A few thoughts on the Week 7 game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Steelers took advantage of two defensive touchdowns to hand the Vikings their first loss 27-17.
*Playing without CB Antoine Winfield will really hurt the Vikings. They looked really vulnerable late in last week’s game against the Ravens, and this week the Steelers were able to find some holes in the secondary, especially to rookie Mike Wallace. Winfield’s absence is especially noticeable because the depth with Benny Sapp, Karl Paymah, and rookie Asher Allen is less than ideal.
*The Steelers are now a pass-first team, not a run-first team. They showed as much on a third-quarter possession where they got first-and-goal at the 8-yard line and tried two passes (along with a busted play). The next time the Steelers got an and-goal situation, Rashard Mendenhall fumbled on first down after diving to get over the 5-yard line, not the goal line. Ben Roethlisberger is having a great year, and that’s not just a benefit for the Steelers – it’s a necessity. They can’t win without him moving the ball via the air.
*Mendenhall has taken over as the Steelers’ running back, and that’s not really a good thing. Mendenhall’s straight-up running style isn’t ideal for inside runs, and he’s lacking as a blocker and a receiver. He’s just not a special back. He looked good on off-tackle runs and tosses against the Vikes but not so great on inside runs. His total of 69 yards on 10 carries shows that lack of consistency. The difference between Mendenhall and an elite back like Adrian Peterson is staggering. Even the old-school Steelers combo of Fast Willie Parker and the Bus Jerome Bettis offered much more than Mendenhall can at this point.
*While the Steelers are a pass-first team, the most special thing Vikings is Peterson. When he gets going, he can carry the team. Plus, he can run over guys, like he did with William Gay in the two-minute drill at the end of the game. He’s the X-factor that takes the Vikings from good to great. Brett Favre (aka Spanx) can’t carry the team, although he can help. But Favre needs to be the spice, not the entree. The fact that the Vikings threw twice on and-goal plays from the 1-yard-line in the third quarter (and had to settle for a field goal) is almost criminal. Then Favre’s fumble in the red zone in the fourth quarter led to Lamarr Woodley’s defensive touchdown. The Steelers’ second defensive TD by Keyaron Fox wasn’t Favre’s fault, but the first was.
*One of the most fascinating things about the game was Favre’s propensity to look for rookie Percy Harvin on third-down plays. He targeted Harvin on at least six third-down throws in the first half, and it paid off with a 28-yard gain that sparked the Vikes’ first scoring drive. That’s a vital role for a guy with just seven games of pro experience, but it speaks to how dangerous and prepared Harvin truly is. Harvin isn’t just a dangerous kickoff returner, as he showed with his second return TD of the season, he’s also an effective receiver.
*Wide receiver Bernard Berrian was a big-money signee by the Vikings just two offseasons ago, but he’s becoming less and less relevant in the offense. He had fallen behind Harvin and Sidney Rice in the receiving pecking order even before he suffered a first-half hamstring injury. The Vikings look to Berrian scheme-wise to try to get a big play out of him, and he’s capable of doing that, but they don’t appear to rely on him on conversion plays. That’s the role of a speciality player, not a stalwart. It’s not a coincidence that Rice had 11 catches for 136 yards, not to mention a touchdown that was called back, because Rice is the Vikings’ No. 1 wideout.
*Vikings DT Kevin Williams might be the most underrated defensive tackle in the league. We hear a lot about DE Jared Allen, who is a force, while we lump Kevin in with Pat as the Williams wall. Pat Williams is a big run-stuffer, but Kevin Williams is more than that. He’s a penetrator inside who can also make plays in space. Don’t sleep on him.
*On the other side of the ledger, it’s clear that S Troy Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ secondary special. When he was out, Pittsburgh looked vulnerable. But with Polamalu back in there, there’s suddenly fewer holes and more danger for opposing passing games. That’s the sign of an impact player.
*One young player who adds a lot to the Pittsburgh offense is rookie wideout Wallace, who had 91 total yards and a touchdown. Wallace has speed and he’s already proving to be dependable in big spots. It seems like he makes big plays every week, as he did twice in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. He’s an outstanding third receiver for Pittsburgh.
*Minnesota has two rookies playing prominent roles in Harvin and ORT Phil Loadholt, who is very appropriately named. Loadholt and Bryant McKinnie, his fellow tackle, take gigantic to another level. But the best player on the line is OLG Steve Hutchinson, whose false-start penalty in the fourth quarter was his first flag in 27 games. That’s consistency from a guy who’s also a great blocker for the run and the pass. No wonder the Vikings made him the highest-paid guard in the league.
Fantasy Football perspective
*While we don’t like Mendenhall’s running style, as long as he’s the starter he’s still a top-25 running back. He’s going to compile enough numbers to be a solid fantasy starter, but you can’t count on him to carry your team.
*Roethlisberger is a top-10 fantasy quarterback, while Favre is outside of that tier. Favre threw for 334 yards in this game, but that total was padded by two late drives in comeback mode. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger’s solid day was probably about as bad a fantasy day as he can have, and if that’s the case he’s a solid starter.
*What we’re seeing about Berrian’s role should be a big red flag to fantasy owners, even bigger than his injury in this game. At this point, I’d take both Rice and Harvin over Berrian in fantasy leagues – and that would be the case even if Berrian were healthy.
*For Pittsburgh, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes remain above Wallace in the fantasy pecking order, but Wallace is a top-40 wideout going forward. He’s a nice sleeper play, especially against a bad passing D or a defense who is missing a major player like the Vikings’ was. Ward didn’t have a big game in this one, while Holmes had 59 yards.
*We raved about TEs Heath Miller of Pittsburgh and Visanthe Shiancoe of Minnesota in this post last week. Even though neither had a huge game in this one, we stick by our recommendations of both to fantasy owners.