We're now into Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season, and our "Thursday Night Football" matchup features two teams clinging to faint playoff hopes as the season heads into the home stretch.
The Minnesota Vikings are 5-7, a game back of an NFC wild card spot, and coming off an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Detroit Lions. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-5-1 and technically a half-game back of a wild card spot in the AFC, and while they escaped last weekend with a win over the Ravens, they had previously come off a tie against the Lions and back-to-back losses to the Chargers and Bengals.
Which of these teams will get its season officially on the right track? We'll find out later this evening. For now, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh's offense is... not very good. The Steelers enter this game ranked 22nd in yards per game and 21st in points per game. Those figures are supported on a deeper level, with the offense checking in just 27th in yards per play, 22nd in EPA per play, 22nd in points per drive, and 20th in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA.
The culprit is obvious: the Steelers simply do not create big plays, on the ground or through the air. Just 18 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive plays have gained 10 or more yards, per Tru Media. That's the third-lowest share in the league, ahead of only the Texans and Dolphins, and tied with the Lions.
Ben Roethlisberger will throw downfield only in very specific matchups and very specific ways. If he doesn't have a one-on-one shot at a go ball down the sideline, he is almost certainly not throwing the ball deep. An outrageous 45 percent of his passes have been thrown between 0 and 5 yards downfield, and he's got the third-lowest average depth of throw in the league. You will see short crossing route after short crossing route all night long from this team, and they will throw in the occasional quick out, slant, or screen just to mix things up. Beyond that, it is just Ben heaving the ball up in the air and hoping Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson can win on a contested catch.
Meanwhile, Najee Harris is largely stuck running in mud through no real fault of his own. Among 51 players averaging at least six carries per game, Harris is averaging the ninth-fewest yards before contact per carry, according to Tru Media. On average, he's been contacted just 0.95 yards downfield. In other words, he gets pitiful run blocking, and has basically nowhere to go. He has avoided tackles at around the same rate as players like Nick Chubb and Tony Pollard, who rank among the league leaders in yards per carry, but has been far less efficient than them because they tend to be contacted a full yard farther downfield. It's almost like Steelers ownership's insistence on drafting a running back to fix the running game was misguided.
Without explosive plays, the Steelers are left to matriculate the ball downfield. But because their run game is inefficient and Roethlisberger is taking sacks at his highest rate in nearly a decade (5.7 percent of dropbacks), a lot of their drives get undermined. Pittsburgh has rarely turned the ball over (less than 10 percent of possessions) but has also rarely scored (36 percent of possessions have ended in a touchdown or field goal). The Steelers do rank inside the top 10 in the percentage of their drives that end in punts, though, and that's not what you want.
This Minnesota defense has been extremely inconsistent throughout this season, but did just let Jared Goff and the Lions move the ball decently well despite the absence of D'Andre Swift, and allowed Goff to waltz downfield for a game-winning drive at the end of the game. Injuries and COVID absences have sapped the unit's talent, but they should get both Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr back on the field this week, and that will help a lot against an opponent that doesn't pose much of a threat.
When the Vikings have the ball
Minnesota has some injury issues here. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw remains out, and the shuffling the Vikings did up front to account for his absence last week did NOT work. That's bad enough, but the team will also be without Adam Thielen for a while, and Dalvin Cook was listed as questionable and but seems to be trending toward playing despite the apparent severity of his shoulder injury and his history of shoulder issues. (Alexander Mattison has proven he can do nearly everything Cook can in the run game, and the team has had little issue utilizing him as a feature back in Cook's absence.)
That means the Vikings will be forced to turn to K.J. Osborn as their No. 2 receiver, make DeDe Westbrook a near-every-down player, and perhaps give tight end Tyler Conklin a larger role in the passing game. Kirk Cousins has at least shown a willingness to go to Osborn throughout this season, but neither Westbrook nor Conklin has shown themselves capable of handling all that much volume, which basically turns the passing game into the Justin Jefferson Show. That's not a bad thing, but a more predictable passing game is also one that's easier to defend against.
Pittsburgh's defense has not been quite as good this year as it was over the last two seasons, but injuries to the defensive front explain that. Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu have played a combined two games, plus T.J. Watt missed two games and Alex Highsmith, Cameron Heyward, and Robert Spillane each missed one. Devin Bush, Cameron Sutton, and Minkah Fitzpatrick have all missed a game, and Joe Haden has missed four. That's a lot of missed games from a lot of starters. But the defense is still good. It's just not the best defense in the NFL. At least, not on an every-week, or every-down basis. It still has that upside when all of their guys are healthy.
Haden and Spillane remain out this week, but Watt and Heyward should both be on the field, along with all the other expected starters save for Tuitt and Alualu, who are on injured reserve. That makes this a unit that could cause a bunch of problems for the Vikings up front, unless they figure out a different way to account for Darrisaw's absence than they did last week.
There's not necessarily any individual corner equipped to handle Jefferson, though the Steelers could roll coverage in his direction. As especially dangerous thing to look out for is how the Steelers deal with Jefferson when he's lined up in the slot. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has a tendency to widen his linebackers out and have them cover slot receivers, and that could be a recipe for allowing a big play.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Steelers 17