Vikings-Steelers: Expect a thriller
Leaky fourth-quarter defenses, Favre and Big Ben promise nail-biting finish
Expect fourth-quarter fireworks in Sunday's classic meeting of the Minnesota Vikings (6-0) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) in Heinz Field, but expect it for more reasons than just the quarterbacks. Two of the league's most feared defenses have been surprisingly vulnerable in fourth quarters this season.
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The Vikings' defense has given up 54 points in fourth quarters, forcing Favre to scramble for victories as he did in Week 6 after Joe Flacco directed three Baltimore Ravens fourth-quarter touchdown drives. The Vikings remained unbeaten when Ravens kicker Steven Hauschka's final-play 44-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
The Steelers are tied with the Rams for most points allowed in fourth quarters. The Vikings are next. That's stunning.
Both teams are baffled as to why fourth quarters have been so bad. The Steelers had the league's top-ranked defense last season and the Vikings had the sixth. Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme is designed to punish teams in the fourth quarter by pressuring the quarterback. Critics point to the Steelers' recent disdain for running the ball, preferring to let Roethlisberger be the main focus of the offense.
Part of the Steelers' problem was the loss of safety Troy Polamalu, who hurt his knee in the season-opening victory over the Tennessee Titans. Polamalu is back, but the defensive line isn't as strong because of the season-ending loss of defensive end Aaron Smith, who needs rotator cuff surgery.
The Vikings might be more vulnerable to fourth-quarter comebacks this week. No one is optimistic that cornerback Antoine Winfield will be able to play after he suffered a foot injury against the Ravens. As soon as Winfield went to the sidelines, Flacco started to throw at his replacement, and at one point Benny Sapp, the team's third cornerback, was on the sidelines. Down two cornerbacks temporarily, the Vikings allowed Flacco to have a field day. Sapp should be available but don't count on Winfield, who hasn't been able to practice.
The fourth-quarter problems could be pointing to signs that age might be creeping into both defenses. For years, opponents have made concessions going into games against the Steelers and Vikings. The Steelers are built to stop the run first and then confuse quarterbacks with the zone blitz. The Vikings have Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, a wall of defensive tackle talent that forces teams to forgo the run.
Before the Vikings traded for Jared Allen to rush the passer, the Vikings would go into games knowing opponents would pass the ball 70 percent of the time or more, accepting that it was ridiculous to waste downs by trying to run the ball. This year, the Vikings are giving up 3.9 yards per carry. Compare that to 3.3 in 2008.
From the Steelers' point of view, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will feel free to throw against the Vikings. The backfield is in transition, with Rashard Mendenhall taking over for injured and aging Willie Parker. Thanks to Mendenhall's running of late, the Steelers have crept back into the middle of the pack in the run-to-pass ratio. Mendenhall is averaging 5.1 yards a carry and the Steelers have risen from near the bottom of the running percentages to 18th with 42.6 percent running plays.
Now on to the rest of this week's First and 10
1. Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys had a chance to rest and regroup during their bye week, but they seem to come out of the bye a little more fractured than before. Marion Barber has a fractured thumb. DeMarcus Ware has a fracture in his foot. Wide receiver Patrick Crayton has a fractured ego after finding out he was benched. It's going to be up to Tony Romo to bring this team together against a Falcons team that is playing at a high level and is thinking about Week 8's big showdown against the New Orleans Saints. There have been a lot of people reviewing the Roy E. Williams trade, which happened a year ago this week. The former Detroit Lion has only 30 catches for 412 yards in his 14 games as a Cowboy. He's back from a rib injury, but his numbers need to pick up dramatically as the team heads into the second half of the season.
3. Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants: When Kurt Warner left the Giants in 2004, it appeared he was heading toward being just a backup for the rest of his career, or possibly retirement. Warner never felt comfortable running what he thought was a conservative Tom Coughlin offense, but all Coughlin was doing was biding time until Eli Manning, a rookie in 2004, got ready to start. Of course, Giants players and even management weren't sure what they had in Coughlin. Warner re-established himself as a top quarterback after rising from the bench in Arizona, while Coughlin has earned accolades as one of the league's best coaches over the past several years. Warner and Coughlin might not hug each other on the field, but this is an interesting meeting of two large figures in the game who overcame tough odds to do so well.
4. New Orleans Saints at Miami Dolphins: In 2006, the Dolphins opted not to sign quarterback Drew Brees because of questions about his surgically repaired shoulder. All he's done for the Saints is go to two Pro Bowls, complete 1,319 passes for 15,310 yards and start 37 consecutive games in one of the league's most unstoppable offenses. Whoops. On Sunday, Brees can make the Dolphins feel even worse about their cautiousness if he surgically cuts up their defense. The Dolphins feel good about their young quarterback, Chad Henne, but their pass defense has been vulnerable to quick-throwing quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, and might have troubles in this one. Brees said it was better for him for go to New Orleans to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Plus, he didn't agree with former Dolphins coach Nick Saban about his shoulder recovery following the surgery.
5. San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans: The 49ers are a little bit of a surprise team at 3-2. Coming off a bye, they will have a different appearance on offense. Frank Gore will be back at halfback, trying to be the workhorse. Rookie Michael Crabtree will make the start at split end, trying to justify his holdout and to start earning the money the 49ers gave him. These next two road games will be defining for the 49ers, who have had difficulty on the road over the years. They face Matt Schaub of the Texans and Peyton Manning of the Colts over the next two Sundays, and they know Shaun Hill doesn't have the arm to get into a high-scoring game. They learned that before the bye when Matt Ryan burned their defense at home. Mike Singletary will do his best to give Gore as many carries as he can to eat up the clock and try to keep the Texans' offense off the field. If not, it could be a long day for the 49ers at Reliant Stadium.
6. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: Embattled Redskins coach Jim Zorn lost his play-calling duties in Week 6 for an offense averaging only 13.2 points a game. A low-scoring loss to the Eagles could cost him his job. As much as Dan Snyder doesn't want to make a coaching change, something has to get better for the Redskins. Sherm Lewis, calling bingo in a senior citizens' home less than a month ago, takes over the play-calling, with Jason Campbell, who was benched last week, barely hanging on to his starting job. A bye week follows this Monday night game, and bye weeks usually offer the opportunities for interim switches. The Eagles come to Washington after a horrible performance in Oakland, and Andy Reid's teams usually bounce back after bad performances.
7. New York Jets at Oakland Raiders: A year ago, an overtime loss to the Raiders in Oakland seriously damaged the Jets' playoff run. The setback dropped the Jets to 3-3. They battled back for a five-game winning streak after that loss, but for whatever reason, the Jets struggle in cross-country games. They lost winnable games against the Raiders, Seahawks and 49ers last season and can't afford to extend their current losing streak to four games. Rex Ryan will aim his blitzes at struggling Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell and hope to create some turnovers that will give Mark Sanchez the short field to produce scores.
9. San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: Coach Norv Turner has to try to dig the Chargers out of a deep hole. A victory over the Chiefs still would leave San Diego three games behind the idle Denver Broncos with 10 games to play; that is a seemingly impossible climb, because this Broncos team doesn't seem like one that will collapse in the second half of the season. Under new head coach Todd Haley, the Chiefs are gaining confidence after good performances against the Cowboys and Redskins. This is a dangerous game for the Chargers, but it is a must-win.
10. Green Bay Packers at Cleveland Browns: By midweek, the Browns had a dozen players at home with the flu. Even when they are healthy, the Browns have trouble matching up against good teams. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could make them even sicker with some of his pinpoint throws.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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