On Sunday afternoon, we’ve got a pretty big interconference matchup to watch, as the Minnesota Vikings will travel to Heinz Field to do battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had their struggles against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1, but this week is the home opener for them, and this is a team that advanced to the AFC Championship Game last season. With talent like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown to contend with, this is going to be a very stiff test for the purple.
I got the opportunity to exchange some questions with Jeff Hartman, the lead writer over at SB Nation’s blog for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Behind the Steel Curtain. When he posts my answers to the questions that he sent me, I will have it on the front page here. For now, here are his answers to the questions that he sent my way.
1) We know that Le'Veon Bell is a ridiculously talented running back, but in last week's season opener he managed just 32 yards on 10 carries. How much of this do you think was a function of him sitting out Training Camp as opposed to the Steelers' game plan or anything the Browns might have done defensively?
To be completely honest, I think it was a mixture of both. Bell looked rusty, but it was compounded by the fact the offensive line wasn't used to having him run behind them. With that said, the Browns also were VERY aggressive against the run, and the Steelers didn't help themselves out with over 100 yards of penalties in the game. Bell is a tremendous player, and I think there is a strong chance you see a lot more of No. 26 this Sunday than in Week 1. Good news for Steelers fans, but possibly bad news for the Vikings if he returns to form.
2) Conversely, Antonio Brown went nuts against Cleveland with 182 yards on 11 catches. The Steelers' next-highest receiving total was 41 yards. Were the Browns just blanketing everyone else, or was Ben Roethlisberger just zeroed in on #84 last week?
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have a very unique connection. The two know exactly what the other is doing, and thinking, at all times. Just watch the highlight of Brown's 4th quarter catch which sealed the win for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is flushed from the pocket, rolls left, sees a defender with his back to him and Brown having inside leverage on the other defensive backs. He throws it up knowing Brown will make a play, and he makes the play more than he doesn't. The Steelers, and Todd Haley, could write a book about how to get a player like Brown open. They move him into the slot, stack him in certain formations and send him in motion to get intel on just how to get him the ball. He is the best in the business for a reason.
3) Defensive end Stephon Tuitt just got a huge contract extension, but he suffered a shoulder injury last week, and there's been some buzz that he will miss Sunday's game (if not more). How will his absence affect Pittsburgh's defense?
Tuitt's absence will be notable in both run defense, and the pass rush, but the drop off won't be dramatic. The Steelers picked up former first round pick Tyson Alulau in free agency for this very scenario. Alualu played well against Cleveland, and shows he can be a stop gap until Tuitt returns, which they say could be as soon as Sunday, but I think that is wishful thinking. Tuitt is a force, but the Steelers are used to missing a key cog on the defensive line considering they did the same thing when Cameron Heyward was lost for the year in 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle. They will find a way, and as Mike Tomlin says, "The Standard is the Standard".
4) Give us one player on each side of the ball that Vikings fans might not know about that you feel will play a big role in deciding Sunday's contest.
On offense it is difficult because there are so may household names within the unit, but I will say tight end Jesse James. James had two touchdowns in Week 1, both in the red-zone, and has the look of a red-zone specialist. However, he can get you down the seam too. When you are worried about Bell, Brown, Bryant and Ben, James can slip past a linebacker for a big play.
On defense it is Javon Hargrave. The second year nose tackle looks like a nice combination of Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins. Lofty expectations, I know, but he is a force in the middle. Not built like a Vince Wilfork who just plugged holes, Hargrave can get to the quarterback and make plays in the backfield.
5) How do you see this game playing out?
The Steelers are a different beast at Heinz Field, especially against NFC competition. Since the building opened in 2001, I believe they have lost less than 5 games against NFC opponents on their home turf. I think it will be a tough game, but I believe Pittsburgh's defense will be able to get to Bradford enough to keep him from getting comfortable, like he did against the Saints on Monday Night Football. On top of that, the Steelers offense is set to explode eventually, and you can tell they are pissed about how poorly they played last week. After a close first half, I'll say Steelers 28 / Vikings 20.
Thanks to Jeff for taking the time to answer our questions, and be sure to check out Behind the Steel Curtain for more on the Steelers’ view of this weekend’s contest.