DC Alan Williams (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
The Vikings have far more problems than just their quarterback play, and the Steelers have numerous issues as well. The statistical warts show why these two teams are a combined 0-6.
Last week when the Vikings met the Cleveland Browns, there was a sense of desperation in the Browns that manifested itself on the field. Pulling off both a fake field goal and a fake punt that led to 10 points that proved to be the difference in the game, the Browns made no bones about the fact that they were a team willing to pull out all the stops and fire all the low-caliber bullets in order to come away with an improbable win.
As the 0-3 Vikings prepare to meet the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, can we expect some of the same from them? They are two proud franchises with a lot of history between them, but both have fallen on hard times and it is extremely unrealistic to imagine that a team that starts a season 0-4 would make the playoffs. The Vikings may have tipped that hand by announcing that Matt Cassel will start on Sunday while Christian Ponder nurses injured ribs. But why are the two teams a combined 0-6?
The truth is out there. You just have to find the critical reasons. Here are some of them.
WHY IS PITTSBURGH 0-3?
They keep losing games by larger and larger margins. The Steelers have lost all three of their games by seven or more points – by seven at home to Tennessee, by 10 at Cincinnati and by 17 at home against Chicago.
They’re getting beat early. Pittsburgh has just five points in the first quarter – two of those coming when former Viking Darius Reynaud botched the opening kickoff of the season and kneeled down for a touchback. They’ve been outscored 24-5 in the first quarter, digging early holes for themselves that have negated their home-field advantage in two of their first three games.
They’re getting beat late. In the fourth quarter of games, they’ve been outscored 22-10. Considering how often they have been behind in games, you would expect that number to be better because, if nothing else, they would be getting some garbage points late. That’s not happening.
Turnovers. The Steelers have coughed up the ball a whopping 10 times in three games (five interceptions and five lost fumbles). As shocking as that stat is, what puts it into more perspective is that the Steelers have yet to create a single turnover. When you play with such a turnover disparity, the chances of winning drop to almost nothing.
Time of possession. The Steelers are averaging a 7½-minute time of possession disparity, averaging holding the ball for just 26:16, while opponents have the ball for 33:44.
Third down. One of the most consistent stats from one year to the next is that teams convert third down at an average of between 38 and 40 percent. It’s uncanny how consistent those numbers are from week to week and year to year. The Steelers are converting just 27.8 percent of third downs, which ends too many drives too early.
Running the ball. The Steelers have run the ball just 52 times in three games, averaging just three yards a carry, which puts them in bad third-down situations. For a team that has made a power rushing game a staple of the offense, it is lacking and so are the wins that accompany it.
WHY IS MINNESOTA 0-3?
Third-down defense. The Vikings have allowed opponents to convert 45 percent of third-down chances (18 of 40). What makes that number so troubling is that Chicago converted three third downs in their final drive with no timeouts to win in Week 2, and Cleveland converted a critical third down in their game-winning touchdown drive. Allowing opponents to continue drives when the defense has a chance to get off the field is too much to make up for.
Yardage. The Vikings are averaging 336 yards a game, which isn’t that bad. But the defense is allowing 430 yards a game, which is brutal.
Fourth-quarter scoring. Through the first three quarters of their games, the Vikings have scored 72 points and allowed 75 points. In the fourth quarter, the Vikings and their opponents have both scored three times. The Vikings have scored three field goals. Their opponents have scored three touchdowns. Three points doesn’t get it done when you have a chance to close out a game.
Running the ball. For a team that admits it is a run-first offense, on the first carry of the season, Adrian Peterson rumbled for a 78-yard touchdown. In the 86 carries since, the team has rushed for 284 yards – just a 3.3-yard average.
Cornerback play. Chris Cook has been a big injury, and he won’t play Sunday because of his groin, but the cornerbacks haven’t been making plays. The Vikings have six interceptions – three by linebackers, two by safety Harrison Smith, one by defensive tackle Kevin Williams and none by their cornerbacks.
Kickoff returns. Blair Walsh is known for bombing kickoffs for touchbacks. In the seven times when a kickoff has been returned, opponents are averaging 41.3 yards per return.
Offensive line play. Not only have the Vikings struggled in the running game, the team has surrendered 10 sacks, which would be higher if Christian Ponder didn’t have such good scrambling ability. At this rate, Vikings QBs will be sacked 53 times this season – a number far too high for a team expecting to win.
Passer rating. One of Ponder’s strengths has been his efficiency with the ball. He doesn’t post Drew Brees or Peyton Manning numbers, but, when he’s at his best, he doesn’t turn the ball over and posts a solid passer rating. Through three games, his passer rating is a dismal 65.9, which has him near the bottom of the league.
When you break down some of the key numbers that go into determining the strengths and weaknesses of a team, they can provide insight as to why a team is winning or why they’re losing. Given the numbers that we’ve detailed here, is it any wonder the Vikings and Steelers are battling to avoid going 0-4?
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.