It’s way too early to call Sunday’s Minnesota-Pittsburgh matchup a possible Super Bowl preview, but the Vikings and Steelers certainly both have playoff expectations. And both showed why in Week 1.
Pittsburgh went to Cleveland and came away with a 21-18 win that never felt as close as the score. The Steelers never trailed, led 21-10 for most of the second half and ran out the clock thanks to clutch plays from their stars after Cleveland pulled within three. While Le’Veon Bell looked rusty after holding out until a week before the game, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown picked up the slack. And the defense racked up seven sacks and held Browns backs to 40 yards on 20 carries.
Minnesota was more impressive in a home win over New Orleans. Sam Bradford had one of the best games of his career, hitting 27-of-32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Behind a revamped offensive line, Bradford was sacked only once, and rookie Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards. Drew Brees and the Saints moved the ball well against the Minnesota defense, but the Vikes were stellar in the red zone, forcing three field goals from under 25 yards. By the time Brees finally found the end zone with 1:56 left, the game was out of reach. Can Minnesota repeat that feat against another future Hall of Fame passer?
Minnesota at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Steelers -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Antonio Brown vs. Xavier Rhodes
The game-within-the-game to watch will be when Pittsburgh has the ball will be All-Pro WR Antonio Brown against CB Xavier Rhodes, who made his first Pro Bowl last season when he intercepted five passes. Rhodes is a big corner (6-1, 218) who on paper should be able to get physical with Brown (5-11, 181) and mess with the rhythm of the Steelers passing game. But Brown has proven time after time that he can get open against just anyone with four straight 100-catch seasons. He picked up right where he left off with 11 catches for 182 yard in Week 1. But Rhodes has proven up to the task against the best as well. Odell Beckham Jr. was held to 23 yards on three catches against the Vikings last season, mostly because Rhodes manhandled him all over the field. He may need to do the same to slow down Brown.
2. Le’Veon Bell working the rust off
Before a 15-yard carry that iced the game, Bell was a non-factor for the Steelers in the opener. He played 43 of 60 offensive snaps and finished with 47 yards from scrimmage on just 13 touches. Only once in his career has he had fewer touches, and he’d never in his career failed to gain at least 50 yards from scrimmage. So was he just rusty after holding out until after the last preseason game, or are the Steelers going to use him less in an effort to keep him fresh? Perhaps a little of both. Penalties put Pittsburgh in some long-yardage situations early against Cleveland, and Bell — who rarely came off the field no matter the formation in the past — was not out there when the Steelers spread the field and emptied the backfield. That may still be the case this week. But it would be a shock if Bell again fails to get going in the run game. The Vikings gave up little on the ground against the Saints, but then the Saints abandoned the run pretty quickly. Minnesota was an average run defense at best last season while boasting one of the league’s best pass defenses.
3. Bradford throwing deep?
The Vikings missing the playoffs with an 8–8 record last season masked the fact that Bradford had a career year, leading the NFL in completion percentage (71.6) and throwing just five interceptions. And if the season opener is any indication, Minnesota looks much more explosive this season. Improved offensive line play means a more effective running game and more time to throw, so perhaps Bradford can quiet critics who say he’s only accurate because he never pushes the ball downfield. But he’ll be tested this week. Much has been made of Ben Roethlisberger being a different player at home vs. on the road, but the Steelers defense was also much more effective at Heinz Field last season, especially against the pass. Pittsburgh allowed just seven touchdown passes at home last season while picking off eight passes and recording 20 sacks. If the Steelers can pressure Bradford into short, quick throws — he had eight completions of 20 yards or more last week after averaging just three per game last season — they won’t be bothered so much if he completes 70 percent of them.
We’ll find out if the Vikings have really solved their offensive line issues this week. If they have, they have the look of a Super Bowl contender. But beating the Steelers in their home opener is still a tall task for anyone. Even if Rhodes can keep Brown in check, it’s hard to imagine Bell struggling for a second straight week.