As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, checking out the Minnesota Vikings ahead of tonight’s game.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
VIKINGS RUN GAME
As of this writing, Wednesday evening, it’s unclear if starting RB Dalvin Cook will play in this one. Dealing with a shoulder injury, he is officially questionable for tonight’s game and it may not be known if he’ll play until the inactives come in. Cook has been having another strong season, averaging a healthy 4.5 yards per carry and one of the game’s strongest and more explosive runners.
Even if he does play, it’s obvious he won’t be 100% so Alexander Mattison will rotate in. A similarly bigger back, he’s far less explosive, as indicated by their YPC difference. Cook at 4.5, Mattison at 3.7. The Vikings have an old-school, conservative offense complete with FB C.J. Ham. Ham has played the third most snaps of any fullback this season. He’s not a pure-blocker either with seven carries and 12 receptions on the year, most commonly used on boots and throws to the flat. Rookie WR Justin Jefferson has four rush attempts this season though none have been terribly successful.
On the year, they have 39 runs of 10+ yards, 12th in football, with eight runs of 20+ yards, tied eighth most in the league.
As I said above, they are a more traditional offense able to fun old-school plays like this lead weak play.
They have been using a 6th offensive linemen too, #64 Blake Brandel.
Some other offensive stats. Minnesota ranks 11th in points per game with 25.7. They’ve scored 26+ in five straight games. Five times this year, they’ve topped 30 points but are just 3-2 in those games. Their third down offense is below average, 19th at 38.8%, while their red zone offense is top ten, 7th at 65%. So they’re finishing drives well.
Last note here and Josh touches on it below. Rookie Kene Nwangu, a rookie RB out of Iowa State, is averaging 39.5 yards on ten kick returns with two return touchdowns, including the second kick return of his NFL career. He has two KR touchdowns; the rest of the NFL has four. So he is a very real threat. He also works as the left wing on the punt team and has carried the ball on a fake this year. Be alert for that. Danny Smith may be more conservative this week in its punt rushes to avoid getting beat by a fake.
VIKINGS’ PASS GAME
Led by the polarizing Kirk Cousins, who has had his fair share of ups and downs in his career. But look at the numbers and the guy is playing great football. 68% completion rate, 25 TDs, and just three INTs. He is a QB who takes care of the football while still making splash plays. It’s hard to argue with the results, at least, on paper. Cousins’ 7.5 YPA is also 10th best in football so the Vikings aren’t dinking and dunking their way downfield. Cousins has done even better as of late, throwing 15 TDs to just 1 INT over his last seven games. He’s also been sacked just nine times over that span and sacked 18 times all season, second fewest in the league behind only Tom Brady and the Bucs.
Justin Jefferson is his top receiver, especially with Adam Thielen out with a high ankle sprain. Jefferson is picking up where he left off as a rookie, catching 78 passes for 1209 yards and seven touchdowns. There is no defined #2 WR to step up. It’ll probably be KJ Osborn, whose numbers have actually been alright as a #3 in this offense, averaging 11.8 yards per catch and three touchdowns. TE Tyler Conklin is an underrated figure with 47 grabs, ten yards per catch, and a trio of touchdowns.
On the year, the Vikings seem to work the intermediate portions of the field the most. They have 49 completions of 20+ yards, tied third most in football. However, they have just six completions of 40+ yards, which is tied 15th in football. Jefferson leads the NFL in 20+ yard receptions with 21 of them. Expect Pittsburgh to double and bracket him just as they’ve done with Diggs, Adams, Waller, etc.
One other important stat to point out. Justin Jefferson has attempted four passes this season. He’s 2/4 on those plays. And I have a pretty good feeling for when those plays could come. Between the opponent’s 30 and 35 yard line. Here’s the down/distance and LOS of his four throws this season.
1st and 10, +33
2nd and 7, +33
1st and 10, +30
1st and 10, +32
So pretty clear correlation there. Early down, most likely 1st and 10,
From a scheme standpoint, they run a fair amount of boots and a lot of playaction so Pittsburgh’s eye discipline will be tested. They’ve also run a good deal of wheel routes and generally try to get defenders to bite so they can win vertically.
JOSH’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT
It’s Vikings week, Steelers fans! And it’s a short week to boot.
After battling to a 20-19 win over the Baltimore Ravens in classic AFC North football, the Pittsburgh Steelers have to hit the road and travel to take on the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday Night Football.
The good news for the Steelers is that it appears that the Vikings will be without two key offensive pieces in standout running back Dalvin Cook and star wide receiver Adam Thielen, both of whom suffered injuries in recent weeks. Cook was limited in practice on Tuesday after missing the Week 13 loss to the Detroit Lions, while Thielen was injured early against Detroit and hasn’t practiced the first two days of the week (Ed Note: Cook is officially questionable).
Fortunately for the Vikings, they still have some star power to work with offensively with elite-level wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who is undoubtedly in the discussion for the best receiver in football. It helps that veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins is playing some of the best football of his career.
Cousins certainly has his clunkers and still can’t get out of his own way in primetime games, but he’s been very smart with the football this season and can still really rip the ball in there. He has an underrated arm and has some athleticism to his game.
The veteran signal caller has developed a tremendous rapport with Jefferson, who has taken off in his two seasons in the NFL. It helps that the Vikings put Jefferson and Thielen — who I fully expect to play this week, considering he was on the sideline in Week 13 laughing it up with teammates in full pads after exiting the game — in two-man option route combinations, making it so incredibly difficult for defenses to handle.
Minnesota does a great job getting those two lined up together, identifying the conflict player, and letting their two All-Pro caliber receivers thrive from anywhere on the field.
Where they’re really dangerous as of late is in the red zone, where Minnesota offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak moves both of them around, getting them into advantageous situations.
Giving Thielen a two-way go here in the redzone is just unfair. He can break in or out, which makes it nearly impossible for a defensive back to try and guard. It results in a touchdown.
Later in the same game the Vikings added a wrinkle to the offense, lining up Jefferson as the sidecar to Cousins in shotgun, allowing him to run a two-way go out of the backfield.
I’m not sure what a defense is supposed to do there.
It’s not just in the red zone either.
One of the staples of the Vikings’ offense with Jefferson and Thielen is the 77 route, which is a high corner and a low corner designed to force the cornerback to choose low or high while also stressing the safety vertically.
It’s a layup throw for Cousins, as long as he doesn’t choose incorrectly.
The thing about these two receivers and Cousins is that they’re consistently on the same page and just have a great feel for what defenses are trying to do. They have the freedom to freelance on routes and seem to be on the same brain wavelength with Cousins.
Take this touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers to Thielen, for example.
This is a simple crossing route designed to get Thielen working vertically to the far corner of the end zone. He has a great feel for what’s happening around him, throttles down and slides up the field vertically, while Cousins puts it where only Thielen can get it, shielding him from a hit.
While this offense runs through Jefferson and Thielen in the passing game, there’s still plenty of solid complimentary pieces for Minnesota to work with.
I’ve been rather impressed with No. 3 receiver KJ Osborn this season, as well as starting tight end Tyler Conklin, who has earned a ton of trust and respect from Cousins this season.
Osborn is a height/weight/speed guy that always seems to make a play in big moments, while Conklin is tough as nails over the middle and has really carved out a role in the redzone for the Vikings. He is a real mismatch for the Steelers’ struggling linebackers at this point.
In the backfield, if Cook can’t go, backup running back Alexander Mattison is no slouch. He’d be a starter on a number of teams. He is a physical running back that has some surprising burst to his game, and is a battering ram between the tackles. He’s a perfect compliment to Cook, and always produces when on the field. Think of a Shonn Greene/Joique Bell type player.
In the trenches, the Vikings have greatly improved this season after finally investing heavily in the position.
Rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw has been a stalwart since being inserted into the lineup a few weeks ago, but he’s now dealing with an injury and could miss Thursday’s game. I have been rather impressed with left guard Ezra Cleveland this season, especially in the run game. A former tackle, Cleveland is thriving inside where he’s better suited athletically.
Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Thursday night, assuming health:
LT — Oli Udoh
LG — Ezra Cleveland
C — Garrett Bradbury
RG — Brian Cole
RT — Brian O’Neill
The left side of the line is really strong in pass protection and is starting to find itself in the run game, while the right side is just quietly consistent, especially Udoh, who has been quite the find for the Vikings.
Bradbury has struggled with power overall, which could be a mismatch for the Steelers if they exploit it correctly.
On special teams, this group is really dangerous in the return game.
Rookie kick returner Kene Nwangwu already has two kick returns for touchdowns this season and is just so darn explosive with the football in his hands. He was a sleeper of mine in the draft process at running back due to his speed, and he’s been a clear-cut hit for the Vikings simply due to his impact on special teams.
His vision is outstanding in the return game and he’s very decisive.
DeDe Westbrook is pretty solid as a punt returner and makes very few mistakes back there, which is just what the Vikings want.
Kicker is a bit of an adventure for the Vikings as Greg Joseph has won them some games but certainly has had his struggles in 2021, missing four field goals and three extra points. He doesn’t have a big leg so he’s not much of a threat from 50+, but inside 50 he’s alright.
Punter is old friend Jordan Berry, who is having one heck of a season in Minnesota. Berry is averaging 46.8 yards per punt and has downed 18 of his 51 punts on the year inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, which is remarkable. He’s easily on pace to set a new career high in that category, and is starting to become much more consistent overall, which has helped him stick in Minnesota.