By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers open the home portion of the 2017 NFL schedule in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. ET at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (1-0) is coming off a surprisingly close shave as the Steelers had to hold on for a 21-18 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. Leading 21-10, the Steelers looked like they were going to add to their lead following an interception by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt early in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers’ drive stalled when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s deep pass intended for Martavis Bryant was picked off at the one-yard line.
Cleveland (0-1) then scored a late touchdown and a two-point conversion to get within three points. However, the Steelers were able to run out the final 3:36 thanks in large part to a 38-yard reception by Antonio Brown, who finished the game with 11 catches for 182 yards.
This upcoming game against the Vikings is the 18th all-time meeting between Pittsburgh and Minnesota, though the teams have not met since Sept. 29, 2013. Minnesota leads the all-time series 9-8-0, though the Steelers have won three of the last four contests – including both of the games played at Heinz Field. Overall, the Steelers are 5-4-0 against the Vikings in Pittsburgh.
Vikings Record: 1-0
Minnesota (1-0) got its initial win of the season with a pretty impressive 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints (0-1) at home on Monday night. Minnesota led New Orleans 26-9 early in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings have won their season opener for a second straight season and fourth time this decade. They are attempting to begin the season 2-0 for the second consecutive year. Minnesota won its first five games in 2016 before finishing the campaign with an 8-8 record.
Minnesota is 27-22 under the direction of fourth-year head coach Mike Zimmer, but the Vikings are just 9-15 on the road with Zimmer as the head man. The Vikings are 7-5 against AFC teams since 2014.
Vikings on Offense
Minnesota is not a flashy offense, though the Vikings do have several weapons. Quarterback Sam Bradford does a superb job at protecting the ball and is highly accurate. Last year, he set a new NFL record with a 71.6% completion percentage and was second in interception percentage (0.9%), as he was just picked off five times.
Bradford had a fantastic opening game against the Saints as he completed passes to seven different receivers and finished the game 27-of-32 (84.4%) for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
Overall, the Vikings totaled 470 yards on offense and 23 first downs as they converted 9-of-14 (64.2%) third down chances. The Vikings scored in five of their six red zone opportunities, but managed just three touchdowns.
Veterans Adam Theilen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph are the Vikings’ top receiving threats, hauling in 19 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns against New Orleans on Monday.
Vikings on Defense
The real strength of the Vikings lies on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota’s defense, which includes five 2016 Pro Bowl selections, is particularly strong upfront and in the secondary.
Minnesota’s defense picked up right where it left off against New Orleans on Monday. The Vikings completely shutdown the Saints running attack, permitting just 60 yards on 21 carries, and held quarterback Drew Brees in check for the most part. They also limited the Saints to 4-of-11 (36.3%) on third down conversions. More impressively, the Vikings kept the Saints out of the end zone four of the five times they were in the redzone.
However, Minnesota didn’t get a bunch of pressure on Brees. The Vikings totaled 68 tackles, with 38 coming of the solo variety, one sack and just two quarterback hits. Cornerback Trae Waynes led the team with 11 tackles.
Players to watch: running back Dalvin Cook and defensive end Everson Griffen
Dalvin Cook gives Minnesota something that they didn’t have last year, which is a true playmaker with game-breaking ability. While the Steelers kept Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell in check last week, they did give up 100-yards on the ground to four running backs in 2016.
Cook, in his NFL debut, totaled 127 yards on 22 carries against the Saints. He ripped off two 30-yard runs in the fourth quarter. and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. He also caught three passes for an additional 10 yards.
Everson Griffen is the leader of the Vikings’ dangerous front four and is one of the best pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL. Griffen was very disruptive against the Saints, racking up six tackles—three solos—to go along with 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack.The two-time Pro Bowler has totaled 30.5 sacks the last three seasons, including eight in 2016.
Outlook Steelers 21, Vikings 17
This is a very intriguing matchup as it pits two really strong units against each other—Pittsburgh’s dangerous offense against Minnesota’s vaunted defense. While the Steelers’ offense struggled quite a bit last week against Cleveland, the unit is too good not to make some adjustments. Take nothing away from the Vikings secondary, which boasts two Pro Bowlers, but the Steelers have too many weapons.
Another interesting battle will be between the Steelers defense vs. the Vikings offense. Both of these units are much improved from a year ago as each team has added several key pieces. Pittsburgh’s defense racked up seven sacks in Week 1, though they were also flagged several times. In the meantime, Minnesota’a offense looked like a well oiled machine. It will hurt the Steelers if either Stephon Tuitt or Bud Dupree can’t go.