As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Thursday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings.
X-FACTOR(S): INTERIOR O-LINE
On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be able to run the ball well against the Minnesota Vikings’ 31st-ranked run defense. But the Steelers have been down that road before. Should’ve had success against the Chicago Bears and definitely the Los Angeles Chargers, and they didn’t.
One issue Pittsburgh runs into is the big, run-plugging interior linemen. Take the Bears. On paper, not a tremendously good run defense, but they had strong – and I mean that literally – interior defensive linemen in Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks. Those two held up at the point of attack and stalled out the Steelers’ runs.
Minnesota is built the same way. On paper, their run defense is poor, allowing 4.7 yards per carry. But they have Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, and even Sheldon Richardson, though the latter is playing more on the edge these days. Tomlin and Pierce are big, strong guys. Steelers fans should remember Pierce from his days with Baltimore, making up a tough interior duo next to Brandon Williams. For what it’s worth, the Lions averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in last week’s win over the Vikings, perhaps showing some signs of life for Minnesota’s front seven. Strong safety Harrison Smith also makes an impact as a box player.
So there’s good reason to worry about Pittsburgh’s ability to run the ball between the tackles. They’ll need a couple of young guys, specifically Kendrick Green and John Leglue. It’ll be those guys, and veteran Trai Turner, who need to impose their will up the middle. Perhaps the Steelers’ run game focus should concentrate more on the edge, though the Vikings have athletic linebackers in Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr capable of playing sideline-to-sideline.
Leglue pushed his weight around late in the fourth quarter against the Ravens and will need to do so start to finish. Green’s game continues to be up-and-down, and he struggles the most with squatty bodies head-up on him. If he plays with leverage, he is capable of driving them out. But if he can’t win early, he’s in for a ride, and struggled in short-yardage moments on Sunday.
Eyes are on those two young guys to clear a path for Najee Harris. This run game needs to pick up where it left off as opposed to the brick wall they slammed into for the first 45 minutes of Sunday’s win.