The Steelers look to frustrate Kirk Cousins and the Vikings on Thursday night in Minneapolis. The Steelers escaped the Ravens last week 20-19, and are just outside of a playoff spot in the AFC.
Prolific Pass Rush
The Steelers totaled seven sacks last week against Lamar Jackson. They limited Jackson about as much as anyone can, holding him to 253 yards through the air and 55 on the ground. This sort of discomfort proved vital to keeping Pittsburgh in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger connected on two touchdown passes to Diontae Johnson. Johnson had 8 catches on 11 targets and has been by far Roethlisberger’s most consistent pass catcher.
The Steelers should be salivating at the opportunity to rush Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins is a threat throwing the football, but TJ Watt and Co. will be happy not to have to contain a dynamic runner like Jackson.
Pittsburgh’s path to victory
The aforementioned pass rush is what gives the Steelers a good chance to win Thursday night on the road against the Vikings. Against Baltimore, TJ Watt had 3.5 sacks on his own and now leads the NFL with 16 on the season. With five games remaining, Watt has a chance to break the single-season sack record of 22.5, set by Giants’ legend Michael Strahan.
But Watt was not alone in his destruction of the Ravens offensive line. Chris Wormley had 2.5 sacks of his own, and Cam Heyward added another to his pro-bowl caliber season. This pass rush sets the tone for the whole defense, and with Minkah Fitzpatrick adding an interception, the Steelers’ D came up huge.
The running game needs to help out
Another route on the Pittsburgh path to victory is being more effective with the running game. The Steelers were out-possessed by the Ravens 36:30 to 23:30. To help out the defense in Minnesota, Big Ben and the offense will need to get the running game going. Najee Harris had 21 carries for just 71 yards. This 3.4 yards per carry needs to improve.
They may have a good chance to do just that against the Vikings, as Minnesota’s rush defense ranks 29th overall. The Vikings held Detroit to 100 yards last week, but Detroit was without star running back D’Andre Swift. The Steelers should be able to get the running game going at a better rate than the Lions, and it can open up the passing lanes for Roethlisberger.
Spotlight on Pat
Another big key to the offensive production for the Steelers will come from rookie TE Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth had just 3 catches on 4 targets against the Ravens last week, but I expect a big increase against the Vikings. Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff targeted TJ Hockenson 8 times, and he produced 4 catches. One of those catches was a nice touchdown over the middle.
Hockenson looked like he had a big advantage against Minnesota’s 24th-ranked pass defense, and I would expect Roethlisberger to look Pat’s way even more than Goff looked toward TJ. Diontae Johnson is in line for a big game as well, but when he justifiably demands more attention, Freiermuth will get some opportunities. Additionally, Pat Freiermuth poses a tough threat in the red zone, and the Steelers should look to design plays for him when they get inside the 20.
This will be a close game no doubt. Both teams have flaws, and the Vikings have been a magnet to one-score finishes all year. But they have also proven that they have yet to supplement their high-octane passing game, led by Justin Jefferson, with enough consistency on defense.
I expect the Steelers to get after Kirk Cousins to potentially generate some turnovers. Roethlisberger and the offense will be fired up and looking to thrive against Minnesota’s struggling defense. The win against the Ravens will have spurred the Steelers toward another playoff push, and they will be poised to continue the positive momentum against the Vikings on Thursday night.
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