An unexpected look for Minnesota and Pittsburgh

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

This is what football is all about: Two cold-weather, northern-division teams with power running games and aggressive defenses getting together for what promises to be … a pass-happy shootout.

Huh? What in the name of the Purple People Eaters and Steel Curtain are we talking about?

Minnesota and Pittsburgh will meet on a natural grass field Sunday on a seasonable mid-October day. The NFL’s leading rusher will be in a Vikings uniform, while the Steelers will have the talented duo of Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker. And when the first whistle blows, you’ll see two of the best passing offenses in this league go to work.

Behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh has morphed into the NFL’s second-most prolific passing team. The Steelers are averaging 297 passing yards per game, a 35 percent increase over their average just two years ago, and through six games they’re getting 75 percent of their total offense through the air.

Roethlisberger’s 104.5 passer rating ranks fourth in the NFL -- just one spot below Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, who has led a renaissance in Minnesota’s scheme. Tailback Adrian Peterson (624 yards) continues to lead the NFL in rushing, but the Vikings have actually thrown more times (184 attempts) than they’ve rushed (174) this season. If that ratio holds up, it will be the first time in Peterson’s NFL career when the Vikings have passed more than they’ve run.

The new dynamic for both teams is based partly on NFL rules that heavily favor the passing game. Mostly, however, it’s the result of two run-oriented coaches recognizing and utilizing the elite play of their quarterbacks.

“It’s all about the evolution of our offense with Ben Roethlisberger at the quarterback position,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We are not going to concern ourselves with describing any personas or things of that nature. We are going to move the chains and ring the scoreboard up by whatever means possible. Ben is central to that. He is a veteran-proven quarterback who has played well [and] is practicing really well. It’s just going to go through him.”

As Roethlisberger noted, this shift “has been in the works the last year or two.” The Steelers ran 511 times and threw 442 passes in Tomlin’s first season (2007). Last year, however, the ratio moved closer to 50-50. Now, there is no question the Steelers are a pass-first offense. Roethlisberger threw 43 times in the season-opening victory over Tennessee and passed for 417 yards while using a no-huddle scheme last week against Cleveland.

“I’ve said it a thousand times and it might be making people upset,” Roethlisberger said. “But we’re not the Steelers of the ‘70s anymore. They were a running team and that’s what worked for them. We need to be more balanced, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Roethlisberger should have a favorable matchup against the Vikings, who gave up 385 passing yards last week to Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and are likely to be playing without Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield (sprained foot). With that apparent opening, the Steelers would be silly to start crashing Mendenhall into the middle of the Vikings’ still-stout run defense.

“[Roethlisberger]’s come a long way since making eight throws a game and handing the ball off,” Minnesota coach Brad Childress said. “I don’t think they’re at all that kind of football team anymore. … They are throwing it more and being intentional with it.”

The same could be said of Childress and the Vikings, who have passed more than they’ve run in each of their past five games. The trend reflects Favre’s growing comfort level with the offense, and while it hasn’t come at the expense of Peterson’s yardage, it has without question given the Vikings a different look.

Childress sometimes stubbornly insisted on a run-first scheme during his first three years in Minnesota, and Favre has joked that Childress runs a “Midwest” version of the West Coast offense. But the compass is clearly moving toward the Pacific.

In 2007 and 2008 combined, the Vikings called 1,093 running plays and 804 passes when you include quarterback scrambles. This season, it’s almost a statistical 50-50 ratio; they’ve thrown 184 passes and run 174 times.

Credit Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for taking the muzzle off what had been a conservative approach. In fact, the Vikings have 11 passes of 30 or more yards this season, which is tied for most in the NFL.

And in the event you suspect Favre has used his veteran clout to hijack the scheme, consider this: Favre said this week that he could count “on one hand” the times he’s strayed from a play call this season.

“It’s pretty much what they are giving me,” Favre said. “… Darrell and Brad have increased [my freedom] a little bit, [but] I think part of it is because the scheme is playing so well. If I had to go by percentages, just in all the games, there have been only a few times … where I have done something that we have not talked about.”

Indeed, from this vantage point, it seems both the Vikings and Steelers are simply making fuller use of their offensive schemes.

“I just think we are operating more efficiently,” Tomlin said. “That efficiency, that attention to detail, is producing big plays.”

And a decidedly different look.