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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
- 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.