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Improved Vikings pose a significant challenge for Pittsburgh Steelers

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After posting an 8-8 record in 2016, the Minnesota Vikings have the look of a team on the rise in the NFL.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

For many fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opening-day performance in Cleveland, despite the win and their 1-0 record, indicates the team hasn’t quite shaken off its preseason cobwebs. But in the 2017 edition of the Minnesota Vikings, the Steelers face a substantially greater challenge this week when the two teams face off Sunday at Heinz Field.

Now in his eighth NFL season, including one full season lost to injury, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford seems the very embodiment of the old saying, “If not for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” At 29 years of age, Bradford is beginning only his second pro season not involving a return from injury or working with a different offensive system. A former Heisman Trophy winner (in 2008 at Oklahoma) and No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Bradford initially looked like a can’t-miss selection for the St. Louis Rams. In 2010, his first season in the league, Bradford set the record for most completions by a rookie in NFL history, which helped earn him the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

But the bright promise of his NFL debut began to fade in 2011 when Bradford was hampered throughout the season by a nagging high-ankle sprain and the Rams tumbled to a dismal 2-14 record. Following a bounce-back season in 2012, Bradford tore his left ACL in Week 7 of the 2013 season in a game against the Carolina Panthers, ending his season. Then, in 2014, Bradford injured the very same ACL when he was sacked in a preseason game against Cleveland and he missed the entire regular season.

Largely due to this disastrous turn of events—plus the fact that during his six active seasons in the NFL, Bradford has compiled an annual passer rating exceeding 90 only twice—he was earmarked as an injury-prone quarterback with a spotty resume. The Rams traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles in March 2015 in a deal that sent Nick Foles to the Rams.

But in 2016, Bradford’s career took a turn for the better when the Vikings lost their promising young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating knee injury suffered during training camp. Not only did Bradford manage to remain injury-free last season, but he also posted a career-best passer rating of 99.3. In Week 1 versus the New Orleans Saints, Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three TDs, earning him a passer rating of 143.0, in addition to being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

Consequently, when the Steelers and Vikings face off in Sunday’s matchup, Pittsburgh’s defense can expect a markedly tougher challenge than they faced last Sunday in Cleveland versus the inexperienced DeShone Kizer. The Vikings’ passing attack, while not spectacular by any means, has become solid and steady. A key factor besides Bradford’s improved play is his familiarity with the Vikings’ offensive system orchestrated by Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur. Shurmur is Bradford’s former OC with the Rams (2010) and also during his stint with the Philadelphia Eagles (2015).

The results of this collaboration have been impressive. In their victory over the Saints, Minnesota wide receiver Adam Thielen had nine catches for 157 yards, while his counterpart Stefon Diggs was catching seven passes for 93 yards and two TDs. The ever-dependable Kyle Rudolph, who added three catches for 26 yards and a TD, provides Bradford with a 6-foot-6, 265-pound target quite skilled at making the clutch receptions essential for moving the sticks and converting red-zone opportunities to TDs. As for the player who might be Minnesota’s secret weapon, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, is waiting to bust loose after catching only one short pass on Opening Day versus the Saints. Treadwell, it should be noted, had been considered as the top wide receiver available in the 2016 NFL Draft.

In contrast to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, Bradford’s offense burst out of the gate in Week 1 with a crisp passing attack that kept the Saints’ defense off-balance throughout the game. For anyone watching the matchup, it’s no exaggeration to say that Bradford looked every bit the No. 1 overall draft pick he was when the Rams selected him back in 2010.

That’s why, in addition to turning in another solid defensive effort and getting pressure on Bradford, the Steelers’ offense also will need to kick its performance into high gear on Sunday. While it’s debatable whether the Cleveland Browns will prove to be a team on the rise by season’s end, there seems little doubt regarding the Vikings’ ongoing improvement. And because Minnesota undoubtedly is for real, when the dust settles at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, we’ll have a much better fix on the true state of these 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers.