Know the NFC North: Week 4

Michael Steele

A roundup of how the old "Black and Blue Division" fared in Week 4 of the 2013 Season.

NFC North Standings

Detroit Lions: 3-1

Chicago Bears: 3-1

Green Bay Packers: 1-2

Minnesota Vikings: 1-3

It feels good to have a new team on top of the division standings. The NFC North roundup is a bit sparse this week, as the Packers were on a bye and I'll leave the Bears recap to the rest of POD's coverage. That leaves us with the cellar dwellers:

Minnesota Vikings

Last week: 34-27 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Wembley Stadium

Do we have a quarterback controversy brewing in the Great White North? When it became apparent that Christian Ponder was not going to be able to play this week, the Vikings' coaching staff admitted that Matt Cassel had a legitimate shot at competing for the starting quarterback role, but that he would have to play nearly perfect to supplant Ponder. Did he do that? No. But, he did play pretty well... compared to Ponder.

The biggest difference I saw was Cassel's ability to stretch the field. While Ponder's 6.9 yards per attempt average is among the lowest in the league, Cassel averaged 9.9 yards per attempt on Sunday. However, not everyone is convinced that Cassel is an upgrade. Pro Football Focus handed Cassel a -3.7 grade, primarily based on a few "should have been" interceptions, and viewed his performance as comparable to Ponder.

I have a really hard time determining if this game means the Vikings have some life left in them or if the Steelers are really bad enough to deserve a 0-4 start. On Sunday, the Vikings jumped out to an early lead thanks to a huge run-after-catch touchdown reception by Greg Jennings and a 60-yard Adrian Peterson touchdown run. From the second quarter on, the Vikings offense primarily consisted of Peterson and conservative throws by Cassel as the Vikings fended off a late Steelers rally in the fourth quarter.

The biggest factor in the Vikings' victory was their relentless pass rush. On the day, the Vikings pass rush exploited a weak Steelers offensive line to rack up 5 sacks and 5 more quarterback hits against Big Ben. Roethlisberger is notoriously hard to actually bring down given his size, but that was no problem for the Vikings on Sunday. The biggest play in the game occurred with under a minute left in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers on the Vikings' 6-yard line down by 7. Roethlisberger dropped back, but hesitated in the collapsing pocket long enough for defensive end Everson Griffen to bring him down and force a fumble to seal the game.

Highlights:

Jared Allen - After only "roping" 1 sack in his first three games, Allen got to Roethlisberger 2.5 times on Sunday. In addition, he also chipped in a pass defense, 3 quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss. As mentioned, the entire Vikings pass rush was effective on Sunday, but Allen led the way.

Play calling - Last week I criticized the Vikings' play calling by putting the game in Ponder's inconsistent hands rather than giving the ball to Peterson. Against the Steelers, the Vikings did just that and their offense was extremely balanced with 25 passing attempts and 23 Peterson runs. I'm still not sold that everything is a-okay with Peterson given that his average was once again bloated by one long run (take away that one run and he averaged 3.63 yards per carry), but he is certainly a better option than Ponder or Cassel.

Lowlights:

Pass defense - While it's true that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an average day at best, that was due mainly to the Vikings' relentless pass rush and less on the play of the Vikings' secondary. Pro Football Focus singled out slot cornerback Josh Robinson in particular as having a rough afternoon and gave him a grade of -5.7. A full third of Roethlisberger's production came at Robinson's expense, as he gave up 12 catches and 126 yards on 14 targets.

Third down efficiency - The Vikings' defense struggled to get off the field by allowing the Steelers to convert 8 of 15 third-down conversions. Unfortunately for the Vikings, this is a season-long trend, as the defense ranks third worst in the league by allowing 47 percent of third-down conversions on the year. The Viking offense is mildly effective on third downs, and roughly kept with their average of 39 percent conversions on Sunday by converting 4 of 11 opportunities. An interesting note for reference is that the Lions offense is currently converting only 30 percent of third downs, which is at the bottom of the league.

Next week: Bye

Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler's face here pretty much sums up the Lions-Bears matchup last week. As the saying goes, a GIF is worth a thousand words:

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Next week: At home against the New Orleans Saints (4-0)

Green Bay Packers

Last week: Bye

Next week: At home against the Detroit Lions (3-1)

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