8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Vikings -3, Over/Under: 44
With time running out for a playoff push a pair of postseason hopefuls clash tonight in Minneapolis, as the resilient Pittsburgh Steelers look to maintain their form at the Minnesota Vikings, who are in turn looking to rebound from their most disappointing defeat of the campaign. Resilient, stubborn, and perhaps too dumb to die, the Steelers (6-5-1, 3rd in AFC North) remarkably continue to find themselves in the mix for not only a wild card, but perhaps even the chaotic AFC North, where they essentially trail by just 1.5 games. After getting off to a disappointing 1-3 start, Pittsburgh has since rallied to win five of their last eight outings, including last weekend’s thrilling 20-19 victory over the division leading Baltimore Ravens. As have many of their battles with their bitter rivals, this affair certainly lived up to its billing; punting on five of their first six possessions and trailing 10-3 heading into the fourth quarter, the hosts finally managed to manufacture some offense, with (veteran Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger (64.8%, 2,758 YDS, 5.95 NY/A, 16 TD, 6 INT, 44.3 QBR) turning back the clock in traveling seventy-eight yards in just four plays, hitting (Receiver) Dionte Johnson (76 REC, 914 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 6 TD) for a 29-yard score to cut the deficit to one point. After trading field goals, Big Ben would get to work once again with an 11-play, 69-yard drive, finding Johnson once more for a short touchdown, and then immediately converting the ensuing two-point conversion with a short toss to (Rookie Tight End) Pat Freiermuth (43 REC, 353 YDS, 8.2 Y/R, 6 TD) to extend the lead to seven points. however, the visiting side would drive right downfield, with (Ravens Quarterback) Lamar Jackson striking back with a touchdown pass of his own, though his attempt for two to a wide-open Mark Andrews would fall harmlessly to the ground as the Tight End proved to be too off-balance to haul in the would-be game-winner. It was the host’s sixth game this season decided by one possession and their fifth in the last eight contests, as (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin’s troops continue to overcome their own limitations. Simply put, this team is far from some of the loaded groups that the 49-year-old has had during his successful 15-year tenure with the franchise, with an aging Roethlisberger, an overhauled Offensive Line, and a rash of injuries handicapping them in quest for the playoffs. Now in his eighteenth season and 39-years-old, Roethlisberger has certainly looked his age in 2021, with the two-time Super Bowl Champion informing many within the organization that this will indeed be his final run in Western Pennsylvania. With that said, there have been moments in which he looks as if he could go on for another few years, with last Sunday’s performance in the fourth quarter serving as reason for optimism; Roethlisberger absolutely eviscerated a decimated Baltimore Secondary to the tune of 11-of-12 passing for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns along with that aforementioned two-point conversion. There is something poetic in watching the grizzled veteran struggle to carry an offense which once again couldn’t get much of anything going on the ground (25 CAR, 85 YDS) and possessed the football for a mere 23:30, though pounced on the opportunity to exploit the Ravens’ defensive backfield once (All-Pro Cornerback) Marlon Humphrey was lost to a torn pectoral muscle. Apart from a miserable performance at the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago, Big Ben has performed reasonably well during this recent stretch of games, completing 65.3% of his passes for an average of 246.4 yards on 6.65 net yards per attempt, with a dozen touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions. If these final five games are to be his last stand, then it should be fascinating to watch it all unfold, for the schedule is anything but forgiving for the Steelers, who will face arguably the most daunting remaining slate in the National Football League. After tonight’s trip to Minnesota on a short week, they will host the Titans before traveling to Arrowhead to battle the Chiefs, with return legs against both the Browns and Ravens to end the regular season. Together those teams have a combined win percentage of .583, making for a difficult road to the postseason. Fortunately, the Defense is returning to full strength, which must be a welcome sight for everyone in the organization. COVID and injuries kept this unit from being at full strength in losses to the Chargers and Bengals in which they relinquished forty-one points in both encounters, though they certainly reverted to their standard in the triumph over the Ravens. Tomlin’s charges limited Baltimore’s vaunted rushing attack to a manageable 107 yards on twenty-five attempts, while tormenting the aforementioned Jackson with a whopping eighteen pressures, ten hits, seven sacks, a fumble and an interception. Defensive Player of the Year candidate, T.J. Watt (47 TKL, 16 TFL, 26 QBH, 16.0 SK, 2 FR, 4 PD) continued his dominant play this season with six tackles, seven pressures and 3.5 sacks, stripping the elusive Jackson on one of those takedowns. Since 2019, no player has logged more sacks (45.5) and tackles for loss (53) than the three-time Pro-Bowler, who is once again leading the league with sixteen sacks, with an outside chance of breaking (Hall of Famer) Michael Strahan’s single season record of 22.5. Under Tomlin’s watch, Pittsburgh is 8-7 on Thursday nights, while Roethlisberger is a career 9-5 on the short week, averaging 280.6 passing yards on a healthy 8.27 yards per attempt, with twenty-five touchdowns and just six interceptions. Furthermore, tonight’s matchup is only his fifth against the Vikings, whom he’s bested on three occasions with five scores and a pair of turnovers.
Meanwhile, the Vikings (5-7, 2nd in NFC North) have also found themselves in a slew of close contests, though unfortunately for them they’ve yet to find a way to finish such affairs. In a sport that has so frequently been described as a game of inches, Minnesota has frustratingly come up short time and time again; remarkably all but one of their twelve games this season have been decided by one possession or less, with (Head Coach) Mike Zimmer’s charges mustering a disappointing 4-7 record in those outings. In fact, their seven losses have come by a combined TWENTY-EIGHT points. So, what in the name of Car Eller is going on in Minneapolis, you ask? Well, this has been far from the healthiest of teams this season, with Zimmer rarely afforded the luxury of having a full complement of weapons from week to week. The Defense has seen many of their playmakers bite the dust at various points of the campaign, with the likes of (veteran Cornerback) Patrick Peterson (21 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 PD), (Linebackers) Eric Kendricks (109 TKL, 9 TFL, 3 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD) and Anthony Barr (32 TKL, 2 QBH, 0.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD), and (Defensive Ends) Danielle Hunter (38 TKL, 6 TFL, 10 QBH, 6.0 SK) and Everson Griffen (15 TKL, 4 TFL, 10 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 PD) all missing time. As a result, the run defense has been a real weakness in yielding 131.5 yards (29th Overall) on a dismal 4.7 yards per carry (31st Overall), leading to the third-worst unit in terms of total defense (382.0 Y/G). Furthermore, they’ve struggled mightily when it comes to the red zone, permitting a touchdown on 66.7% of their opponents’ ventures into the portion of the field (25th Overall). While both Hunter and Griffen will miss tonight’s contest, the Vikings should be getting Kendricks, Barr, and Peterson back on the gridiron, which will no doubt be a welcome sight after last weekend’s miserable 29-27 defeat to the previously winless Detroit Lions. After building a 6-0 lead in the first quarter, the Lions would go on to score twenty unanswered points in the second period as the visitors could do little but fumble away one possession, punt on the next, and turn it over on downs shortly before halftime. Though Minnesota would rally back to retake the lead in the final stanza, their inability to convert on a pair of two-point conversions left the proverbial door open for the Lions to franticly drive seventy-five yards downfield in fourteen plays, with (Detroit Quarterback) Jared Goff finding Amon-Ra St. Brown for the walk-off 11-yard touchdown. Despite possessing the football for a commanding 33:04, outgaining them 426-372, and winning the turnover battle 1-2, the Vikings inexplicably allowed the home side to come back, severely damaging their postseason hopes in the process. At present, Minnesota sits at ninth in the NFC, trailing San Francisco and Washington by one game and Philadelphia by a half-game in the chase for a wild card. Other issues that have plagued this team have been the regression of the rushing attack, which has been directly tied to the health of (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Dalvin Cook (171 CAR, 773 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 7 TD), and the inconsistency of (Kicker) Greg Joseph, who has missed four field goals and three extra points thus far, many coming in those close losses. In regard to Cook, the injury-prone rusher has missed three games this season and was forced to leave last Sunday’s trip to the Motor City with a partially separated shoulder. When this guy is right, he’s one of the best in the NFL at his position, rushing for 2,692 yards and twenty-nine touchdowns, while hauling in ninety-seven receptions for 880 yards and another score over the previous two seasons. The Vikings ranked sixth (133.3 Y/G) and fifth (142.7 Y/G) overall in those seasons in rushing offense, only to fall to fifteenth in that particular category in 2021 (113.3), which has proven to be dramatic drop-off. Word out of Minneapolis is that the 26-year-old is going to give it a go tonight and will be wearing a harness, though it remains to be seen just how many carries he will receive against the Steelers. One offensive playmaker who won’t be participating in tonight’s showdown is (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Adam Thielen (64 REC, 686 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 10 TD), who limped off the field last weekend with a high ankle sprain. That will likely mean more targets for (prolific Sophomore Receiver) Justin Jefferson (78 REC, 1,209 YDS, 115.5 Y/R, 7 TD), who is currently second in the league with 1,209 receiving yards. Simply put, this kid has been an absolute gem since the franchise selected him twenty-second overall in a receiver-laden 2020 NFL Draft, averaging 93.2 yards per game on 15.7 yards per catch with seven touchdowns in each campaign. Over the last four games alone, Jefferson has reeled in thirty-two catches on forty-four targets for 577 yards and three touchdowns. It’s clear that his rapport with (veteran Quarterback) Kirk Cousins (68.4%, 3,353 YDS, 6.95 NY/A, 25 TD, 3 INT, 56.5 QBR) is continuing to grow, which is good news for an attack that has relied more and more on their chemistry with each passing week. Make no mistake, there has been a lot of pressure on Cousins to carry an offense that has committed the fewest number of turnovers in the NFL thus far with only nine. However, the lack of a consistent rushing attack has meant that they’ve been below average on third down at a poor 38.8% (19th Overall), which has plagued them on more than one occasion. In eight years under Zimmer, the Vikings are 3-4 with the short week to prepare for Thursday night, though have managed to win three consecutive games in this regard. Looking ahead, if Minnesota is to make a stand, then they must do it now, for apart from two meetings with the Chicago Bears, they’ll have tough matchups with both the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams to close the regular season. It’s also a valid question that if they do happen to miss the postseason for the third time in four years, will Zimmer take the fall? Since going 13-3 and advancing to the NFC Championship Game four years ago, his side are just 30-9-1 with one playoff appearance to show for their troubles. At 65-years-old, there are rumors that he could simply just walk away from the franchise, unwilling to undergo another rebuilding process.