Coming in, it looked like a nightmare situation for the NFL trying to showcase their product in London with a matchup between two winless teams not exactly providing an interesting buildup to yesterday’s game. The Vikings and Steelers, to their credit, put on an extremely entertaining and competitive display that included a thrilling ending with the Steelers coming up just short.
The Vikings took the early lead and never relinquished it (though Pittsburgh got close at times) and now improve to 1-3 on the season, while the Steelers fell to 0-4 and are probably out of it, though none of the three other AFC North teams are doing much to distance themselves.
Let’s take a look at how it happened with some eye-catching performances on both sides.
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
Allen Too Much for Adams
If there’s one matchup that the Vikings really took advantage of, it was Jared Allen against left tackle Mike Adams (-4.1). The second-year player was no match for the veteran DRE, especially with the motivation of Allen being all but shut out a week ago against the Browns. Adams was made to look like a turnstile for much of the game, as he surrendered two sacks, two hits, and a hurry to Allen – and had to hold to prevent another pressure in the second quarter. It’s tough to pick out just one play, but take a look at 11:47 of the second quarter, where Adams looked completely inept trying to get his hands on the Viking, who turned the corner for an easy sack of Ben Roethlisberger, setting the Steelers back in a 3rd-and-long situation.
At this point left tackle is definitely a concern for the Steelers, with Adams now at -9.7 on the season, having given up 22 combined QB disruptions, and landing among our lowest-graded tackles. It’s no surprise that Roethlisberger has faced pressure on close to 40% of his drop backs, one of the highest figures in the NFL.
Bright Spots at TE
Despite averaging an underwhelming 3.7 yards per carry rushing as a team, the Steelers still showed some impressive blocking at the point of attack, particularly by their tight ends Heath Miller and David Johnson (+3.7). After a rough 2012 campaign run blocking, Miller has looked back to form in his first two games this season, and against Minnesota he executed a number of successful down blocks and seals inside. His teammate, though, was the standout of the two and amassed the team’s highest overall grade despite playing just 24 snaps. Johnson didn’t make any spectacular blocks, but without a single negative play, he was relentless taking Viking defenders inside on the Steeler outside runs – 12 of their 21 attempts went off tackle or to the edge – even if the runs didn’t often go for much. He was particularly effective against ends Allen and Brian Robison, besting both several times, and a big reason each graded at -1.6 against the run.
Tough Day for LBs
One of the NFL’s most prominent position groups over the last decade has been the Steeler linebackers, but these days they aren’t making nearly as much noise. They were quiet again in this game, as they’d been through the team’s 0-3 start. On the outside, the trio of Jason Worilds, Lamarr Woodley, and Jarvis Jones combined for just one QB disruption, though only Jones rushed the passer on more than 13 snaps (16). Given that the Vikings also released the ball quickly with a lot of short routes when they did throw the ball, the one sack between the three OLBs doesn’t look quite as bad.
It was worse on the inside, with Vince Williams grading out incredibly poorly at -4.3, almost all of it coming from his 24 snaps in run defense. He was as culpable as anyone on the defense in allowing Adrian Peterson to average 6.1 yards per carry, too often failing to get off blocks. His play on Peterson’s 60-yard touchdown run (12:52, 2Q) was awful, as he was never blocked, but rather took himself out of the play getting stuck inside. Williams also didn’t help himself on the few plays where he was in position with two missed tackles, including at 8:36 of the third quarter, when he missed the RB in the hole, allowing the Vikings to convert on a 3rd-and-1 inside the red zone.
Minnesota – Three Performances of Note
On paper, completing two-thirds of his passes for two touchdowns and a 128.5 QB rating, while leading his team to its first win on the season, seems like a good day for Matt Cassel. However, as his -3.2 grade suggests, he was far from perfect and, in fact, wasn’t terribly different than what we’ve seen from Christian Ponder – for instance, both players have an average depth of target of roughly 9.0 yards. Cassel did make a few really impressive throws, such as on his third quarter touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on a post. At other times, though, the Steelers let him get away with some poor decisions, including a pair of balls that could have (and perhaps should have) been picked by Ike Taylor. One of these came on the first drive of the game, when he missed long on a 9-route in the end zone, and was saved only by Cordarrelle Patterson’s last-second pass defense. On the other (0:39, Q1) he made a dangerous (and probably predetermined) throw that allowed Taylor to break on an in-route deep in Viking territory and could have resulted in a pick-six. Losing the ball late in the first half didn’t help either in a grading system that isn’t too kind to fumbles.
It will be interesting whether the Vikings stick with Cassel going forward; he didn’t make an overwhelming claim for the starting job based on his performance in London, though leading the team to its first win can’t be understated. He also avoided the costly turnovers (luckily) that have plagued Ponder early on. One striking difference between the two was how quickly Cassel got rid of the ball, with an average time to attempt of 2.18 seconds. This helped minimize pressure as the Steeler rush got to him on just three of 27 drop backs. Conversely, Ponder’s average time to attempt of 2.59 has led to him seeing pressure on 38.5% of drop backs.
Help From his Receivers
Much of the reason the Vikings were able to come out of their trip to London with a win was the performance of their wideouts Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings. Simpson saw the bulk of the work, as his 11 targets were more than three times that of any other player. On those plays he came away with seven catches for 124, including an impressive play at 10:31 of the third, when he got open over the middle and gained 51 yards on an in-route. He did drop a would-be first down early in the game, but definitely made up for it – he ended with a ridiculous 5.9 Yards per Route Run. Simpson hasn’t lived up to his draft position, and has had some other off-field issues, but so far this season he looks to be turning it around with a +5.5 grade to this point.
On the other side, Jennings wasn’t looked at as often with three catches, but was extremely effective when Cassel did go his way. He took his first catch – one that traveled just seven yards in the air – for a 70-yard touchdown, going the distance with a couple of good cuts and some poor play by the Steeler secondary, including a missed tackle from Cortez Allen, who had primary coverage on the play. Jennings also found the end zone on a third quarter post, which put the Vikings up for good.
Robinson Struggles in the Slot
Cornerback Josh Robinson clocked in with his second straight game graded at -3.0 or worse, this time at an abysmal -6.2. The Steelers certainly looked at him as someone who could be exploited, which they did in targeting Robinson 14 times, with 12 of them caught for 126 yards. Given a long catch of 36 yards, he wasn’t beaten that far downfield, but just allowed Pittsburgh to convert and move the chains far too easily, with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders having particular success against the second-year player. A defensive pass interference penalty didn’t help; neither did a missed tackle of Brown on a relatively short route in the fourth quarter. He struggled in run defense as well, losing outside contain being the primary offense. Now at -9.4 on the season after playing all but four of Minnesota’s defensive snaps, Robinson is giving the team reason to make a change in how they defend the slot.
– Ben Roethlisberger attempted just two of his 44 aimed passes to the left side of the field outside of the numbers.
– Another strong game from Antonio Brown, who caught all 12 targets and with a +9.7 on the season, is our highest-graded receiver (through the first eight Week 4 games graded).
– The Vikings missed eight tackles, while the Steelers whiffed on 17.
PFF Game Ball
Though he wasn’t mentioned, Phil Loadholt (+3.9) had an outstanding game with a clean sheet in pass protection and a positive performance at the point of attack.
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