Looking over the Vikings schedule this season, this match-up against the Steelers on the road is one of the toughest. Most predict the Steelers to win their division and make a pretty deep playoff run. They’ve got a pretty solid roster, they’re well coached. They have top play-makers in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, a good QB in Ben Roethlisberger, a top 10 defense and a solid offensive line.
But, like all NFL teams, they’re beatable any given Sunday. They weren’t exactly stellar in their opening game against Cleveland, although they managed to get the win. They are one of the more complete teams in the league, and will present a formidable challenge to the Vikings on the road, so the Vikings will need to pack their best game.
Steelers Offense vs. Vikings Defense
There are a number of strength vs. strength match-ups when the Steelers have the ball. The first one will be Antonio Brown vs. Xavier Rhodes. I would hope/expect that Rhodes will be given shadow coverage duties on Brown, in hopes of taking him as much out of the game as possible. But in any case, doing everything possible to keep Brown from having a big game will be key for the Vikings defensively. Brown is clearly Big Ben’s go-to receiver, and when the play breaks down, he looks for Brown and will often heave it downfield to him, hoping he’ll make a play- and he often does.
The second strength vs. strength match-up is in the trenches. The Steelers have an excellent offensive line, and the Vikings one of the best defensive lines in the league. Making things tough for Big Ben and Le’Veon Bell with be another key theme for the Vikings to execute on defense, and a solid run defense combined with minimizing Antonio Brown will go a long way to shutting down the Steelers’ offense. Easier said than done, but the Vikings have the talent on defense to do a pretty good job.
The Steelers managed only 14 points against the Browns defense (the other TD came on a blocked punt) so I can imagine the Vikings’ D being able to slow down the Steelers well enough to leave the door open for the Vikings offense to win, and that is what the game may hinge upon.
Vikings Offense vs. Steelers Defense
While the Steelers have a pretty good defensive front, their secondary is a little more suspect. Against the Browns, who bought a top offensive line this off-season, the Steelers had 7 sacks- most of which came from Kizer holding the ball too long and not having a lot of pocket awareness.
Against the Vikings, I would not be surprised to see Mike Tomlin dial up some blitz pressure on occasion to test the Vikings newly assembled offensive line- and help out their secondary in coverage. How well the Vikings offensive line handles it, and/or how well Sam Bradford handles it or audibles successfully against it, will go a long way in determining how often the Steelers dial up the pressure, which could create big plays- one way or another.
The Browns had some success against the Steelers’ secondary, despite not having much talent at either quarterback or receiver. They were aided in part by a number of Steelers’ personal foul penalties- most of which were of the unnecessary roughness/hitting a defenseless receiver variety, but also a big pass interference penalty as well. But the Browns also mis-fired on a few other opportunities downfield that may have made a difference in the outcome.
Over at Steelers Depot, they have a story on the Steelers CBs and HC Mike Tomlin’s assessment of their performance, which looked mediocre. Joe Haden, who hasn’t had a good PFF rating since 2014, was cut by the Browns this off-season and now plays opposite Artie Burns for the Steelers. Slot corner duties look to have been shared by veteran William Gay and Mike Hilton, who’s bounced around practice squads for a couple years before now. At safety, the Steelers have Sean Davis, who looks a better run defender than cover guy, and two others - JJ Wilcox and Mike Mitchell- who split the reps against the Browns as Mitchell has a hamstring injury. Both are about average. Wilcox is in cocussion protocol after a head-to-head hit to Browns receiver Corey Coleman.
Overall, this looks like a secondary the Vikings receivers can have success against, so long as the Vikings offensive line can give Sam Bradford enough time to get them the ball. That will be key.
The Steelers have a 3-4 front with rookie TJ Watt at right edge, and Anthony Chickillo at left edge. Chickillo, filling in for injured Bud Dupree, has not been a good pass rusher in his two previous seasons- but had a good game against Cleveland- so hopefully Mike Remmers can handle him without much help. TJ Watt was fairly quiet against the Browns, but Joe Thomas has made a career of keeping edge rushers at bay pretty much every game for the past ten years. Hopefully Riley Reiff, who had a Joe Thomas performance in pass protection against the Saints- not yielding a single pressure- can do as well against JJ’s little brother.
On the interior, the Steelers have a solid trio of Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, and Tyson Alualu, who filled-in for an injured Stephon Tuitt, backed-up by two inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams. Shazier struggled his first couple years, before having a break-out year last season. Williams has been about average overall each of his four seasons, but not as good in coverage. My guess is the Steelers will use these two to generate some added pressure, along with a safety at times, probably focusing on beating Remmers and newcomers Elflein and Easton with some stunts.
But I don’t expect the Steelers to have another seven sack game against the Vikings, for the simple reason that Bradford doesn’t hold the ball as long as Kizer did at times.
I suspect the Steelers’ linebackers may have difficulty keeping pace with Dalvin Cook around the corner outside, but inside may be tougher. Keeping Cook involved as both a runner and receiver should keep them busy, however, and may allow for more production from Kyle Rudolph.
In any case, there is potential there if the Vikings offensive line can turn in a similar performance as Monday night against the Saints. Overall the Steelers are similar to the Saints in that their strength defensively is up front, although the Steelers have a better unit generally.
The Steelers did not have a good performance on the road at Cleveland, despite getting the win, so I expect they are eager to rebound from that performance at home. Le’Veon Bell was not involved much in that game (he held out of the off-season and pre-season), but I bet that isn’t the plan going forward. I suspect the best way for the Vikings to keep the crowd out of the game is to prevent the Steelers offense from getting into any sort of rhythm, which they struggled with in Cleveland. Accomplishing that, along with another solid game from the offensive line, should be enough to allow Bradford, Cook and Company to get over the top and come away with another win.
Winning on the road in the NFL is never easy, especially against a playoff caliber team such as the Steelers. But they have some weaknessses on defense the Vikings have the talent to exploit, so long as the defense can keep the Steelers’ play-makers from having big games.
Xavier Rhodes was able to keep top receivers from having much impact last season, and Michael Thomas was a non-factor Monday night. Doing so against Antonio Brown will be crucial if the Vikings are to come away with a road win on Sunday.
Equally, allowing Le’Veon Bell to get into a groove could be difficult for the Vikings to overcome. Run defense has been a focus over the off-season, and the Vikings held a talented trio of Saints running backs to 60 yards and just 2.9 yards/carry. Keeping Bell to that average would be a win for the Vikings defense, and likely force the Steelers into more difficult third down conversions that can stall drives.
If the Vikings can start strong at Pittsburgh, they may find they are playing the Steelers at the right time - when they are still trying to find their footing as a team to begin the season after a sluggish opener at Cleveland. But a slow start may give the Steelers the fuel they need in front of their home crowd to get things rolling.
I’m looking for a game similar in feel to the Carolina game last season, with the Vikings defense making it difficult for the Steelers to get much going, while the Vikings offense proves a little too much for a Steelers defense still trying to figure some things out.
The early line has the Vikings as a 6 point underdog, but after taking a look at the Steelers defensive secondary, I like the Vikings in an upset- 24-20.
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