The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, but did so by an uncomfortably slim margin. For the Steelers, the 2016 AFC runner-up and 2017 Super Bowl contender, a substantial number of atypical happenings had to occur enabling them to claim this 21-18 victory. Le’Veon Bell, who averaged more than 150 all-purpose yards per game in 2016, had the least-productive game of his professional career. Pittsburgh’s offensive line, one of the best units in the NFL, had to struggle to create any holes against a Browns front that surrendered nearly 2,300 rushing yards to opposing runners last season. The Steelers’ receiving corps, which stands up against any unit in the NFL, had to stand back and let its star Antonio Brown do all of the heavy lifting.
Of course, given the closeness of Sunday’s game, a multitude of similarly unusual events had to happen to prevent the Steelers from losing. T.J. Watt had to channel his inner J.J. in his first professional contest. Brown had to catch a 38-yard prayer pass over the top of three defensive backs to seal Pittsburgh’s victory. The Steelers had to score a touchdown on a blocked punt. To contextualize the sheer rareness of the latter event, consider that there were more than 2,300 punts in the NFL last season. Despite this voluminous total, NFL special teams units blocked only seven punts, which translates to 0.3% success rate.
Nevertheless, a victory stemming from a game rife with anomalies is still a victory, and the Steelers are 1-0 heading into their Week 2 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, a team that destroyed the New Orleans Saints in Week 1. Here are five storylines that I’ll be watching:
The secondary vs Sam Bradford
Bradford had his magnum opus against the Saints on Monday night, completing 27 passes on 32 attempts for 364 yards and three touchdowns. He did this in large part because Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph are among the league’s most underrated offensive trios. However, it should be noted that Bradford was sacked only once on Monday, indicating that Minnesota’s offensive line upgrades already are paying dividends.
Granted that the New Orleans Saints have perhaps the league’s worst pass defense, and their lack of effective pass rushers (aside from Cameron Jordan) only amplifies this unit’s ineptitude. Pittsburgh isn’t devoid of issues in its secondary, but few would argue that the Saints are better than the Steelers when it comes to stopping quarterbacks.
The Steelers have customarily played a very specific brand of football over the past two seasons, one that relies on limiting big plays by surrendering short throws. But this happens to be a style very conducive to Bradford’s skillset. Bradford, who set the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record in 2016, is adept at delivering short, pinpoint passes and keeping the chains moving. He also doesn’t throw many interceptions (he had just five a year ago).
But Bradford was sacked 37 times last season, which was the fourth-highest total in the NFL. The Vikings’ line isn’t a top-flight unit by any measure, but it doesn’t help that Bradford would stand and sink in a pool of lava until he found an open receiver. I would look for Keith Butler to implement a somewhat blitz-heavy scheme against Minnesota in order to impede Bradford’s rhythm.
Is there no end to Antonio Brown’s mastery?
Minnesota’s secondary, meanwhile, sits firmly at the vanguard of the NFL. Xavier Rhodes could very well be the best cornerback Brown faces this entire season, and Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo form one of the league’s best safety tandems. Brown is certainly capable of dominating Rhodes and the Vikings, but it is unreasonable to expect another 11-catch, 182-yard outing. If Pittsburgh’s offense plays like it did against Cleveland, though, Brown may need to.
Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line
In general, Pittsburgh’s offensive line was characteristically solid in pass protection against Cleveland, but struggled to open any running lanes for Bell. A similar performance will not suffice against Minnesota’s front seven, which features a plethora of star-caliber players, including Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter.
New Orleans generated only 60 yards on 21 rushing attempts on Monday. Last season, though, the Vikings ranked 20th in the league in run defense with virtually the same front seven. This indicates Bell and his linemen could bounce back in a big way against Minnesota.
Addressing the penalties
Mike Tomlin spoke at length about the multitude of infractions that the Steelers committed in their victory over Cleveland during his press conference earlier this week. He was particularly irked by Pittsburgh’s offensive penalties, including a number of drive-killing holding calls. A larger number of penalties in Week 1 seems customary, and it’s understandable that players still have to shake off some preseason rust.
But Minnesota is a good team. Committing 13 penalties against such a formidable unit isn’t likely to translate to success.
Containing Minnesota’s rushing attack
Dalvin Cook breathed some much-needed life into Minnesota’s rushing attack, gaining 127 yards on 22 carries against the Saints. This bodes well for the Vikings’ passing offense, as a legitimate running threat like Cook should enhance their play-action capabilities (which the Vikings love, by the way, as they used play-action on 19 percent of their offensive plays last season—the 13th highest percentage in the NFL). The Steelers did well to contain Cleveland’s running game in Week 1, so if they can do the same against Cook and the Vikings, it should at least keep Minnesota one-dimensional.