What We Saw: Steelers at Vikings

What an absolute humdinger of a football game to feast on!

Steelers @ Vikings

Final Score: Vikings 36, Steelers 28

Writer: Benjamin Haller (@benjaminhaller1 on Twitter)

 

Two teams desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive met in a crucial Thursday Night Football contest at U.S. Bank Stadium as the Minnesota Vikings overcame a late Pittsburgh Steelers rally to win thanks to scintillating performances from their stars on both sides of the football.

A cagey first quarter, in which both kickers missed long field goal attempts, was brought to life by two of the game’s young superstars, Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson. A big 30-yard run from Cook setting up a Jefferson touchdown as Kirk Cousins floated a beautiful pass into the back corner of the end zone to put the Vikings on the board.

 

Cook then blew away the Steelers run defense with a 29-yard score early in the second quarter and a 7-yard run to extend the Vikings lead to 23-0 at the half. Cook notched 153 yards rushing, a new franchise record, to go along with the two touchdowns in the first half, contributing to over 300 yards of total offense from the Vikings.

 

The second half started much the same way, with the Steelers punting on their first drive and then Big Ben threw an interception as frustrations started to mount on the Pittsburgh sideline. The Vikings added a couple of field goals to lead 29-0 with 6:18 left in the third quarter.

Like many Vikings games this season, this one wasn’t going to go down the the final play. Right?

Think again. A remarkable, comedic turn of events then saw the Steelers score three touchdowns in the next nine minutes, as the Vikings once again went cold on both sides of the ball to allow their opponents back in the context.

A long Kirk Cousins strike to K.J. Osborn gave them breathing room but Roethlisberger found rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth in the end zone to bring the Steelers within one score. Big Ben then got the ball back with the chance to tie the game with 2:16 left.

So, yes it came down to this final play.

 

A brilliant defensive play from Harrison Smith meant that the Vikings survived another thrilling rollercoaster ride in 2021.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Quarterback

 

Ben Roethlisberger: 28/40, 308 yards, 3 TD, INT, 5 sacks | 1 carry, 5 yards

 

The Steelers struggled out of the gate containing a Vikings defense that was finally able to field near to its full-strength starting personnel. Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce were dominant up front and Ben Roethlisberger felt the pressure all night. He took a huge hit from Harrison Smith on a sack midway through the second quarter as the Steelers failed to trouble the scoresheet.

 

Big Ben hit the deck once again just before the half as one of the best linebackers in the league, Erik Kendricks burst up the gut for the sack. Vicious.

 

Things didn’t get much better for Big Ben after the break, his receivers continuing to do him no favors as this poor effort from Diontae Johnson led to a tipped interception by Bashaud Breeland.

 

Then, something happened. Was it the tough run by Najee Harris to pick up the first down after he was initially stuffed on his first effort? Or was it the stupid taunting penalty by Kris Boyd to hand the Steelers a key first down on the same drive after a botched play that would have resulted in third-and-long? Or was it the change in the way the snaps were coming out? They were noticeably sharper and higher in the second half. Whatever, it was it worked as the veteran quarterback suddenly found his rhythm. After finding Harris out of the backfield to get the Steelers on the board, he then threw a deep missile to James Washington to bring them within one score.

 

After a big Vikings touchdown to halt the Steelers comeback, Big Ben was forced to take more risks and rely on his unreliable receiving corps to make plays. A fantastic catch and run from emerging tight end Pat Freiermuth provided the spark the Steelers needed to give them a chance to draw level.

 

The pass to the rookie tight end on the final play of the game was pinpoint accurate, with Freiermuth failing to secure it properly before Smith knocked it away. For a quarterback who had just eight completions for 68 yards at half time to finish with 300+ yards and three passing touchdowns, it can only be classified as some kind of fantasy miracle.

 

Running Back

 

Najee Harris: 20 carries, 94 yards, TD | 3 targets, 3 receptions, 10 yards, TD

Benny Snell Jr.: 1 carry, -2 yards

 

It’s been an impressive rookie year for Najee Harris but he came up against an inspired Vikings offense that dealt him a brick wall down the middle for all of the first half. Harris was stuffed on third down and one late in the first quarter as the Steelers failed to get going on the ground and in the air.

 

However, after the break the talented back out of Alabama quickly turned the catalyst of the Steelers comeback with this determined, gutsy run to keep their first scoring drive alive.

 

Harris then polished off the drive with a nice catch for the score as he fell backwards into the end zone.

 

The Steelers immediately forced a takeaway and Harris punched in his second score of the game at the start of the fourth quarter to make things interesting.

 

As the Steelers forced the issue late in the game, Harris only saw another six touches in the final quarter as Big Ben aired it out for big splash plays from his receivers. Still, Harris’ contribution was key to Pittsburgh making a game of this one.

 

Wide Receiver/Tight End

 

Chase Claypool: 9 targets, 8 receptions, 93 yards | 1 carry, 2 yards

Diontae Johnson: 10 targets, 5 receptions, 76 yards | 1 carry, 7 yards

James Washington: 6 targets, 4 receptions, 65 yards, TD

Pat Freiermuth: 3 targets, 2 receptions, 32 yards, TD

Ray-Ray McCloud: 8 targets, 6 receptions, 32 yards

 

A mixed bag from this receiving corps in a tale of two halves for sure. The first half was an embarrassment of drops and penalties as the frustrations boiled over onto the pitch. Chase Claypool was guilty of a silly taunting penalty to earn an earful from Mike Tomlin just when they Steelers needed to keep their heads. Claypool made up for it after the break, however with this terrific grab off a perfect throw from his quarterback as the Steelers imposed their will on the Vikings secondary after Bashaud Breeland left the game with an illness and Kris Boyd was benched for indiscipline.

 

The villain turned hero turned villain again, however after making a grab for a first down to keep the game alive with just 36 seconds remaining before inexplicably celebrating when the Steelers needed to spike the ball due to having no time outs. Oh dear! It cost them at least one more shot at the end zone.

 

Diontae Johnson will be thinking what could have been after failing to haul in two passes from Roethlisberger in the red zone. The handy receiver sees plenty of targets week in, week out but he has failed to make those count in the red zone this season.  It was the same story once again in this outing. He did make a sensational catch under heavy contact in the second half to keep the comeback alive for his side.

 

Johnson also hauled in a two-point conversion after Freiermuth’s score with just over four minutes remaining. As important was the contribution of forgotten wideout James Washington, who came into the game with just 184 yards on 17 catches and one touchdown this season. Washington was fortunate to come away with a catch after going up with the Vikings cornerback and coming down with less hands on the ball. Still, credit Washington for making a couple of big plays when his team needed him the most.

 

The lack of targets for outstanding tight end Pat Freiermuth in the first half was a huge mistake as the Steelers failed to move the chains continuously. The big man out of Penn St has been a reliable, strong option for his quarterback but was largely ignored until late in the game here. He did have that chance to force overtime but a strong hit from Vikings safety Harrison Smith forced the ball loose. A key learning point for the rookie, but a costly one.

 

Minnesota Vikings

 

Quarterback

 

Kirk Cousins: 14/31, 216 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT | 2 carries, 14 yards

 

At half time, Kirk Cousins was cruising. The Vikings were leading 23-0 and Cousins had engineered four impressive scoring drives. He was 9-of-17 for 124 yards and a touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson, who should have hauled in another couple of passes in the half too. Cousins looked confident, assured and in command.

After the break, as has so often happened with this offense, things turned bleak. Cousins came out 1-of-7 for just one yard and an interception through the first four drives of the second half, as the Vikings wasted excellent field position twice to come away with field goals. Just terrible. The interception wasn’t all Cousins fault, but he did force the throw into triple coverage before it was tipped off the hands of Devin Bush and Jefferson and into the arms of Akhello Witherspoon.

 

So, in true Cousins fashion, he comes right out and throws an unbelievable pass to K.J. Osborn for a spectacular 62-yard touchdown to settle the nerves of Vikings fans.

 

This was Cousins’ first game of the season with multiple interceptions, and he will definitely want this one back. A manageable third down in Steelers territory late in the game, ahead by 16, the last thing he should have done was force a throw under pressure too far in front of the slot receiver, Osborn. Witherspoon, once again, does well to step in front of the throw and return the ball deep into Vikings territory. The Steelers scored to come within one score two plays later.

 

Cousins again threw too far in front of Osborn on a 3rd-and-8 just prior to the two-minute warning, a play that if completed would have ended the game. As good as Cousins has been this season, there is still that element of mistrust plaguing the veteran quarterback.

 

Running Back

 

Dalvin Cook: 27 carries, 205 yards, 2 TD | 3 targets, 1 reception, 17 yards

Alexander Mattison: 6 carries, 27 yards | 1 target

 

Dalvin Cook was questionable going into this game after suffering a painful shoulder injury two weeks ago, however it was nice of the Steelers to welcome him back with some huge holes in the defense for him to run into in the first hald. Cook has 73 yards on just five carries in the first quarter alone, including three rushes of over 15 yards. This 30-yard run set up the first score for Jefferson.

 

Cook didn’t have to wait long to hit pay dirt after this outside zone run play broke open the miserable Steelers defense once again early in the second quarter, allowing the former Florida State running back to waltz in from 29 yards out for his first touchdown of the night.

 

Cook was having a field day against a haphazard Steelers defense and it was no surprise when he finished off a 12-play, 63 yard drive to give the Vikings a commanding 23 point lead at the half.

Cook was muted after the break as Cousins failed to move the chains early on third down and the carries dried up a little. Still, a fantastic route and catch out of the backfield on third-and-long late in the game took a good chunk of time off the clock to edge the Vikings a little closer to a victory.

 

Wide Receiver/Tight End

 

K.J. Osborn: 9 targets, 3 receptions, 83 yards, TD

Justin Jefferson: 15 targets, 7 receptions, 79 yards, TD | 1 carry, -4 yards

Tyler Conklin: 2 targets, 2 receptions, 20 yards

Chris Herndon: 1 target, 1 reception, 17 yards

 

The next great receiver in the NFL, Justin Jefferson, stamped his authority on this game early, connecting with his quarterback four times for 45 yards in the opening quarter, which included a touchdown from 14 yards out. It could have been much better as Jefferson also dropped the ball twice in the end zone – both were difficult catches that just eluded his grasp. Imagine if he had managed to haul in this long ball. Oh, my! So close!

 

A potential monster fantasy night for Jefferson dissolved in the second half as his quarterback suffered from inaccuracy and poor decision-making costing Jefferson plenty of yardage. Still, the young receiver was also guilty of some uncharacteristic drops and even a bad day at the office for Jefferson is still a decent fantasy day for this outstanding wideout from LSU.

With Adam Thielen out after sustaining an ankle injury last week, young second-year receiver K.J. Osborn stepped up once again to play a vital complementary role to Jefferson and make some important grabs. This catch and run for from the slot on third down moved the chains and setup Cook’s second touchdown of the day. Nice work!

 

Osborn was the victim of a heavy hit in the end zone from Minkah Fitzpatrick to take away a touchdown pass from Cousins on third down on the Vikings’ first drive of the second half. However, he quickly made up for it with that beautiful deep route for the 62-yard score. Osborn was targeted on third down regularly and with Thielen slated to miss another game, he is a solid flex option after another tidy display.

 

Wow, what a night!

 

Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.