Vikings-Steelers TNF Preview: Breaking Down a Critical Game for Two “Hunting” Teams

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I’m not sure what’s going to happen in this week’s Thursday night soccer battle between the Minnesota Vikings (5-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1) at US Bank Stadium, but I know a few things: it’s gonna be dramatic, it’s gonna be weird, and it’s probably gonna come down to the final piece.

The Vikings have played close games all year, regardless of who they are against. This is a team that recently beat the Packers 9-3 and missed a field goal away from beating the Cardinals – the current owners of the NFL’s best record at 10-2 – in their own stadium during the Week 2. It’s also a team that just suffered a disastrous and embarrassing loss to the previously winless Lions just days ago, having previously lost to Cooper Rush and Baker Mayfield. Minnesota leads the league with 11 games decided by eight points or less, with the one exception dating back to September.

The Steelers are no strangers to closing games, either. They’re tied for second in the league with eight games decided by eight or fewer, including seven of their last eight. Their range of results is just as wide, as they have wins over the Bills and Ravens mixed in with a resounding loss against the Bengals and a tie against the Lions.

So yes, this is probably going to be a chaotic mess that will end up being decided upon at the very end.

Both teams really need this one, although the Vikings are the more desperate of the two. They are one game away from a wild card spot in the NFC and could stay alive in the race by reaching 6-7 with a winnable game against the Bears, next on their schedule. A loss would drop them to 5-8 and could potentially kick Mike Zimmer out. The Steelers are currently in 8th place in the AFC, right in the middle of a 12-team squad with 6-8 wins. A win on Thursday would be a big boost to their playoff chances, and they’re still alive in the AFC North race.

Although they have lost two games in a row, the Vikings are three-point home favorites in this game. That’s probably because advanced metrics don’t see the Steelers kindly. Pittsburgh ranks 23rd in DVOA (20th offense, 27th defense), well behind the Vikings, 11th. The Steelers are also outside the EPA top 20 per game on both sides of the ball. They haven’t won a game by over eight points all season, and haven’t beaten a team by over two points since October.

“It’s time to go bring pain to someone else,” said Justin Jefferson. “Just show our frustration from the last game, we didn’t get this win and we don’t play as well in the first half. Right after that, try to get the win and bounce back.”

Let’s dive into two key questions that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.

1. Can the Vikings’ offensive line hold up against the two Pittsburgh wreckers?

The Steelers have long been known for their dominant 3-4 defenses, but the 2021 unit does not fall into that category. He’s in the bottom 10 in a run and pass DVOA, and before last week’s win over Baltimore they had allowed 41 points in consecutive games against the Chargers and Bengals.

Still, there are two players you definitely need to know and keep an eye on all Thursday night: on-board rusher TJ Watt and inside DL Cameron Heyward. This duo have the ability to punish the Vikings’ blurred offensive line and destroy the entire offensive game plan on their own. They are one of the main reasons the Steelers are ranked second in the NFL in forced three-and-outs.

Watt leads the NFL with a ridiculous 16 sacks in just ten games and is one of the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. He has two games this season with at least three sacks, including last Sunday’s masterpiece with 3.5 sacks and 11 presses against the Ravens. He lines up almost exclusively on the left side of the defense, setting up a first clash with Vikings RT Brian O’Neill. However, I wonder if the Steelers would consider giving him a few reps on the other side to take advantage of Oli Udoh or Rashod Hill – the one who plays LT with Christian Darrisaw missing another game.

“Number one, he’s smart,” Zimmer said of Watt. “Big rusher. Get out of the line of scrimmage quickly. Good power. And then I think he sees things really well. Most of the great players have very good eyesight, so they see a lot of different things. with bullets, figure out where the protection goes, things like that. “

Heyward actually leads the Steelers in pressure with 43, although he’s played almost 150 more snaps than Watt (who has 40). One of the most dominant inside linemen in the league, Heyward has four sacks in the last four games and will be a major problem for the Vikings inside line of Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury and Mason Cole.

If the Vikings’ O-line can resist these two moderately, there’s no reason the offense can’t score points. Alexander Mattison should have room to run, while Justin Jefferson and KJ Osborn have beatable cornerback matches at Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon. Kirk Cousins ​​just needs a little time to pitch before Watt and Heyward get there.

“Great respect for the Pittsburgh Pass Rush, for whom they have,” Cousins ​​said. “We understand that challenge and we have to work this week to be ready to go. It really takes everyone. It takes the line, but it takes tight ends and running backs, it takes me to get rid of the ball or to feel the rush and move, and that takes coaches and planning and play calls. So there are so many pieces that come into play when you’re playing a really strong pass rush, and that’s the challenge we have this week. “

2. Can the Vikings defense force Big Ben turnovers and play well?

At 39, Ben Roethlisberger is no longer the player he was. He’s still a fairly precise quarterback who understands offense and is able to move the ball, but he’s had some major struggles this year as well. Roethlisberger’s mobility is gone, his arm strength is lacking and he makes a lot of questionable decisions with football.

In fact, Big Ben leads the NFL with 21 “turnover-worthy coins,” according to PFF. These are games that could have ended in an interception whether they actually made it or not, while excluding any picks that aren’t the QB’s fault. Only rookie Zach Wilson has a higher TWP rate this season on passing attempts. Just watching last week’s game, Roethlisberger had a ton of passes that were nearly intercepted as a result of tips or falls. The Vikings defense, which ranks in the middle of the pack with 10 INTs this year, is going to have some opportunities to create takeout.

The Vikings find it difficult to pressure Roethlisberger without a blitz, given they are without Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. But blitzing Roethlisberger is dangerous because he gets the ball out so quickly.

“It is really good at seeing the pressures and where the sight is and where the [hot reads] are and get the ball out, “Zimmer said.” Maybe he doesn’t run as much as he used to. He’s never really been a runner, but he’s a strong, physical guy to take down. He always throws the ball deep. Very smart and savvy with where he wants to go with the ball and puts them in the right game a ton of times. He does a lot of hitting on the line of scrimmage, so hopefully our home crowd will be nice and loud. “

With the Vikings slim on the defensive end, it might be up to linebackers and secondaries to make plays in this one. Bringing back Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Patrick Peterson to join Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods helps a lot in that regard.

If the Vikings can’t create take-out, they might have defensive difficulties. Najee Harris is a great all-round backer, and Roethlisberger has an impressive trio of assistants in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth.

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Last but not least, this match could easily come down to the special teams. The Steelers have the league’s most accurate kicker this year in Chris Boswell, who is 24 of 25 on field goal attempts, including seven over 50 yards. Oddly enough, Boswell missed more extra points (2) than field goals. Oh, and don’t sleep on the Jordan Berry revenge game. The veteran was signed by the Vikings after the Steelers cut him in favor of rookie Pressley Harvin III, but Berry has the top net average this season.

Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Viking news and analysis throughout the season. Also, Follow me on twitter and don’t hesitate to ask me questions about it.

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