The Steelers are coming into Minnesota after a massive win over a division rival in the Ravens. Still, a Thursday night trip to Minnesota is anything but easy. However, with the Steelers’ playoff hopes hanging in the balance of these next few games, most of these games are must-win games. What does Pittsburgh have to do to snag a win in the Twin Cities?
At All Costs, Slow Down Justin Jefferson
The Steelers seemingly have to contend with Dalvin Cook, who is zooming back from a dislocated shoulder. However, they will not have to deal with Adam Thielen. With Cook, who is still unlikely to be 100%, the Vikings are somewhat more dangerous. Still, public enemy number one always was and should be Justin Jefferson.
The LSU product has gone on a blistering pace behind a savvy skillset. His route running and true technical savvy are what takes his game from a baseline good level to an elite level. There is a certain magnetism that a guy like Jefferson creates. He knows how to find the open spots. Jefferson just gets open, regardless of its man or zone coverage. His natural explosive twitch and quickness make him as dangerous as any receiver on the Steelers’ schedule this season.
To say the least, Jefferson is a game-breaker who can easily turn the Steelers’ night into an absolute mess with the quickness. Especially without Joe Haden, Jefferson becomes a primary headache. The Steelers will have to bracket him and try to limit his ability to defeat them. Outside of him, there are not a lot of great weapons. Maybe Cook is a little healthier than is let on, but Jefferson’s ability to break games is what should draw Pittsburgh’s attention.
Najee Harris, the Time is Now
If there was any thought that the Vikings were some stalwart in run defense, it is simply not true. With no Danielle Hunter and a relatively weak interior defensive line, the Vikings are fraught with issues in their run defense. The Vikings rank 29th in the NFL in rushing defense as it stands.
However, the Vikings should stack the box and sell out to stop Najee Harris. All they have to look to is the Chargers, who did not do the same thing and were diced up through the air by Ben Roethlisberger. The Vikings do like to sit in a lot of Cover 2 concepts with two-high safeties, but that could potentially change even on a short week. With Patrick Peterson’s return as well, it would give them more flexibility.
Still, this is the game that Harris should shine. He shone down the stretch against the Ravens while running behind John Leglue and Dan Moore. Those two must continue their upward trajectory after a great game Sunday to aid Harris. If the Steelers are to control and win this one, Harris should be a big reason why.
Maximum Wattage Needed
There is very little to say about T.J. Watt. In fact, that might be an oxymoron in some ways. There is so much to say about the player he is, but so little to describe how great he actually is. The guy is just so naturally gifted with an absurd work ethic that he is now as technically savvy as they come, too. Watt is undoubtedly a special player that each team has to sell out to stop. Now healthy as well, Watt has thrown himself to the forefront of the Defensive Player of the Year race after an absurd performance against Baltimore.
To say the least, Watt is going to be a key factor in this game. However, with starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw on the sidelines for this one, Watt will get Vikings backup tackle Oli Udoh at least on a couple snaps. Anytime there is a backup tackle going up against Watt for any number of snaps, that is a recipe for disaster. The Vikings may slide their way in an effort to help Udoh. Regardless, if Watt takes on more attention, that just opens up the door for guys like Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith to make big plays, too. Whenever Highsmith is over there, that is an advantage for the Steelers, too.
The Steelers’ front four will be the biggest factor defensively in this game. If they can rattle Kirk Cousins, there is a good bet the Steelers can walk home with a win.
Play Action, Please
If the Vikings do stack the box, as said earlier in the article, there is one clear way the Steelers can throw it right back in their teeth and potentially get explosive plays as a result. The play-action passing game was a huge reason the Steelers were able to move the ball a bit more successfully in the fourth quarter against the Ravens. Including a two-play sequence to Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson where the Steelers simply marched down the field with ease for a touchdown, the play-action passing game is useful for this offense.
Even if Ben Roethlisberger is not great at play-action passing, the point remains the same. The Vikings may want to employ that aggressive strategy to shut down Harris and the rushing attack, and that is when the passing offense can hit them with play-action and attack them over the top. Expect this to show up at least once in the game and for the Steelers to take advantage of it.