By Thomas Cooper
The Steelers played a sloppy brand of football riddled with a disjointed offense, a secondary that lacked some communication, and a whole team that decided to get a season’s worth of penalties in one game. The Vikings appeared in mid-season form clicking on offense, defense, and special teams. Will the Steelers take the bad film against the Browns and use it as a teaching tool to make a drastic improvement or will they continue the sloppy play? Will the Vikings believe that the performance they showed on Monday night be the consistent level of play they expect to have throughout the season or will they tumble back to earth? In the openers, both teams played a little out of character, the Vikings being better and the Steelers making Cleveland look like a contender. Did we see the true character of both teams?
Steelers Defense VS Vikings Offense
The Vikings’ offense looked to have an excellent blend of run and pass against the Saints’ defense. Rookie Dalvin Cook was everything the Vikings hoped he would be when they drafted him in the second round. He has solid hands and can be a threat out of the backfield as a receiver, but he also showed good power and vision in the run game. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line in the offseason with the key acquisition being left tackle Riley Reiff from the Lions. They also added veteran Mike Remmers on the right side and drafted Pat Elflein to play center. Joe Berger is the grizzled and consistent veteran at right guard and the line is rounded out by second year man Nick Easton at left guard. In the season opener, they did a masterful job opening holes in the Saints run defense and kept Sam Bradford clean enough for him to slice apart the Saints secondary. Kyle Rudolph is coming off his best season as a pro and is steady and consistent. Rudolph isn’t that seam splitting deep threat that often gives the Steelers defense trouble, but he is able to find spots underneath to keep the chains moving. At wide receiver, the Saints have two true threats in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Diggs is the more explosive playmaker while Thielen is an excellent route runner with a large catch radius and excellent hands. Behind the two starters, Laquon Treadwell is the first player in but he doesn’t show great athleticism and can struggle to separate. Jarius Wright also sees significant snaps, but Wright fits the profile of a slot receiver due to his lack of size and elite quickness.
This will be an interesting matchup for the Steelers defense. The injury to Stephon Tuitt could play a big role in how the Steelers defense decides to attack. The key to this game will be to stop the rushing attack of the Vikings. It will be the key. The Steelers defense must make them one dimensional and a lot of that pressure will fall on the defensive line and linebackers. I would expect the Steelers to begin with three defensive linemen and four linebackers on the field on early downs. If the Vikings go with three wide receivers, I would expect the Steelers to trade Vince Williams for Mike Hilton, JJ Wilcox, or Robert Golden. The defensive line, starting with Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave, have to play big against the run. If Tuitt is available and healthy, then it should help them attack the Vikings offensive line and choke down the rushing lanes. If Tuitt misses, LT Walton and Tyson Alualu must step up. Bud Dupree, TJ Watt, Anthony Chickillo, and James Harrison need to play strong at the edge and turn runs back inside. Ryan Shazier and whomever is paired with him must finish better than they did against the Browns. If the Steelers cannot stop the Vikings run game, then expect a difficult day for the defense as a whole.
If the Steelers can stifle the Vikings run game early it takes away the play action pass, which the Vikings used effectively against the Saints. The Steelers defense should play some matchup man coverage against the Vikings. Joe Haden’s size, speed, and overall skill set matches up well with Diggs and it would be wise to allow Haden to mirror him. On the other side, Burns length and skill set fits very well against Thielen. While both corners could potentially stick to their representative sides, if you match them up and allow them to follow those wide receivers, it could really stifle the Vikings passing game. If the third wide receiver off the bench is Wright then the Steelers have another potentially favorable defender in Hilton. The speed and quickness of Wright is a concern, but his physical characteristics mirror that of Hilton. Treadwell is a bigger wide receiver but again, he does not have elite physical attributes and can struggle to separate. Hilton should also be able to take away that option. The other receiving threat is the big tight end, Rudolph, but Shazier has the requisite speed and coverage ability to potentially limit his effectiveness. The Steelers could opt to go with a three-safety look and allow Wilcox to handle the coverage responsibilities and if that three safety look and the defensive front can handle the run, it could be the primary defense against the Vikings.
The big elephant in the room will be if the outside linebackers of the Steelers can get pressure. The Steelers sacked Deshaun Kizer seven times last week. Some of those sacks happened because Kizer held the ball, but that should not take away from the pressure the front seven delivered. Watt had a surprisingly good game against Joe Thomas, the perineal All-Pro left tackle. Chickillo played well against Shon Coleman, but also faced Coleman who was making his first start. Hargrave and Heyward contributed with sacks of their own and they will be key in this game. If those four can continue to press the pocket and limit the time Bradford has to stand in the pocket and deliver, the Steelers defense could dominate in this game. If they fail to handle the Vikings offensive line and the Vikings get their running game going, it could lead to a long outing. I’d watch for man under 2-deep coverages with potential matchups against certain receivers, especially on early downs. If the Steelers get the Vikings in long yardage situations, they will rely on the standard Cover-2 zone defense and work to tackle the football before the sticks.
Steelers Offense VS Vikings Defense
The Vikings has two very good edge rushers in Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter. The Saints offensive tackles struggled most of the night to give Drew Brees time and a clean pocket, but injury forced a rookie into protecting his blindside and the Saints right tackle isn’t of the caliber of Marcus Gilbert. Brian Robison will alternate in and give them rest, so the Vikings have three solid edge rushers. On the interior, the Vikings have Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson. Joseph is mainly working as a run stopper and plays about half the downs. Johnson played roughly 75% of the snaps in the season opener so he appears to be the main cog in the packages used by the Vikings. Shamar Stephen will rotate in on passing downs as well. The front four for the Vikings played exceptionally well against the Saints, even though they feasted on a struggling offensive line. The Vikings employed a lot of two linebacker sets in the opener and I would expect that to continue. Anthony Barr is a long, fast linebacker that tracks things well. He is excellent in space. Eric Kendricks is a third-year player who runs well and plays as well against the pass as he does against the run. Ben Gedeon is the third linebacker but he doesn’t see a great deal of snaps, only when the Vikings are in their base 4-3 defense. It appears the Vikings have adopted the nickel for the majority of the snaps, at least early this season, and will sprinkle in the dime when needed. They do not play a heavy back-end though, utilizing two safeties for many of the snaps. Harrison Smith is the unquestioned leader in the secondary and is a dangerous player on the backend. Andrew Senedjo has been around a long time and earned the starting spot in 2015. He isn’t an explosive athlete and won’t jump off the film, but he is steady and consistent. Xavier Rhodes is one of the better corners in the league and I would expect him to match up with Antonio Brown. Trae Waynes plays opposite and he will end up spending much of his time dealing with Martavis Bryant. Terence Newman, the ageless veteran just keeps playing well and he is the first corner off the bench. MacKensie Alexander comes in when they go with six defensive backs.
The Steelers need to have an excellent game plan to attack this defense. The Vikings played in packages about 75% of the total snaps against the Saints. Almost every down other than first down, the Vikings removed a linebacker or defensive lineman. The Steelers need to be prepared on early downs to take advantage of Gedeon. If he is in the game, it would be wise to attack the defense through the air and I would suggest moving into empty sets. The Steelers may desire to employ three wide receiver sets early with JuJu Smith-Schuster. While he struggled as a blocker in the season opener, he gives you that tenacity of a tight end when blocking but the advantages of a wide receiver when you need to throw the football. This could create some interesting matchup issues for the Vikings. Do you keep Gedeon on the field and risk the Steelers going five-wide with the skill positions being Le’Veon Bell, Jesse James, Smith-Schuster, Brown, and Bryant or do you bring in that extra defensive back to cover Smith-Schuster and risk them running Bell. Those are the decisions the Steelers need to create on first down, force the Vikings to make the decision, and use the package they bring in to dictate how they attack.
It is important that they stay in front of the chains. I would expect the Steelers to run left when given the opportunity and allow Alejandro Villanueva to lean on Griffin in the run game as much as possible. It would help slow him down as the game wears on. Of course, Hunter is a smaller speed defensive end that may run himself out of the off tackle runs so prevalent in the old Steeler offense. The edges appear to be the area where the Steelers can make hay in the run game. The key will be to seal the interior linebackers because they run so well. If this can happen, there is a strong possibility that Bell turns in an excellent game.
When the Steelers look to pass, Brown will continue to be a target. Rhodes is an excellent corner, but if he has an area where he can be exploited it is with receivers that can beat the jam, run good routes, and explode out of their breaks to get separation. Meet Antonio Brown, the guy that carves up everyone doing those very things. I believe that Bryant, if he can return to the Bryant of old, has a solid advantage over Waynes as well. While Waynes runs well enough to stay with Bryant and has the long speed, where Waynes struggles is with recevers that can run a full route tree, handle shorter throws, and then set him up with a double move. Waynes has a bad habit of peeking into the backfield and losing his receiver. The Steelers can use this to their advantage by running some comeback and shorter routes with Bryant and then hitting Waynes over the top. It needs to be set up and executed well, but he has that tendency. Newman will be a tough guy in the slot for any of our wide receivers to consistently beat. He just plays savvy veteran football and does not appear to have lost enough steps for teams to consistently beat him. The edge wide receivers are where the Steelers should make hay and if they go with four wide receiver sets, I would look to get Eli Rogers on Alexander. Rogers interior quickness should win that matchup and his run after catch could provide some yards. The biggest issue will be staying in front of the chains with down and distance.
There does not appear to be a clear-cut advantage here. Both punters are performing well as are both kickers. It is pretty even. The Vikings may have an advantage with their returners unless the Steelers deploy Brown on punts, then it becomes even again. The Steelers coverage team appears to have improved dramatically though. Unless these units shoot themselves in the foot, I would call it even.
I see the Steelers offense finding more rhythm this week and the defensive secondary performing a little better. I believe that the Steelers will make a strong effort to stop Dalvin Cook and I just do not believe that Bradford can consistently carry a team.