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The Steelers defense, not the offense, the key to victory thru 2 weeks of NFL action

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The Black-and-gold defense ignored distractions and kept its focus on the job at hand on Sunday at Heinz Field.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

When you’ve prepared all week long to face a particular quarterback, only to see that quarterback declared out of the lineup just a short time before kickoff, it’s not always an easy adjustment to make. But that’s precisely the situation the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing on Sunday when it was announced that the injury-plagued Sam Bradford was unable to participate for the Minnesota Vikings. Understandably, the initial reaction of many sports pundits was, “Oh great, there goes all of my pre-game forecasts!” But as things turned out, some of the keys to this matchup held up pretty well despite the shell game that Minnesota had been playing during the past week with their first-string quarterback, when they probably knew he was a long shot to see the field in Pittsburgh.

For the second consecutive week, Pittsburgh’s gritty defense upstaged Big Ben and company, making it impossible for the Vikings to seriously threaten to leave town with a win. Stopping Minnesota’s running game and pressuring the quarterback were going to be priorities whether or not Bradford played. And on both counts, the Steelers’ defense rose to the occasion, rarely allowing either Viking ball carriers or backup quarterback Case Keenum enough breathing room to move the Vikings within striking distance.

Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ impressive rookie RB, was practically shut out for the entire first half, finishing the game with 12 carries for only 64 yards including one 25-yard burst in the second half to set up Minnesota’s lone TD. Besides stuffing the run, the Steelers’ defense applied unmerciful pressure on Keenum for four quarters, holding Minnesota to only 167 yards passing. As a good indication of the Vikings’ aerial woes, their leading receiver for the game was tight end Kyle Rudolph who had four catches totaling only 45 yards.

While Pittsburgh’s offense turned in a better overall performance than the previous week in Cleveland, it still hasn’t reached the point where it’s balancing the contributions of the defense. For its part, the Minnesota defense did a much better job limiting Antonio Brown than Cleveland was able to do the previous week. Perhaps the most intriguing statistic from this game is that, despite being targeted 11 times compared to only four times for Martavis Bryant, Brown finished the game with 62 receiving yards versus 91 yards for Bryant. In terms of the Steelers’ upcoming games, however, Bryant’s breakout performance probably will help Brown because opposing defenses are on notice that they’ll no longer be able to focus strictly on limiting the heroics of No. 84, as some were able to do last season. It’s always disheartening for a defense when you stop the guy that you’re supposed to stop, only to watch his sidekick beat you. And lest we forget, the contributions of Eli Rogers (43 yards) and Jesse James (27 yards) also were important in this moderately improved outing for Pittsburgh’s offense.

But we’re still seeing a bit of a hangover from 2016, in terms of Ben Roethlisberger’s level of comfort and coordination with his receivers. On a few occasions, it seemed obvious that Ben was peeved because his receivers didn’t run their routes exactly as the plays were drawn up. On a couple of other occasions, Ben threw catchable passes that apparently were too hot for receivers to handle. But we can chalk up these misfires to an offense still refining its choreography following a preseason in which its starting roster scarcely played together.

Thanks to personnel woes of various descriptions, the first three Steelers’ opponents of the 2017 regular season are currently led by inexperienced, or struggling, NFL quarterbacks, including their upcoming Week 3 opponent, the Chicago Bears. In fact, after the Bears dropped their second game of the season on Sunday to the Tampa Bay Bucs by the lopsided score of 29-7, more fans were seen poised upon the building ledge at SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron than you’d encounter here at BTSC following a dreaded trap-game loss by the black-and-gold.

So perhaps Steelers Nation ought simply to revel in this early-season run of good fortune which affords the so-far-inconsistent Steelers’ offense the luxury of honing its craft versus teams stuck playing the awkward game of musical quarterbacks. As long as the Steelers’ defense continues to improve week by week in its capacity to stifle opposing offenses, Ben Roethlisberger and company apparently can well afford to continue their ongoing development while anticipating the crucial games later this season which will determine how far they can go in 2017 and beyond.