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Cassel gets the call in London as Vikings take on Steelers

If selling American football across the pond was your goal, you probably wouldn't have wanted a pair of 0-3 teams representing the product, but that's where the NFL finds itself.

The hapless Minnesota Vikings will play the home team against the equally inept Pittsburgh Steelers when the two teams square off in the first of two NFL International Series games this season at London's historic Wembley Stadium.

The Vikings hit rock bottom last week, losing to the moribund Cleveland Browns at home days after the Browns were seemingly waving the white flag on the 2013 campaign by trading running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis.

Instead of tanking though, the Browns pulled out all the stops in a 31-27 win over Minnesota and embattled quarterback Christian Ponder.

Brian Hoyer, filling in for an injured Brandon Weeden, threw a seven-yard TD pass to Jordan Cameron with 51 seconds left to give Rob Chudzinski his first win as the head coach of the Browns. Hoyer, making his second career NFL start, completed 30-of-54 passes for 321 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Ponder completed 25-of-42 passes for 228 yards and an interception for the Vikings, who sit last in the NFC North. Ponder also carried the ball five times for 46 yards and two touchdowns.

Adrian Peterson rushed for 88 yards and a score on 25 carries.

"We've got a lot of things to figure out," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier understated.

Figuring things out means moving to veteran QB Matt Cassel in place of Ponder, who suffered fractured ribs against the Browns, something Frazier confirmed after practice on Friday.

Ponder himself said the fracture occurred near his heart and doctors remain concerned. Others believe it's a convenient excuse for Minnesota to try Cassel in favor on Ponder, the former 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft who has been one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks during the Vikings' dismal start to the season.

Frazier denied that, however.

"Christian had a fractured rib and we felt it was just too risky to put him out there and take a hit," the coach said. "He's a tough, tough guy, but it probably wouldn't be wise to put him in that situation. We have complete confidence that Matt will do a good job."

Whatever you believe, it's pretty clear that if Cassel excels against Pittsburgh, it's unlikely Ponder gets his job back anytime soon.

"I don't foresee a quarterback controversy, but we want Matt to have the best game of his NFL career on Sunday," Frazier continued.

Cassel has started 62 games over a nine-year NFL career, most notably leading the New England Patriots to an 11-5 record in 2008 after Tom Brady injured his knee in the season opener. Cassel also went to the Pro Bowl in 2010 after a 27-touchdown season with the Kansas City Chiefs, but his last two seasons in the Show Me state were less than stellar.

"I feel like I'm ready to go, I've had a good week of practice," said Cassel. "Now it's about going out there and executing on Sunday."

He'll face a Steelers team that has plenty to figure out as well after Chicago's Julius Peppers returned a fumble 42 yards for a touchdown and Major Wright brought back an interception 38 yards for a score in the Bears' 40-23 Week 3 triumph over Pittsburgh.

Antonio Brown caught nine passes for 196 yards and two scores for the Steelers, but his efforts came in a losing cause.

Ben Roethlisberger was 26-of-41 for 406 yards with a pair of touchdowns, interceptions and fumbles lost for the Steelers, who last began 0-3 in 2000.

"I can't turn the ball over, plain and simple," Roethlisberger said.

The Vikings lead their all-time regular-season series with the Steelers 8-7 but the only previous time these two franchises met on a neutral field was back in Super Bowl IX which Pittsburgh won, 16-6, in New Orleans.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Cleveland game was a complete meltdown in every aspect for the Vikings. Coaching, special teams play, the defense and of course the continued poor play from the QB position have turned a playoff team from a year ago into a sinking ship.

Defensively, Minnesota's cover-2 base defense is really starting to be exploited consistently in a league skewed toward offense. The team's reliance on zone coverages breeds indecision in young defensive backs and like most neophytes these days Minnesota's DBs are poor tacklers so even when they do keep things in front of them, it often results in a back or receiver shaking off a tackler or two for a first down.

Defensive coordinator Alan Williams also has little feel on gameday. Take last Sunday for example, when the Vikings pass rush wasn't getting home in the first half and Hoyer looked like his old mentor, Tom Brady, while shredding the Vikings' base cover-2 looks.

To his credit Williams dialed up the blitz early and often throughout the second half and Hoyer was rendered ineffective until the game-winning drive when Williams reverted back to what is an ugly default setting.

Only when it was too late did Williams go back to aggression and it didn't work as the blitz didn't get home and Harrison Smith -- perhaps Williams' only plus player these days -- let Cameron get his outside shoulder for an easy TD.

Right now Frazier and Williams are pounding the square peg in the round hole and even their effective players are starting to lose confidence as they watch the opposition move up and down the field with relative ease.

To make matters even worse for the Vikings, the team could be without three DBs, including two starters against Pittsburgh. Cornerback Chris Cook bowed out early against the Browns with a groin injury and safety Jamarca Sanford also was forced to leave after straining a hamstring. Both players -- along with reserve corner A.J. Jefferson (ankle) -- are unlikely to suit up against the Steelers.

And we haven't even addressed the elephant in the room when it comes to Minnesota, an organization which has inexplicably married itself to a quarterback who simply can't play at the NFL level.

Ponder remains wildly inaccurate as a thrower and plays with little self- confidence. He continues to slide out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble instead of stepping up into it and he needs receivers to run virtually perfect routes, otherwise he's always a threat to throw the pick-six.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave must have called the same roll out to the right side 10 different times against the Browns because Ponder simply can't execute anything else. The embattled signal caller's most egregious error against the Browns, however, was a run of the mill incompletion on 3rd-and-4 from the Minnesota 20 with 3 1/2 minutes left. Greg Jennings was wide open on a simple corner route for a first down and Ponder flashed the control of Steve Blass or Rink Ankiel, throwing it high and outside.

An easy conversion was missed and the rest was history. The Browns got the ball back and Hoyer -- in just his second career start -- was everything Ponder wasn't.

"All 22 guys and special teams, we can play better, especially the offense," Ponder understated. "We have to fix it, otherwise we're going to be 0-16."

Ponder may never get the chance to fix it now.

Cassel, while certainly not a star, is better served to take advantage of all the extra attention Peterson gets and if the Southern Cal does anything at all against the Steelers, there is a good chance Ponder will not return to the Vikings' lineup, barring an injury.

On the other side it seems age and injuries have finally caught up to the 2013 Steelers and Mike Tomlin's current bunch is probably earmarked for a year- long, celler-dweller dogfight with the Browns, not it's accustomed spot as one of the true heavyweights in the AFC.

Since Chuck Noll's first winning season in 1972, the Steelers have had only seven losing campaigns over a 40-year span with the low-water mark being 5-11 in 1988. Over that same time frame, Pittsburgh has won 20 division titles, eight AFC crowns and is football's only six-time Super Bowl champion.

Perhaps no team has had a more difficult start to the 2013 season than the Steelers, though. Three losses have been compounded by season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive leader Larry Foote and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling.

The Steelers will be moving forward with a veteran QB who doesn't like his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, an offensive line in shambles and a running game that's virtually non-existent -- an almost sacrilegious development for a franchise which has always prided itself on its ability to run the football.

Rookie RB Le'Veon Bell, who hasn't played since spraining his right foot two carries into a preseason game against Washington, is expected to make his debut in London to help that aspect of it but he's hardly a game-changer.

"I'm just excited to see what he can do because nobody knows," Roethlisberger said. "Nobody's seen him in game action."

All that said Minnesota hasn't shown any kind of consistent pass rush early this season and Brown should be able to run roughshod through Minnesota's zones. The Vikings are allowing 429 yards per game (29th in NFL) and 32 points (30th).

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Cassel helps Minnesota but the Steelers look more primed to right things for at least one week here.

Tomlin, who spent 2006 as the Vikings' defensive coordinator, is 17-8 against the NFC and Roethlisberger, the other "Big Ben" in the U.K. on Sunday, is 2-0 against Minnesota with a 91.9 passer rating and 24-9 overall against NFC teams.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Vikings 17