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Vikings at Steelers Preview: Level Up

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After dispatching their Week 1 opponents, Minnesota and Pittsburgh collide to see who’s boss.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
Antonio Brown headlines a loaded Pittsburgh offense.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Growing up, well before I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage, and a big boy job, I was into video games. From the NES to Genesis N64 to Dreamcast to Playstation 1 to Xbox to Xbox 360*, I spent entirely too much of my youth plopped down in front of a television tapping away on a controller connected to whatever the console du jour happened to be at that time.

(*=You’ll notice that the console journey ended before Playstation 4 or Xbox One. I’m still 0-fer in convincing my wife that we need a current-gen console. The lesson, as always: getting old sucks.)

While the hardware and graphics have changed drastically over the years, some of the basic tenets have endured throughout the past 30 years of gaming. One of my favorites is the concept of “leveling up.” In countless games, especially in the role-playing genre, you start out as a weakling with little to no weapons, resources, or special abilities. You work your way through the game by completing tasks, winning battles, and exploring your virtual world. Eventually you acquire the items and skills needed to defeat greater and greater foes. The change is very gradual and can be incredibly tedious, but suddenly you’re a high-level badass ready to take on all comers.

After the convincing victory over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, it’s easy to believe that the Vikings have “leveled up” in 2017. The offensive line was actually adequate, which led to Sam Bradford throwing magical fireballs en route to what was probably the best game of his professional career. The defense was sound and finally got some rest on the sideline. Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards right in front of the guy that he replaced.

However, it was the Saints. Keeping Drew Brees & company in check is always impressive, of course. But that defense? Sure, they have a few solid pieces, but New Orleans has traditionally put up about as much fight as a Red Slime from Dragon Warrior on that side of the ball. Call me crazy, but I doubt that will be the toughest test the Vikings offense faces this season.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers leveled up last week against their football version of Glass Joe from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!—the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers didn’t really bring their “A” game to Cleveland, but it was still enough to coast to a 21-18 victory that wasn’t really as close as the score indicates. Ben Roethlisberger now has more wins in Cleveland than any Browns quarterback since they returned to the league in 1999. When it comes to the Browns, Pittsburgh has the Konami Code.

Both the Vikings and Steelers passed Level 1 without losing a life. So which team will unlock the “Week 2 Win” achievement on Sunday?

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of fantasy football should be well aware of the plethora of weapons the Steelers have on offense, so let’s start with their defense. They have some new pieces this year, most notably rookie OLB T.J. Watt. Watt, of course, is the brother of J.J. Watt, and is the latest specimen in a line of freak athletes that were engineered in some sort of secret government laboratory in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Sure, if you look it up the Watt brothers were “born” in Waukesha. But could the same family feasibly produce NFL Combine numbers like this and this without help from science? You tell me.)

In all seriousness, it looks like T.J. has the chance to be nearly as good as his big brother in the NFL. His debut in Cleveland last week was excellent. Watt had 6 total tackles, two sacks, and an interception against the Browns. His three major plays were mostly a byproduct of rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer either holding onto the ball too long or making a poor decision. That said, Watt still made the plays thanks to some great instincts and athleticism.

Bud Dupree could be back this week opposite Watt after missing the opener with a shoulder injury. Stephon Tuitt could miss the game with a biceps injury he sustained against the Browns, but players like Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier will still cause problems in the middle. Pittsburgh racked up seven sacks in Week 1. The Vikings’ offensive line should face a much tougher test this week with the unpredictable pressure that the Pittsburgh front seven can bring.

Thankfully, it appears that the Vikings are finally becoming less predictable themselves on offense. Pat Shurmur called an excellent game on Monday, keeping New Orleans off guard by mixing up personnel and formations. Here’s exactly how varied they were:

Week 1 Vikings personnel

Personnel package Number of plays
Personnel package Number of plays
11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 36
12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) 14
22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) 3
21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) 3
20 (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR) 3
10 (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) 3

Overall the Vikings used 18 unique lineups with their skill players. It was an odd sensation to have the offense be so much less predictable, but it was one that many Vikings fans surely enjoyed.

Shurmur even got creative with how the varied personnel lined up, most notably moving Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers to the same side of the line in an unbalanced formation a few times. It worked out on that ridiculous pass Bradford made to Jarius Wright...

...but it didn’t work so great when they tried to run to that heavy side.

On both occasions, you’ll notice that Kyle Rudolph was asked to block Cameron Jordan as a de facto right tackle, with predictably poor results. There’s a fine line between keeping ‘em guessing and getting too cute; let’s hope Shurmur finds the right balance on Sunday.

With Dalvin Cook in the backfield and a revamped offensive line, it appears as though the Vikings have found the right balance they so desperately sought last year. And while nobody is ready to compare them to the juggernaut that is the Steelers offense just yet...

...wait a minute. I might actually be ready for that. If you think about it, isn’t the Vikings offense a version of the Steelers offense that simply needs to “level up” a few more times?

The Steelers have Roethlisberger, a quarterback that has been around the block and can still make a lot of “wow” plays. Bradford’s style of play isn’t even close to what Big Ben does, but I certainly said “wow” a few times Monday night. The gap between the two might be a lot narrower than we thought.

The Steelers have Le’Veon Bell, an all-around running back that sets up his blocks and then explodes past defenders.

If last week was any indication, Cook might already be developing into Le’Veon Lite. (Hopefully the dropsies he had against the Saints were simply first-game jitters.)

The Steelers have Antonio Brown, an undersized wide receiver that can line up anywhere, get open against anyone, and make catches he has no business making.

When Stefon Diggs is at his best, doesn’t a lot of what he does remind you of Brown?

The Steelers have Martavis Bryant, a deep threat that can flip the field in one play. The Vikings have Adam Thielen, who actually did flip the field on two crucial occasions Monday.

The Steelers have one of the better offensive lines in the league. The Vikings...OK I’ll stop with the comparisons there. The Minnesota O-line looked solid in Week 1, but nobody expects them to be one of the better units in the league. I’ll be more than happy with average-to-mediocre there.

While the Vikings might have the “poor man’s version” of Pittsburgh’s offense, the Steelers were penalized 13 times and managed only 290 total yards in Week 1. If they look that rusty again while the Vikings keep on cruising, why couldn’t the Vikings steal a victory at Heinz Field?

I’m certainly not ruling it out. If Bradford stays vertical, there will some opportunities for big chunks of yards against a Pittsburgh secondary that has some question marks. Xavier Rhodes’ track record against top-tier receivers has been impressive over the last year-plus. Linval Joseph will make Bell change direction more than normal and the defensive ends should be chasing around Roethlisberger all afternoon.

But I don’t know if I’m comfortable predicting the upset. With the bevy of talent on the Steelers have on both sides of the ball, I think that heading into Pittsburgh on a short week and expecting a victory might be a bit much to ask at this stage of the season. The Steelers are capable of much more than they showed in Cleveland last week. Unfortunately for Vikings fans, I think Pittsburgh will finally shift out of third gear and give Minnesota just a bit more than they can handle.

Hopefully the Vikings can continue to build upon their great start and gain some valuable “XP” they can use later on against other formidable enemies. The Steelers are legit Super Bowl contenders for a reason. As promising as Monday night was, the Vikings might need to level up a few more times before they’re ready to win this boss battle.

And who knows? Maybe this is one of those games where you fight the boss toward the beginning of the game only to face him again with everything on the line in the final battle. Could this be the first in a home-and-home series between the Vikings and Steelers over the next four months? A Super Bowl rematch 43 years in the making?!

Naaaahhhh....

Prediction

Steelers 27, Vikings 23


And now for the rest of my Week 2 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

BENGALS over Texans

A Thursday night battle between arguably the two most disappointing teams of Week 1! Judging from how each team played in their respective opener, first one to ten points wins.

PANTHERS over Bills

Something is still off with Cam Newton. He looked really shaky in last week’s win. Good thing they’re taking on Buffalo, who need to get out of first place quick if they want to keep tanking.

BUCCANEERS over Bears

IT’S THE MIKE GLENNON REVENGE GAME!

RAVENS over Browns

The 2000 Ravens won by shutout on the road against a divisional opponent to start the season. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

Titans over JAGUARS

With that stacked defense, I could totally see Jacksonville pulling this off as a home dog. But I refuse to imagine a world where Blake Bortles is 2-0.

Cardinals over COLTS

Cardinals fans: “Oh no, our quarterback might kinda suck now.”

Colts fans: “Hold my beer. But don’t drink any, because I’m gonna need it later.”

CHIEFS over Eagles

Like I’m going to pick against the best quarterback in the league playing at home.

Patriots over SAINTS

Regardless of the outcome, I am going to enjoy the sh*t out of whichever team ends up 0-2 after this game.

RAIDERS over Jets

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, even though I was eliminated on the very first game of the season last week. I’m doing what I should have done in Week 1—blindly choosing whoever’s playing against the Jets, especially on the road.

Dolphins over CHARGERS

At this point I’m openly rooting to see which new and terrible way the Chargers blow the game each week. It feels nice to have kindred spirits on the west coast.

Cowboys over BRONCOS

This pick is out of spite for Vance Joseph. His icing the kicker actually worked against the Chargers, which means we’re all sentenced to another 200 years of that buffoonery.

Redskins over RAMS

I gotta admit, the Rams looked really good last week. But let’s see them do it against an actual NFL team before we start believing in them as a dark horse candidate for the playoffs.

SEAHAWKS over 49ers

Seattle’s offensive line consists of a traffic cone, an old boot, a discarded refrigerator box, a half-eaten footlong chicken teriyaki sandwich from Subway, and a Slip-N-Slide. But their defense is still really, really good and San Francisco’s offense is still really, really bad.

Packers over FALCONS

I know how this game went last year. I’d be delighted to see a repeat of the NFC Championship Game. But when you were two straight dropped passes away from losing to Mike Glennon, I can’t in good conscience choose you to win the following week.

Lions over GIANTS

I fell asleep on the couch halfway through the third quarter of the Giants game last week. I missed literally nothing. That doesn’t bode well for the G-Men, even if Odell Beckham Jr. comes back.

Last week: 8-7