In week one of the NFL, the combined results of the Vikings domination over New Orleans and Pittsburgh’s semi-lackluster 21-18 win over Cleveland gives Vikings fans a lot of hope for a win in week two. When the NFL schedule comes out every year, I jokingly say ‘I don’t see a loss on the schedule’...and then find about five or six losses, if not more depending on how good we think the team will be.
One of the games you almost always chalk up as a Vikings loss is a game like this—going on the road, and playing outside, on grass, against an historically good opponent. The Steelers are a team perennially on the Super Bowl short list in the AFC, and this year is no exception. With a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and arguably the best WR-RB combination in the NFL, the Steelers will provide an extremely difficult test for the Vikings. How do they come out with a win?
Pick your poison. It’s unrealistic to think the Vikings can stop both Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown...but I think they can, to a large extent, limit one of them. It would seem, at face value, putting Xavier Rhodes on Antonio Brown neutralizes Brown, but the Steelers put Brown in the slot quite a bit, either as a formation set up or through motion. That can limit Rhodes vs. Brown quite a bit, as X’s strong suit isn’t in the slot, it’s outside. So for Brown, I think the key will be let him get his, just not deep, much like the Vikings did with Michael Thomas last week.
The better option then, it seems, is to try and stop Bell. The Vikes did a good job against the Saints in limiting their running game, but the Steelers and Bell are a different story. The Vikings have somewhat of an advantage in that Bell sat out all of training camp, and he looked it for most of last week, as he only had 32 yards on 10 carries. Gap discipline by the linebackers will be essential, as will limiting Bell’s yards after initial contact.
Contain Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket. One of the big advantages of Ben Roethlisberger’s game is his pocket mobility. He’s no spring chicken anymore, but he’s still dangerous. He moves his feet so well to escape trouble, and can turn a potential negative play into a big gain with his legs. When the Vikings collapse the pocket, they need to get home, but if Big Ben escapes, the linebackers need to clean it up and minimize the damage. If he can prolong plays with big runs to move the chains, it’s going to be a long afternoon for the Vikings defense.
Keep chucking the ball. Now that Sam Bradford has confidence that the offensive line will give him enough time to throw in the pocket, the Vikings need to keep stretching the field. Bradford’s uncanny accuracy is a huge asset, and if the line can keep him upright, I expect another big day for the Vikings receivers. I like the matchup the Steelers secondary presents for the Vikings, and there should be big plays to be had. A successful medium and long passing game will really open up things underneath, and that’s where my next key comes in to play.
Dalvin Cook, receiver. Although the rookie running back had a sterling debut running the ball Monday Night, he was less than impressive as a receiver, dropping two passes and looking generally uncomfortable as a receiver. But Cook the receiver will play a big role Sunday, and getting him in space will put a lot of pressure on T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Cook is still going to be vitally important running the ball, too, but his ability as a receiver this week is going to be a big key, and really open up this offense against the 3-4 set the Steelers play.
Field position wins this game. It’s going to be very tough for either offense to drive 75-80 yards on a consistent basis. Both of these defenses are really good, and the team that gets the most short field chances scores the most points. Not turning the ball over will be huge, and when the Vikings have to punt, flipping field position will be just as important. I don’t expect a shootout, and the first team to 20 probably wins this.
Prediction: When the schedule first came out, I chalked this game up as a loss. But after last week’s performance by both teams, this feels like a game the Vikings can come in and win. Let’s call it........Vikings 23, Steelers 20.