When the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field on Sunday for what promises to be a raucous “welcome back” from their Steel City fans, they’ll face a Minnesota Vikings team considerably tougher than many anticipated back when the Steelers originally released their 2017 schedule. By contrast to Pittsburgh’s Week 1 opponent, the Cleveland Browns, the Vikings are a team with a realistic shot to defeat any NFL team on any given Sunday, Thursday or Monday.
In view of what we saw (or didn’t see) from the Steelers last Sunday in Cleveland, and also taking account of the team that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has carefully assembled during the 2016 season and via the 2017 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh definitely has its work cut out in its season debut before the hometown crowd. With the stage set for what promises to be a very competitive clash, it’s time to roll out the three keys to a Steelers victory over the men in purple:
Key No. 1: Limit Dalvin Cook (i.e. the Vikings’ rushing game)
If you’re under the impression—following Adrian Peterson’s departure for The Big Easy back in April—that the Vikings have reverted to a pedestrian ground attack, you might be in for quite a surprise. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook has a stellar resume which includes the notable honor of being the Florida State Seminoles’ all-time leading rusher. Despite being a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Cook had been ranked by Sports Illustrated in its draft preview as the top RB available. Last Monday night against the New Orleans Saints, Cook set a new Minnesota record for a regular-season debut by a rookie RB with 127 yards on 22 carries—an impressive 5.8-yards per carry average. In so doing, Cook bested the Vikings previous record set by—you guessed it—Peterson.
To extend their record to 2-0, the Steelers’ defense will need to contain Cook, as they succeeded in doing last week with Isaiah Crowell. On the other hand, if Cook is able to turn in another performance like his Week 1 outing versus the Saints, this might serve as the perfect complement for the preferred, short-to mid-range passing style of Sam Bradford—and that could spell a long day for the Steelers.
Key No. 2: Pressure Sam Bradford consistently
While Sam Bradford probably is a better quarterback than many believe, he’s never been able to prove it because of injuries and the challenges of a journeyman NFL quarterback who’s worked with multiple offensive coaches on three different NFL teams. Bradford’s acute awareness of the severe injuries which have hounded and marginalized his career represents his Achilles’ heel because, whether they admit it or not, veteran quarterbacks commonly alter their playing styles in efforts to avoid injury. That’s potentially a psychological edge which might be exploited by an aggressive Pittsburgh defense.
Last Monday night, given adequate pocket time to survey the field, Bradford passed for 346 yards and three TDs. That’s why, despite the anticipated absences of some key defensive players, the Steelers must harass Bradford throughout this game. With reports circulating this past week that Bradford might be working with a gimpy knee, there’s a real possibility he might not be able to finish the game, particularly if he’s sacked or forced to run out of the pocket. Make no mistake, though, that Bradford knows better than to hold onto the football as long as rookie DeShone Kizer repeatedly did last Sunday in Cleveland, thereby helping Pittsburgh to pad its early-season sack stats. Given enough time with his talented receiver corps, Bradford has shown that he can do some real damage.
Key No. 3: Take some pressure off of Antonio Brown
Pittsburgh’s offense clearly needs to be more productive this week than in its Week 1 performance in Cleveland. Additionally, the Steelers can’t expect even the incomparable Antonio Brown to be their savior each and every week, as he was in the Browns game. Martavis Bryant, who got off to a slow start in the Cleveland game, must step up to reclaim the bookend role he played so well prior to his suspension by the league. While the presence of Eli Rogers as an effective receiving option certainly has helped, nothing will make a bigger difference in the performance of Todd Haley’s offense than for Bryant to reprise his former beast role.
Ideally, Le’Veon Bell will not only turn in a more typical performance running the football, but he’ll also see more action as a change-of-pace receiver for Ben Roethlisberger. This would present a further diversion for the Vikings’ defense, taking the focus off of Brown and the Steelers’ other receivers.
The faithful of Steelers Nation are anxiously anticipating the emergence of a team whose performance recognizes the preseason as history. There’s no longer any good excuse for a plodding effort on either side of the ball. Anticipating that the Vikings will be fully prepared to take advantage of any Steelers’ weaknesses, it’s up to Mike Tomlin and company to make sure the Black-and-gold is hitting on all cylinders right from the opening kickoff.