7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 2 Matchup
Both teams won in Week 1, and Minnesota will prove to be a significant test of the Steelers' talents on Sunday.
However, the Steelers do have a path to victory that extends beyond simply having the home-field advantage.
Here are the seven keys to a Pittsburgh win over the Vikings.
More Involvement for Le'Veon Bell
In Week 1, the Steelers were relatively conservative in their use of running back Le'Veon Bell.
The 25-year-old, who held out of this year's training camp and the preseason, had only returned to the team a few days prior, and it was clear head coach Mike Tomlin was trying to keep him somewhat protected as he shook off his rust.
Bell had only 10 carries against the Cleveland Browns last week for 32 yards; he also caught three passes on six targets for 15 yards. And he wasn't on the field as often as a season ago, with Pro Football Reference tallying his snaps at just 43, or 71.67 percent of the Steelers' offensive plays.
Running didn't come easy against the Browns' defensive front, but the Steelers didn't try to press the issue, with just 17 total runs on offense netting them 35 yards.
Though the Vikings also have a stout run defense—it allowed only 60 rushing yards for the New Orleans Saints in last week's win despite the Saints rushing 21 times—the best way to get Bell going is to emphasize the run early and often.
Using Bell to help the Steelers control the clock and wear down the Vikings' defensive line would be a smart strategy.
Bell is one of the best running backs in the league, and the Steelers need not shy away from letting him loose. With his vision and patience and a high-quality offensive line blocking ahead of him, he should be able to create despite the Vikings' efforts.
There are many reasons why the Steelers nearly came away with a loss in Week 1 against the Browns, one of which was their apparent lack of discipline on the field.
Pittsburgh totaled 13 penalties in the game, giving up 143 total yards and handing the Browns five of their 20 first-downs of the game. In contrast, the much younger and inexperienced Cleveland squad was flagged only four times.
Pittsburgh is lucky that the Browns could not take greater advantage of the yards they gifted them, but the same will not be the case when the Vikings come to town on Sunday.
The Vikings will certainly take advantage of the Steelers' offense moving backwards or their defense keeping a Minnesota drive alive thanks to a holding or pass interference call.
Rarely can a team shoot themselves in the foot to the tune of over 100 yards and still win a game. The Steelers need to tighten up their on-field ship because another messy performance like last week could lead directly to their first loss of the season this time.
Secondary Steps Up
The Steelers have been focusing heavily on improving their pass coverage over the course of the past month.
Those tweaks continued well beyond training camp and the preseason, such as the team trading 2016 starting cornerback Ross Cockrell to the New York Giants and signing free-agent corner Joe Haden upon his release from the Browns, both days before the season began.
That secondary handled its business capably enough against the Browns in Week 1, but Cleveland's receiving corps is mostly populated by first- and second-year players and also featured a rookie quarterback in DeShone Kizer.
This week, the more established Vikings passing offense comes to town and with it the first true test of Pittsburgh's revamped secondary.
In Week 1, Kizer completed 20 of his 30 pass attempts against the Steelers, for 222 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception. However, he also spread the ball around, with eight Browns catching passes; and he had success throwing deep, with four completions of 20 or more yards.
Meanwhile, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford completed 27 of his 32 pass attempts in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, for 346 yards and three scores. He also led the league in completions of 20 or more yards, with eight.
Pittsburgh's secondary must be ready for Bradford's arm and his predilection for making big plays. He won't be standing there like a sitting duck in the pocket like a rookie such as Kizer, so the Steelers pass rush that totaled seven sacks a week ago might be less effective this Sunday.
That means Pittsburgh's pass coverage must be ready—and able—to carry a big load against Minnesota.
Scoring Offense Improves
While it's hardly revolutionary to say that a key to a Steelers win on Sunday hinges on the team scoring the most points, Pittsburgh's offensive performance in Week 1 would not be enough to defeat the Vikings this week.
The Steelers must improve their scoring efficiency when trying to best a Vikings offense that scored 29 points a week ago.
Though the Steelers defeated the Browns, 21-18, in Week 1, only 14 of those points were scored by the offense—a pair of touchdown throws from Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James.
It is certainly preferable to the way the Steelers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in last year's divisional round of the playoffs—via kicking six field goals—but it's also a far cry from the high-scoring offense that averaged 24.2 points in 2016.
The good news is that the Steelers will be at home this week, where they have far more recent success than when on the road (last year, Roethlisberger threw 29 total touchdowns, with 20 coming at home and just nine on the road).
The bad news, though, is that the Vikings have an even better-oiled defensive machine than the rather impressive one the Browns fielded in Week 1; it held the Saints to 19 points on Monday night, compared to the over 29 the Saints averaged last season.
With the Bradford-led Vikings offense capable of a high-scoring performance, particularly considering the shortcomings that may remain in the Steelers' secondary, Roethlisberger and Co. need to put their collective foot on the gas pedal this week and get back to being the points-producers they've proved capable of being previously.
Spread the Ball Around
Something that should improve the Steelers' odds of reaching the end zone on a more regular basis than in Week 1 is quarterback Roethlisberger spreading the ball out more in the passing game.
Although he threw 36 passes against the Browns, completing 24 of them, 11 of those targets (and a perfect 11 completions) went to receiver Antonio Brown, who thus accounted for 182 of Roethlisberger's 263 passing yards.
While heavily targeting Brown is not a bad strategy—he is among the best receivers in the NFL—and the Steelers' myriad receiving options result in him being open or in man coverage more than opposing defenses would prefer. Roethlisberger was particularly conservative as a passer to non-Brown targets a week ago, so this may not be the right way to attack the Vikings' defense on Sunday.
Roethlisberger completed only 13 passes to players other than Brown a week ago, with six completions for tight end Jesse James, two for receiver Martavis Bryant and two for receiver Eli Rogers. The other three went to running back Le'Veon Bell.
And this was despite Bryant playing 83.3 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps, Rogers 65 percent and Bell 71.67 percent. Rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster played 41.67 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps yet saw zero targets.
It takes more than just having four receivers on the field to confound or overstretch an opponent's pass coverage—the receivers also need targets in order to be taken seriously as threats rather than decoys. The more players Roethlisberger targets, the more the Vikings will be kept on their toes.
While a Brown-heavy strategy cannot be entirely criticized, the Steelers have loaded up on offensive weaponry for a reason and must use it on Sunday.
The Steelers are doing a good job on the injury front at this early point in the season, with only four players—safety J.J. Wilcox (concussion), linebacker Bud Dupree (shoulder), defensive end Stephon Tuitt (biceps) and tackle Jerald Hawkins (knee)—listed on Wednesday's injury report.
However, two of those injured players—Dupree and Tuitt—are ones to keep an eye on as Sunday's game approaches.
These injuries are not new for the Steelers, with Dupree missing the season opener with the same ailment and Tuitt playing only two snaps before suffering his injury against the Browns.
The Steelers handled both well; Anthony Chickillo, who started in place of Dupree, had two sacks, six tackles and blocked a punt he returned for a touchdown; and Tyson Alualu, who took over after Tuitt's injury, had five total tackles.
As a unit, the Pittsburgh defense had seven sacks on Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer and also limited Cleveland's run game to just 57 yards (and a touchdown) on 25 rushing attempts.
Both Tuitt and Dupree have their sights set on playing on Sunday, per SteelersWire's Curt Popejoy, but if that's the case, the pair may be limited in their snaps.
It's also possible both men will be held out for another week. Dr. Melanie Friedlander wrote for Steelers Depot that she expects it will be one to two weeks until Tuitt returns, though Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said the 24-year-old may play on Sunday.
Dupree, meanwhile, seems the closest to a return having been limited in Wednesday's practice. He also received a second opinion on the shoulder, which has resulted in a new strategy for pain management, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo.
Regardless of who plays and in what capacity, the Steelers must hope their depth players are more than adequate replacements for their injured starters.
It worked out last week against the Browns, but with the Vikings proving an even greater test to Pittsburgh's defensive front in particular, Alualu and Chickillo must be ready to reprise their Week 1 roles at a moment's notice.
Containing Dalvin Cook
Last week, the Steelers defense did a good job of containing the Browns' run game, even without the help of linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
The Browns had just 57 total yards on their 25 collective rushes, and top Cleveland running back Isaiah Crowell was held to only 33 yards on his 17 carries. But this week, a very different beast comes to town: Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings' rookie running back had a commanding performance against the Saints in Week 1, with 22 carries for 127 yards and a yards-per-carry average of 5.8. And Minnesota will be trying to get Cook up and running against the Steelers this week, especially if Tuitt, Dupree or both remain sidelined.
While Pittsburgh's defense has been stout against the run, ranking 13th in rushing yards allowed a season ago, one must also realize that was a result of the Steelers' offense being such prolific points-scorers.
With so many opponents playing from behind, Pittsburgh's defense saw the fourth-fewest rushing attempts against them. Yet, it still ranked a disappointing 18th in rushing scores allowed and 19th in average yards per rush. Thus, there are hidden weaknesses to the Steelers' run defense that the Vikings and Cook will be looking to exploit on Sunday.
If the Vikings offense can get out to a lead quickly—something they proved capable of a week ago and something that can happen against a shaky Steelers secondary—a heavy dose of Cook is likely to follow.
The Steelers need to keep contain on him and establish their physical dominance early, or else Cook could wear them down en route to another 100-plus yardage performance. This will be one of the biggest tests of the season for the Pittsburgh run defense.