn into a ball and chain.
Ramon Foster must get offensive line to work together
Ramon Foster has stepped up both voluntarily and involuntarily to be the leader on a young offensive line. With Fernando Velasco in at center and holding steady, Foster needs to get David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert on the same page. Kelvin Beachum has filled in and shown that he can be effective as a blocker and it may prove that the Steelers have more faith in him than Gilbert at this point in the season.
While the zone-blocking scheme during the run was introduced for the first time (for the Steelers) during training camp, the offensive line has often allowed opposing defenses to get into their own backfield untouched. It has resulted in the Steelers shooting themselves in the foot. At this point, the offensive line must communicate and work together if they want to garner a victory against the Vikings.
Steelers receivers and rushers must execute and be efficient
The running game has been abysmal so far this season. 2013 draft choice Le'Veon Bell will be suited up and ready but has not seen playing time since the preseason due to a foot injury. Bell won't be carrying the load, however. Felix Jones currently leads the Steelers' rushing game with 17 carries for 71 yards. Jonathan Dwyer has returned to the team and appears to be trusted with the ball a bit more than Isaac Redman. The running backs have been expected to help with blocking on passing plays and have done a mediocre game. Overall, this squad needs to step up in a big way, and could, against a Vikings defense that hasn't done well stopping the run.
When Roethlisberger is in tough situation and trying to extend plays, the wide receivers have absolutely got to get open, even if that means breaking off of a route to do so. Before they do that, they need to stay on their routes. There have been quite a few plays that would have moved the chains and extended drives if receivers had made such moves. They will be working against a Minnesota defense that wants takeaways as much as any other team and will have to get physical and open. With the return of Heath Miller, the Steelers could use more action from their tight ends as well. David Paulson and David Johnson have been used in limited plays. This should be the week to get all three tight ends into a rhythm and rotation that maximizes play opportunities.
Steelers defense must stop the run more effectively
An atypical deficiency has shown up in an otherwise stingy Steelers defense – the inability to shut opposing running games down. This week is critical as Adrian Peterson will be looking for opportunities to break through the line and get a burst downfield where he is known to be hard to bring to the turf. While Peterson's numbers aren't league-leading, a big game from him could spell disaster. If the Steelers defense can keep Peterson contained, they will have more opportunities to turn their defensive backs, Troy Polamalu and a heavy-handed linebacker corps into the kind of machine that can break any opponent.
Elimination of penalties and turnovers of primary concern
The biggest setback overall for the Steelers have been turnovers. The Steelers have turned the ball over to their opponents in shocking fashion, giving the team a -9 ratio. Turnovers have also kept the Steelers from being able to manage the clock and time of possession. As for penalties, nearly all were mental mistakes plain and simple.
Elimination of these two areas should give the Steelers a better mental standing on the field of play. It will also help team morale as they dig down deep to get their first win of the 2013 NFL season.