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NFL Preview - Minnesota (6-0) at Pittsburgh (4-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A previous glance at this weekend's game between the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field would have likely conjured up images of a defensive onslaught.
Mental pictures of the Vikings' Jared Allen stuffing repeated attempts by the Steelers to run the ball alongside defensive lineman Pat and Kevin Williams would probably have burst to the brain in the Twin Cities.
On the other side, fans of the Black and Gold would be painting portraits of Troy Polamalu grabbing passes out of midair, and only if James Harrison and James Farrior hadn't blown the play up in the backfield first.
But in the NFL, things hardly go as expected. That's why when the Steelers and Vikings get together on Sunday, offensive firepower could be aplenty on the field.
Minnesota's offense was already expected to be dangerous this year, thanks to running back Adrian Peterson. However, it has been quarterback Brett Favre that has helped take the Vikings to the next level.
Captain Comeback was at it again this past weekend versus Baltimore. The Vikings at one point led 27-10 in the game, but the Ravens climbed back to take a 31-30 lead when running back Ray Rice shredded through Minnesota's defense with a 33-yard touchdown run with 3:37 to go.
However, Favre wasted little time answering. He hit wide receiver Sidney Rice for a 58-yard reception on the ensuing drive, helping to set up Ryan Longwell's go-ahead 31-yard field goal with 1:56 remaining. That gave Minnesota a 33-31 victory after Baltimore kicker Steven Hauschka missed his late field goal try wide.
NFC North-leading Minnesota is now off to its first 6-0 start since 2003, having won seven in a row dating back to last season and 15 of its last 18 regular-season games. The Vikings haven't begun a season 7-0 since 2000, when they parlayed that beginning into an 11-5 record and NFC Championship Game appearance.
The Vikings rank second in the NFL in red zone offense, notching a touchdown on 65.2 percent of their visits. However, they face the team right behind them in the Steelers, who have posted a TD in 65 percent of their drives that go inside the 20-yard line.
Pittsburgh, which puts a seven-game home winning streak on the line this weekend, posted a season-high 543 yards of offense in a 27-14 win over Cleveland last Sunday.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards, the second-highest total of his career, while wideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes both went over 100 yards receiving. It marked the second time in club history that had happened, and first since Tommy Maddox did so with Plaxico Burress and Ward on November 10, 2002.
The victory improved the Steelers to 4-2 on the season, moving them into a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals for first place in the AFC North.
Minnesota has a 8-6 lead in its all-time series with Pittsburgh, but has lost its last two meetings with the Steelers. The Vikings were 18-3 home losers when the clubs last faced off, in 2005, and dropped a 21-16 decision in their most recent trip to Pittsburgh in 2001. Minnesota's most recent victory in the series took place in 1995, at Three Rivers Stadium.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, a 16-6 Pittsburgh win in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans.
The Vikings' Brad Childress and Steelers' Mike Tomlin will be meeting each other as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches. Tomlin served as defensive coordinator on Childress' Minnesota staff in 2006.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Favre (1347 passing yards, 12 TD, 2 INT) continues to be a calming influence under center for Minnesota, which is second in the NFL in points per game (31.5) and has scored at least 27 points in all six contests in 2009. He is third in the NFL with a 109.5 passer rating and is also tied for third in touchdown passes. Favre, who is 6-0 for the first time in his career, threw for 278 yards versus Baltimore to go along with a trio of touchdown strikes, including two to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and also did not throw an interception for the fourth time in six games. Shiancoe (17 receptions, 5 TD), meanwhile, has now caught a touchdown in four of his last five games. Rice (23 receptions, 2 TD) had a career day, making six catches for a career-best 176 yards. Peterson continues to be a force in the backfield, as he leads the NFL with 624 rushing yards and is first in the conference with seven touchdowns on the ground. He has never before faced the Steelers, but he did post 143 yards on 22 carries versus the Ravens, good for a 6.5 average per carry. Minnesota did allow three sacks versus Baltimore despite the return of tackle Phil Loadholt from an ankle injury.
The Steelers and their third-ranked defense (275.2 yards per game) hope to force Favre, who has thrown 312 career interceptions, into some mistakes. If so, Polamalu (10 tackles) will be waiting to strike. The safety has two interceptions in two games this year, as he returned from a four-game absence due to a knee injury to pick off a pass versus Cleveland, one of four turnovers the Steelers forced in the game. Pittsburgh held the Browns to just 197 yards of offense and 12 first downs. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons (22 tackles, 3 sacks) had both Pittsburgh sacks, two forced fumbles and five tackles total, while corner Ike Taylor (24 tackles) made a team-high six stops. Harrison (34 tackles, 6 sacks) and defensive end Brett Keisel (22 tackles) both recovered fumbles in the game. Pittsburgh should present a tough challenge for the Vikings, as the Steelers are third in the NFL with 17 sacks and second against the run (74.5 ypg). Harrison is tied for fourth in the NFL in individual sacks.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh continues to compliment its tough-nosed defense with an offense that ranks second in throwing the ball (296.7 ypg). That is a bit of a surprise, given the Steelers' history of being a run-first team. However, Roethlisberger (1887 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) leads the NFL in passing yards and is second in yards per game through the air (314.5). Ward (41 receptions, 2 TD) continues to show that he isn't past his prime yet, as the 33-year-old is tied for the league lead in receptions and is first overall with 599 receiving yards. Ward ended with a game-high eight catches for 159 yards with a score versus the Browns, while Holmes had 104 yards on five catches. Tight end Heath Miller (34 receptions, 4 TD) added five receptions for 80 yards and a score, his third-straight game with a touchdown. Pittsburgh's run game ranks 15th in the NFL at 107.0 yards per game and is going through a youth movement thanks to the promotion of second-year back Rashard Mendenhall. Despite the return of Willie Parker from a two-game absence due to a toe injury, Mendenhall (349 rushing yards, 4 TD) held onto the starting job versus Cleveland and ran for 62 yards with a touchdown on 17 carries. Roethlisberger was sacked three times by Cleveland and has been brought down 16 times on the season.
Roethlisberger may see an opportunity to air it out, as Vikings corner Antoine Winfield suffered a sprained right foot in the second quarter versus Baltimore. Minnesota's defense struggled without Winfield, allowing the Ravens to pass for 367 yards. Despite being tied for the league lead with 21 team sacks, the Vikings are just 24th in the NFL against the pass (248.3 ypg). Minnesota totaled three sacks versus the Ravens, getting a pair out of defensive tackle Kevin Williams (15 tackles, 4 sacks) and one by Allen (27 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks). Allen is third in the NFL in sacks, while Williams leads all NFL defensive tackles in that category. Linebacker Chad Greenway (35 tackles, 2 INT) led the team with 10 tackles versus the Ravens, with corner Cedric Griffin (36 tackles, 2 INT) adding nine. Allen had seven tackles in the victory. Minnesota will be aiming to shut down Pittsburgh's young running back, as it is ninth versus the run (93.5 ypg) after holding the Ravens to 81 yards rushing. The Vikings haven't allowed a 100-yard back in 29 straight games and are tied for second in the NFL with a plus-eight turnover margin.
Both Minnesota and Pittsburgh's shift towards offense makes this an interesting game in the realm of fantasy. Peterson is of course a must-start, even with this tough matchup, while Favre and Rice deserve looks this weekend as well. Shiancoe's rapid touchdown rate also makes him a good start. The Vikings defense has been shaky as of late and is not worth a start, especially if Winfield is unable to play.
Roethlisberger has been one of the top-producing quarterbacks this season and is line for solid numbers again. His production makes Ward, Holmes and Miller all worthy of looks as well. Pittsburgh's defense could be avoided if better options are available, though the club might be able to force some turnovers if it can get to Favre.
The Vikings are coming off one of their biggest scares of the season, showing a bit of vulnerability, and haven't been putting opponents away week after week like Saints, Colts and Broncos. Despite New England's recent 16-0 run, one has to remember just how hard it is to win each and every week in the NFL. Minnesota's run is likely to end at some time, and what better opponent to hand the Vikings their first loss than the defending champion Steelers, who are home, a bit better on defense and are staring at a bye week following this contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 23, Vikings 17
10/22 17:11:21 ET