Neither the Pittsburgh Steelers nor the Minnesota Vikings have much time to dwell on either of their dramatic, down-to-the-wire games from last Sunday as they face one another on "Thursday Night Football" in hopes of keeping their respective playoff chances alive for one more week.
The Steelers (6-5-1) were able to hold off the first-place Ravens 20-19 after a would-be game-winning two-point conversion pass from Lamar Jackson went awry and off Mark Andrews' fingertips in the game's closing seconds. The win moves Pittsburgh above .500, giving false hope to a fanbase that should really know better than to believe in such fool's gold.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have officially turned losing at the last second into an art form. At this point, it would be appropriate for every NFL stadium to start blaring Sarah McLachlan or The Smiths over the public address system every time the Vikings have the ball in the fourth quarter, just to set the mood for the inevitable incoming depression. On Sunday, Minnesota handed the Lions their first win of the season, 29-27, as Jared Goff found Amon-Ra St. Brown in the end zone as time expired on fourth down. The Detroit game was the most Minnesota loss of the Mike Zimmer era, which says so, so much.
Both the Steelers and Vikings are similar in many respects. They both have underperforming defenses, struggling rushing attacks, dynamic skill position players, veteran quarterbacks that can be terribly frustrating, and neither can actually beat the Detroit Lions. And both franchises are likely due for major shakeups come this offseason, especially if they fail to make the postseason. But before we get to February, we have to play Thursday night, as each of these squads tries to figure out who they want to be for the rest of the 2021 season.
Thursday Night Football: Pittsburgh (6-5-1) at Minnesota (5-7)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Pass rush vs. pass rush
One thing that both of these teams do well is get to opposing quarterbacks — they rank first (Steelers, 37) and second (Vikings, 36) in the NFL in sacks. Pittsburgh's pass rush is essentially a one-man wrecking crew with linebacker T.J. Watt, the league's leader in sacks (16), coming in strong off the edge. Last Sunday, it was a team effort as the Pittsburgh front seven accounted for seven sacks against Jackson and the Ravens offensive line. Watt leads the way with a career-high 3.5 sacks with defensive end Chris Wormley adding 2.5. The Steelers' front line did a great job of containing Jackson in the pocket and didn't let him get outside the tackle box to make plays with his legs. While Kirk Cousins is mobile (sort-of), I'd expect to see the Steelers blitz more often than their 25.3 percent season average on Thursday night to try and force Cousins into uncomfortable throws, which he is very likely to attempt.
The Vikings pass rush is much more of a group effort compared to that of the Steelers. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is the team leader with just six sacks and is one of 16 different Vikings to record at least a half of a sack this season. Overall, the Vikings actually do a better job of pestering quarterbacks compared to Pittsburgh, as they rank in the top five in hurries (68) and pressures (133), which is all the more impressive considering they are middle-of-the-pack in blitz rate. The Vikings' defensive front is taking on a battered Pittsburgh offensive line and a largely immobile Ben Roethlisberger, who is among the most sacked quarterbacks this season who's made at least 10 starts (25). Roethlisberger is also struggling against teams that get in his face, completing just 40 percent of his throws against pressure (23rd). He also leads the league in "dangerous throws" (37) and is fourth in interceptable passes (30).
Both defensive front lines should have plenty of opportunities to annoy their opposing quarterback and impact this game, even if they go about it in different ways.
2. Speaking of Big Ben…
Let's forget all the retirement talk for just a second. Forget Roethlisberger's age. Forget that he's as mobile as the real Big Ben in the pocket. And forget that his arm strength is long gone. The fact of the matter is that Roethlisberger is still the best shot that Pittsburgh has of playing well enough to make the playoffs.
Last week against Baltimore, Roethlisberger had arguably the best game of his season, going 21-of-31, for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns, only one sack, with a sterling 111.8 passer rating. He was nothing short of wonderful in the fourth quarter, connecting on nine of 10 passes for 129 yards, two touchdowns, and the game-winning two-point conversion. In short, Big Ben won that must-have game for Pittsburgh.
Whether Roethlisberger can play that well again remains to be seen. His numbers this season haven't been awesome. He's 18th in yards (2,758) and touchdowns (16), 19th in rating (90.6), 21st in red zone completion rate (53 percent), 26th in yard per attempt (6.6), and 32nd in air yards per attempt (6.2). However, there may be reason for Steelers fans to be cautiously optimistic. Despite only having four games this season with more than one touchdown pass and a rating over 100, three of those four have come in the last four weeks.
This week, Roethlisberger faces a Vikings defense that gets to the quarterback really well, but that's about it. Minnesota is 17th in points expected from passing defense (-55.15), 23rd in yards passing yards allowed, and 24th in touchdowns surrendered.
3. A lesson in losing
The Minnesota Vikings are magnificent losers. I don't mean that in a Lloyd Christmas "You're one pathetic loser" type of way. It's how they lose that is so entertaining — and who they lose to. Of their seven losses this season, four of them have been on the opposing team's final drive. Three of those opposing quarterbacks have been Goff, Cooper Rush, and Sam Darnold. Admit it, you just kind of chuckled out loud.
The icing on the cake was last Sunday's last-second loss to Goff and the winless Lions. After taking a 27-23 lead with 1:50 left in the game, the Vikings let Goff march 75 yards, with no timeouts, in 14 plays for the game-winning score, a walk-off 11-yard pass to St. Brown on fourth down. The Vikings defense played arguably the softest zone defense of all time and blitzed just once in those 14 plays, allowing Goff to hit underneath and out routes with ease. The Vikings' defense played so bashfully that both Brown and Goff joked about it after Detroit won their first game in 364 days. The Detroit loss was another indictment of a defense that has been the worst at preventing scores in the final two minutes of games for the last two seasons. At this point, it's who they are.
So now, the Vikings, especially their defense, have to decide what they are playing for because Mike Zimmer is most definitely coaching for his job. How do they rebound after yet another crushing loss — another loss that moves them further and further away from a playoff spot? Does Zimmer's voice still carry any weight in the locker room? Do the players believe that he is putting them in the best position to win games? A win on Thursday keeps their hopes alive, albeit barely. But a loss almost assures that the Vikings will look much different come 2022.
With both teams struggling to run the football, that puts added pressure on both Kirk Cousins and Ben Roethlisberger to make throws. The Steelers' line is an absolute mess as they're down to their fifth-string left guard, so I'd assume the Vikings will bring a lot more pressure on Big Ben than they did against Goff last week. Give me the Vikings by a field goal, in dramatic fashion, of course.
Prediction: Vikings 21, Steelers 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.